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Translating a 125,000-word book: connections and corrections

by Guest on May 10, 2012

Allison Wright

Allison Wright, German & French & Portuguese into English translator

 

As one of many scatterlings of southern Africa, Allison Wright, a German/French/Portuguese into English translator, finally put down roots a few years ago in the Algarve, Portugal, from where she relishes every single day working now as a full-time freelance translator. Translation of this work of non-fiction was somewhat of a departure from her more usual engagement in financial, corporate, marketing and non-governmental texts since 1987.

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This guest post is about my German to English translation of a book entitled Rebsortenatlas Spanien und Portugal – Geschichte – Terroir – Ampelographie by Hans Jörg Böhm. I am going to discuss aspects of collaboration on a large non-fiction translation project and the idea that a combination of careful research, passionate interest and insistence upon perfection can result in a successful outcome.

Work began on 2 March 2011, and I signed off on the final proofs on 28 July 2011, about five weeks after submitting the “final” translation to the English revisor.

So, how, you may ask, does one get to translate such things in the first place? Am I a specialist on the subject of indigenous grapevine varieties on the Iberian Peninsula? No. Am I well-connected in the publishing world? No. Am I well-known in wine circles? No, once again. Is this even the book (or the language) I proposed to translate when I submitted my formal proposal to the author at the end of January 2011? Why, of course not! How, then?

Pardon the pun: I heard it on the grapevine.

I live in a village in the Algarve in Portugal. A series of haphazard connections and information that the author wanted an English translation prompted me to submit a proposal to him to translate his previous book, O Grande Livro das Castas (The Big Book on Grapevine Varieties) from Portuguese. This book (approximately 100,000 words) was, if you like, the precursor to what I ended up translating. It was a question of asking and receiving – albeit something entirely different to what I had envisaged.

Vine Atlas Spain Portugal

My motivations

My motivation to translate the precursor to the Vine Atlas was two-fold. I know enough Portuguese to say that there are many bad translations from Portuguese into English being published daily in the local press and in countless brochures for the benefit of tourists. The bulk of this work is being done by people for whom English is not their mother tongue, and whose chief vocation in life is certainly not that of translator.

The thought of one of these “translators” getting their hands on O Grande Livro das Castas was like receiving a double dose of aspirin without the benefit of an accompanying glass of water! This general impression was rammed home by the fact that the published translation into English of the Abstract was unfortunate on so many levels that it presented me with a prime opportunity to show the author what a good translation should look like.

The second motivating factor stemmed from the gradual realisation that much of what is glorious and great and incredibly interesting in Portugal remains “hidden” from the English-speaking world. For want of translators, the English-speaking world does not benefit nearly enough from the cultural, historical and scientific wealth Portugal has to offer. In short, I believed the content of the book I wanted to translate needed a wider international audience.

Meeting the author

The author contacted me by telephone in response to my carefully drafted written proposal. Thus began our collaboration.

I first met the author in Lisbon 17 days after I had begun the translation in order to negotiate my contract (in Portuguese) with the publisher. The author collected me from the train station, and by the time we had reached the publishers, we had exchanged basic personal information and opinions on a wide range of subjects.

Working with the author, query by query

One month after the start of the translation, the author visited me at my home. We sat in my study for two hours while I went through all the queries I had with regard to the completed Part I of the book. He rather disparagingly called me a perfectionist. I took it as a compliment, of course. He left me with Parts II and III. I did not see the author again until mid-June, during which time he and I spent almost five days at his wine estate going through Parts I, II and III with a fine-tooth comb.

Going through the German revisions with the author

His German editor had made extensive revisions to the German, and it was important to ensure that the two texts corresponded. I had the singular pleasure of reading out aloud pages 88 to 162 of my translation, while the author followed the German text. Clearly his bilingualism was an advantage here. Queries and anomalies I had discovered in Part IV were also covered. As a test of my stamina at this late stage, I also received about another 2,000 words to translate by way of extra tables and text boxes (Surprise!) and the jacket cover (which was in Portuguese; I never saw the German!), and we had endless fun ensuring the figures and tables were correctly numbered and labelled.

Socialising with other collaborators

The author hosted a lunch at the end of this five-day marathon, attended by one of the collaborating authors who contributed much of Part I of the book, and the two layout and design men and their wives. This socialising stood us all in good stead when it came to signing off on the final proofs.

