Following from our post about Multilingual Writing Gonzalo C. Garcia,writer and Senior Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing in the Warwick Writing Programme, caught up with Chantal Wright (author of Literary Translation published by Routledge, a member of the Translators Association, and most recently the translator of Milena Baisch’s Anton and Piranha and Tzveta Sofronieva’s A Hand Full of Water, among others). I wanted to ask her about her career, life as a translator, and what steps you could take if you decided to translate too.
First of all, how did you start your translating career? What motivated you to start? And what have been the standout moments of your career?
CW: After doing a Modern Languages degree and spending several years teaching English as a Foreign Language, I wanted to return to study and had an inkling that literary translation might be my thing. I enrolled on the MA in Literary Translation at UEA, which really set me on the path to where I am now. It was a great time to be at UEA, with lots of inspiring teachers of translation around (Jean Boase-Beier, Clive Scott, Janet Garton). Soon after I finished the degree I began sending out translation samples to publishers and was lucky enough to have my second submission accepted. Since that time I have combined literary translation with – first – doctoral study and now with an academic career teaching translation. Standout moments have been getting to do the translation residency at the Banff Centre in Canada in 2009 – watching elk calves play in the forest while I translated at a desk in a log cabin may be about as good as it gets in this life! And more recently helping to set up the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and being able to do some service to the translation community in that way.
So there’s a young writer, reader, academic. He or she loves a book that hasn’t been translated to a language they’re close to. What steps should they take? Is there a set route to translating?
CW: The first step is always to check if the foreign rights for the book are free and that’s generally best done by contacting the foreign publisher. You may need to be persistent as publishers don’t always respond quickly to enquiries by translators. You will also need to ask the rights holder if they are happy for you to do a translation sample and approach publishers to try and interest them in your translation. Publishers are normally happy for you to do this but it’s an investment of time and energy on your part with no guarantee of a translation contract at the end of it. Any translation sample that you produce should be clean in its presentation (free of typos and spelling mistakes; confident in its grammar, punctuation and style). As you’re getting established as a translator, it’s a good idea to start out by pitching shorter pieces (poems, short stories, extract) to online and print journals – there’s less of a time investment and you can begin to build a profile of publications.
Do we have to become familiar with or have contacts in the place of origin (and destination) for the books we want to translate? In your experience, how did you get around this issue?
CW: Becoming networked in the publishing industry is always a challenge. When I was starting out about fifteen years ago there was no obvious way to go about this but happily things have changed and there are now structures in place like the Emerging Translators’ Network, where early career translators are paired with experienced translators, and the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair which is a great and very unthreatening environment in which to meet other translators, publishers and representatives of cultural organisations. And many more literary translators now go through specialist Masters programmes and these create their own networks. It’s always good to have contacts in the “source” country and there is work to be had here too: translating catalogues and samples and writing plot synopses for the foreign publisher who will use these to try and sell their titles abroad. The various national and regional cultural organsations such as the Goethe Institut, the Institut Ramon Llull and Wales Literature Exchange are also generally very supportive of translation and translators, holding events, running competitions and making funding available, so it’s good to get on their mailing lists and go along to things if you can.
What are the current challenges you see facing translation?
CW: Well, in Great Britain Brexit is certainly an emotional challenge for translators. If you are somebody who spends your life (generally quite happily) in the in-between, then the current moment is a difficult one. And we don’t yet know what the financial and practical consequences of our new “splendid isolation” will be for literary translation, which is, after all, an import-export business. Other than this, we need to increase the number of female voices available to us in translation, which is what the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation was set up to promote, but we also need to see greater diversity in terms of which languages and countries are represented in translation. Britain has a bias towards its immediate Western European neighbours, which is absolutely understandable and necessary, but it would be great to continue the expansion of literary translation titles from Eastern Europe – which was happily not at all badly represented among the submissions for this year’s WiT prize – and from Asia, with more translation from the many languages of India, for example.
How can young writers participate in dealing with these issues?
CW: Writers can help immensely by informing themselves about literary translation and championing its cause wherever possible. A.L. Kennedy has been extremely vocal about the British lack of interest in translated fiction in recent months and her profile means that the media will cover what she has to say. It’s difficult to get that platform as a literary translator. I would like to see writers who work in the English language gaining more hands-on experience of what translation is, what it involves, the skill set that translators have; you don’t need to speak a foreign language to get involved in the process and I think these sorts of partnerships between writers and translators are something that centres like the Warwick Writing Programme could help to facilitate. Finally, as a writer, if you are lucky enough to have your work translated into another language, take an interest! Ask who your translator is and answer any queries they might have – nobody, not even your editor, will ever read your work as closely and intelligently as your translator.
Chantal Wright was born in Manchester, England. She is a literary translator working from German and French into English. She has twice been shortlisted for the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation, once in 2011 for Andreas Steinhoefel’s The Pasta Detectives and again in 2015 for Milena Baisch’s Anton and Piranha. Her translation of Tzveta Sofronieva’s volume of poetry A Hand Full of Water was awarded the inaugural Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation in 2012. She is an Associate Professor at University of Warwick, where she convenes the MA in Literary Translation.
Directed by Maureen Freely and David Morley, the Warwick Writing Programme at University of Warwick prides itself in having writing staff who not only teach but are also published authors involved in the writing industry and literary scenes. It has just opened an exciting PhD programme in Creative Writing alongside its internationally recognised flagship BA and MA programmes.
For more on the Warwick Writing Programme: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/writingprog/
For more information on Translation at Warwick: www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/modernlanguages/translation-studies