Found in translation: how brilliant writing from around the world makes it into English

Manel Tinoco de Faria
7 min readApr 28, 2022

UK readers are consuming more translated fiction than ever. But the process is far more sophisticated than just converting like-for-like words. We speak to those at the top of their game about the fine art of translation.

“There used to be the magic number when it came to books in translation in the UK; of the tens of thousands of books published each year, just three per cent were originally in a language other than English.

But over the last decade or so, this has been slowly changing thanks in no small part to authors such as Haruki Murakami, Leila Slimani and Elena Ferrante.

Latest research from Nielsen Book, commissioned by the Booker International showed that in 2018 overall sales of translated fiction in the UK grew 5.5%.

So what’s driving the increase in interest? Partially, of course, there are international events such as Brexit; fiction from European languages was particularly popular in 2018, with 17% of all translated fiction sold being of French language origin.

But there’s also the fact that fiction written in languages other than English — from Japanese to Dutch — is among some of the most exciting in the world, according to Ted Hodgkinson, head of literature and spoken word at Southbank Centre and the chair of judges for the 2020 Booker International.

Enriching English-language writing

“I think a great deal of the most innovative, bold, daring, genre-bending and elating writing is being written at the moment, and it’s not being written in English,” says Hodgkinson.

“So if you think about writers [like] Gabriela Cabezón Cámara or Fernanda Melchor or Daniel Kehlmann or Yoko Ogawa and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, these are writers who are at the absolute forefront of pushing the novel and bursting its banks and challenging the limits of what fiction can do and capturing experiences that have previously eluded the printed page.

“I think that you can see that, very often the writers who are energizing the novel and energizing fiction are not writing in English, so translation, I think, enriches English language literature by allowing us access to these pioneers.”

Reinvention is a crucial word when it comes to books in translation; the art of translating a book lies not in substituting one word for the other, but in interpreting the author’s vision.

‘A great deal of the most innovative, bold, daring writing… is not being written in English’

Hodgkinson read 124 books in translation for this year’s Booker International Prize, so has a pretty good handle on what makes a brilliant translation. It is, he says, a book that “goes beyond literal exchange of meaning.”

“A good translation enters the creator’s spirit and the author’s vision,” he says. “It preserves the idiosyncrasies, the strangeness, the particularities, the peculiarities of the original work.

“I think there is great precision and exactitude required but I think there has to be a kind of courage involved, a kind of artistic courage to sometimes make creative leaps into the dark. Where the original text doesn’t provide you with easy answers, the translator has to make a creative decision in order to bridge that gap and bring you closer to the world.”

But how does a translator bridge the gap? And what are they setting out to do?

Sarah Ardizzone, who grew up speaking French after living in Brussels until the age of four, has translated authors including Faïza Guène and Gaël Faye. For her, a translator’s job is to try to “recreate the reading experience” of reading the book in its original language.

“So you’re trying viscerally to enable a reader in the English language to experience the same emotional journey that a reader experiences when they read that book in the original,” she says.

Reflection and refraction

Sophie Hughes, who translates from Spanish, describes translation as a process of reflection followed by refraction.

“I’ll begin with a rough process that’s really just almost word for word, there’s nothing literary about it,” she explains. “It’s a kind of churning out of words, so I begin with the original and I just get a mirror image that is an incredibly ugly version of the original. It wouldn’t be a draft that I’d be able to show to anyone.

Then comes the task of turning the book into a literary work.

“If what you produce in the first draft is a kind of mirror reflection then in the second draft you’re trying to refract, so the text will move away from the original in terms of, perhaps, syntax,” Hughes continues. “All of those things that will make it literary have to come in at that stage. So the process of refraction is you’re making sure that the music is there, that the rhythm is right, that the characters are speaking the right register, that there’s continuity of voice, that any ambiguities are kind of maintained.

“The process of refraction is kind of where the light comes in, where the literary side of the translation comes in.”

‘You’re not there to recreate works, you’re not there to improve anything’

Translating a book is a long and detailed process. Margaret Jull Costa, who translates from Spanish, says she often goes through nine or 10 drafts.

“I try to leave drafts to sit for a while, so that I can then read/hear them afresh before doing the next draft,” she says. “I keep editing really until the text has a consistent, convincing voice, hopefully one that is true to the original.”

Being true to the original is key, with translators trying to get across the feeling of the writing in the original language as well as the meaning.

Something “pared back, very restrained, somewhat austere, beautiful and spare” like The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder and shortlisted for the Booker International 2020, is channeled by the translator in a different way to the “kind of incandescence and torrential flow of language that you would have in Hurricane Season [by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Hughes]”, says Hodginkson.

“But I’d think that the thing that those novels share, even though they’re really different in terms of their actual style, is the translator has entered into the author’s creative vision and understood that the world that they were creating is very dependent upon the degree to which the prose can mirror that world, the way the prose can be restrained or pared back or torrential and incandescent,” he continues.

Working together, apart

Collaboration between the original author and the translator can be one way of ensuring the translator enters the author’s vision, but there’s a fine line between getting the author’s help and giving them final say. Many translators will often approach the original author for small queries.

“If there’s a joke that isn’t quite working, literally, I can come up with an alternative and go back to [the author] with that and talk to them about it,” says Ardizzone.

Jull Costa is the same: “Most [authors] are happy to leave me to get on with the translation and trust me to produce something that is faithful to their original text.

But with some writers, the relationship can be different, such as the way Jull Costa works with Portuguese poet Ana Luísa Amaral, with whom she swaps drafts and queries. “Her English is excellent, and she also translates and, like me, really enjoys that collaborative relationship,” says Jull Costa.

Ardizzone has worked closely with Faye; she not only translated his book Small Country but also adapted and directed a version of it from the French-original performance, which was performed by Faye and others at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2018.

Precision, not recreation

Faye’s book has been much-praised in both its original French and its English translation (it won the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens 2016 on its publication in France); Hughes says that for a work in translation to be brilliant, it has to be a brilliant book in the original language.

“That sounds like an obvious answer but actually, you’re not there to recreate works, you’re not there to improve anything, so it has to be brilliant in the original,” she continues. “On the part of the translator, it’s precision; that’s not to be confused with faithfulness necessarily to the original, but precision in your own recreation of an English text. It’s always having one eye on the original without having unquestioning deference to it, I would say.”

An excellent translation can also go beyond giving a reader a few hours of entertainment; it can help them understand the world a little better, which perhaps explains why sales of books in translation have increased recently.

“Translation can make an enormous difference in the way that a book is understood and I think it can close the gap slightly between cultures,” says Hodgkinson. “I think especially now, when we’re so isolated within our borders and our front doors, I think there’s something quite remarkable and vital and nourishing about that sense of being able to transport a reader into another life.”

Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

source: Penguin, Sep 2020, by Sarah Shaffi