Making a plan

The translator has a job. It is, simply, to translate the book for a fee by a certain date – to satisfaction. In this case, to the author’s satisfaction. How you do it, and what you suffer in order to accomplish it, is of no consequence or interest to anyone. You do, however, need a plan.

Quantify

The first prerequisite is to be able to quantify what you have to do. I have been translating since 1987, so I have plenty of practice in estimating how many words are on a page. The trick is to learn what 100 words looks like, no matter what font is used. Then it is easy to gauge what 1,000 words looks like. It turns out that my estimate of O Grande Livro das Castas was accurate. What I did not anticipate is that the German successor book was going to be longer. And most of that extra length was contained in the last part of the book – the ampelography. This brings me to the fortuitousness of my next piece of advice.

Base output on 75% of your daily capacity

Before starting the project, plan your own delivery programme based on 75%, at most, of your average daily capacity. And I mean average. For instance, if I translate 1,000 words for nine days in a row, and 100 words on the tenth day, my daily average is not 1,000 words, it is 910 words. Do not be ambitious. Be honest. You will need this 25% contingency. It is easily soaked up by time spent on research, and the necessity for housework, foraging for food, and very occasional relaxation.

Keep track of daily progress

On a large project it is important to have a clear idea of your own progress – every single day. Determine in advance the number of hours you can sensibly work per day. Then you will know how much you can reasonably expect to translate per day, and per week. It is very motivating for me to mark the place in the text I need to get to by the end of the day, or the week. If bright pink highlighting works for you, use it. It is essential to pace yourself in this way to prevent feelings of disorientation and frustration. This is the “eating an elephant one bite at a time” approach.

Days off

You will also discover how many days in a row you can work full-time without a day off. My range is between 18 and 23 days, but it is probably best to make sure you have an entire day off once a fortnight at least. Burn-out is not an option.

Timesheets and scorecards

I kept a timesheet for the first month of the project. After that, it was not necessary; there was not much variation in the number of hours I worked, or the number of words I translated every day. I did keep a “scorecard” though and privately celebrated every time another 5% of the job had been completed.

Collaborating

As a translator of a big book, you are one tiny little cog in a giant machine. You have your part to play, and you do it. For most of the time, however, you are working alone. What you need to do is set up your own private collaborators, who have nothing to do with the contract itself.

Your collaborators are the people around you. Your partner, friends and family need a broad outline of your plan and regular updates on how things are going. I showed my landlord (not that he is a literary man) my complimentary copy of O Grand Livro das Castas to give him an idea of what I was doing and to advise him that money would be coming to him at strange times of the month. Collaborators are support people who help you achieve your objective.

Proofreading

I immediately employed a proofreader. Not a professional proofreader, but someone with a wide general knowledge whose honesty I could rely on. This person was briefed to find obvious typos, but more importantly, to mark passages of my translated texts that still sounded “too German”.

Every Friday, I would print out the week’s work and take the pages to her. In return, I would receive the revised pages of the previous week. Sometimes the thought of this brief “reality check” and chat over coffee was the only thing that kept me going.

Other commitments

Minor collaborators include your routine activities. If you always do something at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, continue to do it, especially if it gives you a chance to get away from the desk. Life does go on after completion of a large project; there is no reason to stop everything during the project. You do, however, have to achieve your daily targets, even if this means having a longer day to fit in your Wednesday afternoon commitment.

Existing clients

One other important consideration is collaboration with your existing clients. At the start of the project I only had a few clients I could call regular. Once I was certain that the project was mine, I let them all know. When the project was definitely over, I informed them. Some of those clients continue to give me regular work; others do not. If you think you can take on a project of this magnitude and continue with your regular clients, do bear in mind that a large project has a way of consuming your every waking moment (and half your dream life). This, I believe is a necessary part of the process we call achieving excellence. Sustained focused effort judiciously and intelligently applied produces excellence. Believe me, any distractions you allow will reflect in your work, and detract from achieving your objective.

Crazily, though, I did take on a new Pt-En client in early May, and spent a day and a half doing the job. Different subject, different language pair. A change is as good as a holiday, I thought, and indeed it did prove to be a sanity-preserver.

