The Art and Alchemy of Literary Translations | EW.com

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The Art and Alchemy of Literary Translations

It's a job with way more grunt work than glory, but a cadre of polyglots and passionate readers devote their professional lives to converting foreign-language books into English; even though translators are rarely acknowledged on the cover, their presence on the page cannot be ignored

International authors are more important than ever in the American marketplace — this summer alone we’ll see hotly anticipated releases from Japan’s Haruki Murakami and Switzerland’s Joël Dicker. (Penguin paid major bucks for the American rights to Dicker’s novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, its biggest deal in history.) But to enjoy these books without borders, readers rely on the skill and artistry of literary translators, who are charged with re-creating the emotional and cultural nuances of foreign titles. It’s a painstaking task — neither glamorous nor lucrative — but without translators, we’d never be able to experience the genius of, say, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. “I was happy to make his books accessible to people,” says Gregory Rabassa, who translated that seminal work (now back on many readers’ lists following the author’s death last month). The 92-year-old Rabassa, who has won nearly every literary prize for his translations, calls the process instinctive: “I absorb the thought and it comes out.”

One hundred pages can take a translator a solid month of seven-hour workdays. And, adds Natasha Wimmer — who translated Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño’s biggest hits, The Savage Detectives and 2666 — “it’s a pretty solitary occupation.” So why get into the business? It’s obviously not for the fame (translators generally aren’t named on the cover) or the big paycheck (some earn around $150 per 1,000 words, and they seldom share in royalties). “Most translators are people who love books and get their start through the back door,” says Wimmer, who was working in publishing when she volunteered to do her first translation.

These days, translators who specialize in Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Nordic languages are particularly sought after. On occasion, an author will ask to work with a specific person, as Murakami did with Philip Gabriel — his collaborator for more than 25 years — for Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. “He trusts [Gabriel] to interpret fully and freely,” says Lexy Bloom, a senior editor specializing in international literature at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Of course, translations can go very wrong, as was the case with the much-derided (though widely read) English version of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was translated by Steven Murray. (He says his work was reedited by British publisher Quercus to include “mistakes.” In protest, he asked to be credited using a pseudonym. He tells EW, “You don’t want that on your résumé.”) Still, Murray, who has worked on more than 30 titles, says it’s an honor to be “bringing these books to the American public…. That’s our biggest [measure of] success.”