Photo courtesy of Nic McPhee

If I hold one opinion that I will defend at all costs, it’s that translators and editors are the unsung heroes of the literary and publishing world. ‘We get it, Sophie, you’re an editor now, no need to toot your own horn.’ To be completely honest, within Oxford and the student community, there’s little need for me to do so. Being an editor, whatever the level or situation, is always appreciated by our peers and something for which we’re congratulated. But outside the world of student journalism and student-led publications, it’s rarely something that is given the just admiration it deserves.

Editorial work and translation is by far one of the most nuanced jobs I can think of. It would be beyond reductive to perceive an editor’s influence as nothing more than looking out for the obvious corrections in a piece, such as grammatical errors or spelling mistakes. And while at face value this certainly seems to be the case, the full extent of the work goes far beyond that. Every editor must follow the writing and style guidelines of the publishing house or body that they are affiliated with. This essentially means working the article to the point where it is both aesthetically and grammatically coherent with its other pieces, without compromising the writer’s own distinctive voice. In short, create a coherent collective without suppressing individuality.

A translator’s work goes one step further. As Helen Muchnic writes, it requires ‘in addition to perfect command of the language into which he[/she/they] is[/are] translating, a rare endowment of emotional and intellectual flexibility’. As a translator, your job is not to redact the original and make it amenable to your translation, but rather to change your own shape to fit one language’s mould, and then do your absolute best to reproduce this same shape in another language. 

When I interned as a translator as part of my year abroad, I often felt like a ghost writer. That is the best comparison I can think of. The final product that the audience reads are your words. And yet, these words are not really your own, as all you have done is arrange them in an order that the readers will understand. For example, when working on the subtitles of an author’s interview, although I was the one who penned the words the viewers were reading at the bottom of the screen, they were not my words or my opinions – they were the author’s. When reading the translation of a minister’s speech, or an author’s biography, the information was exactly the same in both languages, and I, for all intents and purposes, never existed. And to my readers, I certainly never did, as my name never featured on any of the information booklets.

This isn’t such a bad thing, however. In that scenario, my existence is rightly superfluous to the reading experience. It shouldn’t matter to whoever’s reading, because in that moment, the translator doesn’t want to draw attention away from the presented information. Think about it. If a translation sounds natural in the language it’s written in, and readers have no difficulty digesting it and instead, are transported directly into what they are consuming, then that is a job perfectly well done. They don’t think about the translator. To them, the translation is the original. The translation is the only original they can understand. 

You only think about the translator when something about the illusion seems off – when a phrase doesn’t sit right, or is clunky… only then will you hear phrases like: ‘This translation is no good’ or ‘Who translated this?’

That’s not to say that translators are never and should never be credited. My name has been attached to a translation published in a journal, and literary translators have their name printed on a page or two of the piece of literature they have borne into another language. But in both cases, the readers will only care as an afterthought. I know that my piece for the Asymptote Journal was read because people were interested in the topic it dealt with. People reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, or Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude will not tell others that they have read Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation from Russian, or April Fitzlyon’s translation from French, or Gregory Rabassa’s translation from Spanish. The Maudes, Fitzlyon and Rabassa’s names are not printed on the cover; these books are still the essence of Tolstoy and Zola and Marquez. These bridges between the languages are ghosts whose names will be brought up in remembrance as an afterthought.

Only in the company of other translators or academic linguists have I heard the question, ‘whose translation?’ when talking about a book that is not being read in its original language. This is sadly because beyond this group, those who actually care about the backstage workings of translations are few and far between. Few are impassioned about natural renderings from a highly inflected language to a lowly inflected one (such as from Russian or Latin into English). Still fewer will understand my ravings about the cultural insight you gain into whole countries, civilisations, and cultures, solely based on the equivalents of well-known idioms.

Translation is the conveying of essence and information in a beautifully-packaged and neatly-wrapped exterior. While the process itself is long and messy and arduous, the final product must seem effortless… as though the words have simply been breathed onto the page. Beyond that, imagine the marriage of editing and translation between a translator and their editor. How on earth to reconcile a publishing house’s demands that might so easily ruin the painstakingly crafted translation of an elusive moment in the original?

In our consumerist society, whenever we pick up something to read, we are hardly ever expected to do anything other than consume it. Yes, certainly, admire the craft of the author – the way they’ve expressed their ideas. But also spare a thought for their editor, whose fresh eyes probably helped them reach such a pithy and elegant turn of phrase. Or their translator, who has, in fact, expressed the author’s opinion for them in such a way that you, in a different country, different culture, and different time period, can fully comprehend their sentiments. 

Spare a thought for your bilingual friends, permanently simultaneously translating from one language to another. Or perhaps, most simply of all, spare a thought for anyone talking or writing, doing their best to translate intangible thoughts and emotions into words, and editing themselves so that it sounds effortless and natural.