Research

On a project on a specific subject, you have to determine your main sources of research. I already knew from my “sample” translation of the Abstract that there were more than ample resources online. If I could not have found what I needed online, my first port of call would have been the author (who has an extensive private library). In fact, one term had me doing my nut in. I asked the author, and he had the term straight away – with conviction. Job done.

Online research, however, is not always free. Were I to negotiate the contract now, I may well have insisted on about €300 to be used specifically for subscription to trade journals for more rapid access to the answers I needed.

Immersion and active learning

Collaboration with one’s author is a fine thing indeed, but it is no substitute for work on one’s own – the kind of work which pushes the boundaries of your knowledge zone, your comfort zone, and even your method.

Immersion in the subject matter while conducting your research is a process of active learning. Even if we learn something in a foreign language, some part of our brain helps us understand it in terms of our mother tongue (hence the need for sleep!). The discernment one acquires as a result of active learning as well as the filtering process our brains do during sleep contribute to the quality and precision of the translated text. The effort can be enormous; the results are worth the effort.

Judging quality

One can never lose sight of the simple objective in this case: to produce a volume in English. The work has to pass the following standard: Would another professional translator in the same language pair, or a discerning reader familiar with this subject be able to tell that this is a translation? If the answer is an unequivocal “no” then – and only then – has the translation been successful.

Dealing with the quality of the source text

The other equally harsh question one must constantly ask: Would another specialist in this field accept this text as valid? Would he or she pick holes in it? Now, as a translator, one cannot be criticised for the quality of the content of the source text, but if the content is erroneous in any way, this has to be raised as an issue.

This is where research and collaboration meet. Simply put, if what you are translating does not make sense, you have to find someone (the author, or someone in his collaborative constellation) who can rewrite the passage so that it does. I can hear some people saying, “I am just the translator – that is not my responsibility”. Yes, it is. Your name is on the title page. Whatever is wrong with the translation – even if it is finely translated nonsense – will be your fault, and yours alone. Channels of command have to be observed in these cases, because this is what engenders the greatest amount of co-operation with you, the translator. This kind of collaboration requires tact, firmness, good timing, and a solid basis of fact (research backup). This could be one of the things that chews into your 25% contingency on time.

Bringing all past experiences to your translation

Collaboration does not only occur with people. In the translation process, it occurs with aspects of yourself.

You bring your whole life’s experience to each and every new experience you have, whether or not you are conscious of it. Similarly, with every new text you translate, you bring to that translation the experience of every single translation you have previously performed in your life. You also bring every other (non-translation) experience you have had.

On the surface, I was contracted as a German to English translator. The text itself has a sprinkling of French and Latin, and has Spanish and Portuguese placenames and names of historical figures, and others throughout. If there was an accent missing on a Portuguese place name, I put it back in. Typographical errors in all of the above languages were corrected and verified. Part of the job of a German to English translator? I do not know the answer to that question. Perfectionism? You bet!

Understanding how the author thinks

Next, is a rather nebulous factor: The native German author has lived in Portugal for the last 40 years, and his German has suffered somewhat as a result. He speaks Portuguese and English. The key to occasional strange word use was to say the word out loud as if it were Portuguese. Bingo! He had simply germanicised a Portuguese word. If I did not have the habit of reading aloud problem sentences, and if I had no knowledge of Portuguese, I would not have thought of that.

This phenomenon was not confined to the lexical level either. Sometimes, the ordering of thoughts in sentences followed a Portuguese pattern more than a German one, as did those lexical items which join thoughts from one sentence to another. This required an intuitive approach. I never raised this issue with the author, and I will not criticise him for it, because we all have our own linguistic idiosyncrasies which contribute to the dynamic nature of language itself. Being able to meet the author, converse with him on matters not necessarily related to the book and listen to how he spoke in English and Portuguese gave me an inkling as to “how he thinks” and was a valuable tool in deciphering a number of passages in this work.

Doing research in different languages

Now to the language of research. Let us remember that the broad subject was grapevines, not wine, yet the two are closely linked. Collaborating authors on this work were Spanish and Portuguese. Historically, it is not only these two nationalities which have contributed to the literature, but also the Italians, Germans and French in no particular order, and well as many others. This means that frequently I had a choice of language in which I could read background information. A typical route may have been to go from German to French and thence to the English term I required. Sometimes the only background information available to me was in Portuguese or Spanish. As I have already mentioned, Spanish is not one of my languages, but as many who know Portuguese will tell you, one can have a rudimentary understanding of Spanish if one knows Portuguese. There were various brief incursions into Latin poetry too, and these sorely tested my memory of fragments learned over 30 years ago. The latter also made me realise that only the dullest excerpts are chosen for the school syllabus.

Had I not been able to understand these languages, I would have been forced to engage in more collaboration with someone who could tell me in a language I understand what the information said. This would have been potentially tiresome and costly in terms of time, and may not have yielded the best answers.

Le mot juste

As translators, we conduct research for two basic reasons: to ensure we have a proper understanding of the text to be translated; and to ensure that we use the correct terminology in the target text.

The Yes! feeling of piecing the puzzle together is a very private one, and short-lived. Private, because, once again, no-one wants to know how long it took you to find le mot juste; short-lived because of the next terminological query further down the page. This is the painstaking part of translation where the only collaboration is between the text, you, and the text you are crafting into a translation. Woe betide anyone who disturbs you in these, the purest of moments!

My most valuable partner

My most valuable and cherished experience in the entire process was the true collaboration I experienced with the English revisor who was originally employed by the now bankrupt publisher, but whom the author himself paid to proofread the final translation.

As translator, I had the final say on the copy; something which I insisted on during contract negotiation. This meant that the revisor proofread the entire text, made occasional queries as to content, and returned the documents to me to accept or reject changes prior to my sending the final to the design and layout team at the publishers. She was efficient, professional, meticulous, and had a good sense of humour.

We met first on the telephone, had countless e-mail exchanges, and met in person at the launch. As a Portuguese and Spanish to English translator, she brought a wealth of cultural and linguistic knowledge to her work. Her relative distance from the text provided the impetus needed for it to become truly polished. This is something I freely acknowledge I could not have done on my own. In the spirit of collaboration, we both duly expressed to the author the excellence of our co-operation and the high mutual esteem which had developed as a result.

The final proofs

The next collaboration was perhaps the most difficult for me; signing off on the final proofs. The language shared by me, two layout and design men and the author was Portuguese. Any changes, therefore, had to be documented in Portuguese. This meant a fairly sharp learning curve for me. It is one thing to translate from Portuguese into English; it was quite another for me to express myself clearly in Portuguese when the state of the final proofs depended on it!

This was a type of mental gymnastics I had not performed before. I am glad of the experience and know that the two I collaborated with found it rewarding too. I am sure I made several linguistic gaffes; we all needed a bit of laughter by deadline stage and I did not mind being the one providing the humour. The fact that we had met in person at the author’s home in mid-June reveals that the author certainly knows a thing or two himself about successful collaboration.

Launching the German- and Portuguese-language versions

The launch of the published hardcover German and Portuguese versions took place at the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon on 15 September 2011.

In search of a publisher for the English-language version

Lack of funding has meant that the English translation, Vine Atlas of Spain and Portugal – History, Terroir and Ampelography is still seeking a publisher.

I have a soft cover copy of the English volume. Some discerning (English) readers have read it and given positive personal reviews.

I have continued my collaboration with the author and one or two others in the search for a publisher. Now, all the book needs is for the head of a major publishing firm to holiday in the Algarve this summer.

The grapevine can do the rest.

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I wonder if any of the above strikes a chord with fellow translators who have dealt with a similar project. We would welcome your comments and stories!

 

 

{ 10 comments }

Lisa Carter May 11, 2012 at 16:09

Allison,
What a project! Congratulations on finishing it, and I wish you every success finding an English publisher. That’s a whole other job, isn’t it?! ;-)
As a literary translator, I completely agree with many of your points and found the story of all your collaborations just fascinating. You’re lucky to have worked so closely with so many people. That isn’t always an option.

Allison Wright May 15, 2012 at 00:32

Thank you, Lisa. The work did seem like “a series of fortunate events” – both at the time, and in retrospect. Seeing your name again has reminded me that I am supposed to be reading “Voltaire’s Calligrapher” sometime soon! A friend suggested I write down things *I really want to do* in purple ink…Done!

Juliette S May 13, 2012 at 10:57

Truly excellent post Allison. Having done similar projects in the past, I so know what you mean! I would also add (in hindsight) that one should insist on seeing *everything*. On one book, I signed off the final proofs only to have the horrific experience of seeing a massive mistake on the imprint page that the printer had translated himself without referring it to me. It ruined all the painstaking work I had done, as far as I was concerned.

Allison Wright May 15, 2012 at 00:39

Good advice, Juliette, as regards seeing the final proof of *everything*. The printer really ought to have consulted you, or at least, the publisher, by the sounds of it.

José Carlos G. Ribeiro May 17, 2012 at 21:06

Delicious and very sensible, Allison. I also love your style.

I was amazed at the clear way your mind perceives reality and its own workings!
I’d love to meet you someday… next lifespan, possibly. It may be too late for this one.

During my first and only translated book presentation – on Buddhist Philosophy – a friend asked me about translating.
Jokingly, I wrote in his book that “A translator is an author without a subject”, because writing someone else’s ideas in my language is also authoring (imho).
Later, I evolved to say that “An author is a translator of self” – see more on this at http://www.proqualitrans.com

One of Brazilian’s greatest authors once said (my translation):

“Writing should be done in the same manner as the washerwomen of Alagoas practice their craft. They start with a first wash(ing), soaking the dirty clothing by the bank of the lagoon or stream; they wring the piece of clothing, soak it again, and then wring it once more. They then add indigo, soap and wring once, and then twice. Then they rinse, and soak it again, now splashing the water onto the cloth with their hands. They beat the cloth on a slab or clean stone, they wring it again and then one more time, they wring it until no water drops from the cloth anymore. Only after they have done all this do they hang the clean piece of clothing to dry, on a string or clothes line. Whoever goes into writing should do the very same thing. The word was not meant to embellish or to spark like fake gold; the word was meant to say.” (Graciliano Ramos, during an interview, in 1948)

“Yours” Judging quality:

One can never lose sight of the simple objective in this case: to produce a volume in English. The work has to pass the following standard: Would another professional translator in the same language pair, or a discerning reader familiar with this subject be able to tell that this is a translation? If the answer is an unequivocal “no” then – and only then – has the translation been successful.

Allison Wright May 18, 2012 at 10:24

Thank you, José Carlos, for your kind comments – and for providing so much more food for thought, as well as another interesting website to visit.
I had a giggle to myself regarding the Graciliano Ramos quotation because I spent 18 months working in a laundry when I first arrived in Portugal. One hot day, I was up to my elbows in bleach and soap and other chemicals scrubbing out stains by hand from a mountain of white tablecloths. One of my Romanian colleagues commented on my energetic approach. I replied that all I really needed was a large rock on which to beat said tablecloths and my life would be complete. Then, she told me something interesting: Where she lived in Romania, the local river was devoid of suitable rocks. The village woman would therefore carry a heavy wooden “horse” to the river on which to beat their sheets. As a result, the sheets were always as white as the driven snow. It would seem that the process, whether writing or laundering, is much the same the world over.

Patricia Worth January 2, 2013 at 22:21

Allison, I’ve now read all of this article and found it really helpful. There were a lot of useful hints, except the one about working with the author; sometimes he or she is long dead, as mine is. Though, you also mention knowing how the author thinks, and I can do this by reading as many of my author’s works as possible, where I notice certain phrases used as favourites but in different contexts. This is helpful if I don’t understand it in a text; it might suddenly appear in another where the meaning is clear as a bell. Thanks for writing this long article on translation. You’re handy to have around!

Allison Wright January 6, 2013 at 13:36

Yes, Patricia, clarity frequently does come when we have access to a broader context. In your case, apart from extant literary criticism (if any), I would imagine the intuitive immersion such as you seem to be engaging in often does yield surprising results.
The “Vine Atlas”, by the way, together with a lot more material, was launched on 3 January 2012 in BETA version at http://www.vinetowinecircle.com in German, Portuguese and English. I have put a link on my blog, too.
You will probably prefer the History section and the Regions section. It would be interesting for me to receive general feedback (i.e. not just from you!) as to whether anyone can detect if the source languages of these two sections are the same, or different. :)

Patricia Worth January 7, 2013 at 00:25

Ok. I’ll have a closer look at the vinetowinecircle. I’ve had a glance already. Trish

Allison Wright January 7, 2013 at 21:28

Ha, ha! It is not compulsory, you know!

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