Great books come in a multitude of languages and thanks to translators, readers are able to access interesting works and important research from around the world. Like editing, translating can call for some mental acrobatics and requires a clear understanding of mechanics and meaning. Teresa Lavender Fagan takes us through her translating process and reveals what words just don’t make the leap into English.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you became a translator? What language(s) do you work with the most?
I only translate from French to English, though I’ve studied Italian, Spanish, German, and six weeks of Japanese! I started learning French at a very young age—third grade—and immediately fell in love with the language. I studied throughout elementary and high school, then majored in French in college. Because I attended a small liberal arts school, Earlham College, and was already fairly proficient in the language, I was asked to be a professor’s assistant on an intensive French program in France my sophomore year. Living in France for an academic year sealed the deal. I was 99% fluent in the language, and knew I wanted to try to use it in some professional capacity.
The pivotal moment in my translation career was one of complete serendipity. While in Paris on Middlebury College’s one-year master’s program, I was walking along a street, and ran into Morris Philipson, who I found out was the director of the University of Chicago Press at the time. We chatted for awhile, and Morris sent me a couple of books on teaching foreign language that the Press had published. When I returned to Chicago I came to the realization that I really didn’t want to go back to teaching. What else could I do with a love of books and French? Publishing, of course! I contacted Morris, there happened to be an opening for an editorial assistant, and I started working at the Press. Granted, my position did not directly involve translation, but being a part of the acquisitions department, and making my abilities in French known, I was offered my first book translation, Mircea Eliade’s Journal III, and the rest is history!
Translating seems like you have to be constantly aware of the meaning of both individual words and the text overall. How do you handle getting both right?
I first read the original work a couple of times to internalize the overall meaning, looking up any unknown words or phrases. I then do a very rough draft translation, and then go over it line by line against the original, focusing again on any problematic words, etc. Finally, after several days I read the translation by itself, usually out loud, to make sure it sounds like English! Naturally, there will be rough spots that when you’re so intimately involved you might miss, which is why a vetter is essential to the translation publication process.
What resources (print, online, or other) do you use when you’re working on a translation?
I have my trusty Harrap’s French and English Dictionary that I always keep next to me for quick checks; I also use a print French dictionary and encyclopedia for more in-depth word/phrase research. And depending on the subject of the project, I use specialized (slang, medical, legal) dictionaries, as needed. But I also use the Internet extensively to research material referenced in a work, for example, whether a book or article cited has been translated (or originally published) in English. But my favorite resource is the author! Whenever possible, I try to contact and ideally meet the author of the work I’m translating. Knowing the person is invaluable for conveying the author’s voice in the translation. And often, if the author is proficient in English, he or she can offer excellent advice while reviewing the translation.
What do you do to keep your translating skills sharp? Does it help to consume other media such as movies or music in the language in which you’re working?
I try to spend time in France every year visiting friends, going to movies, traveling, to re-immerse myself in the language and culture. I also read French newspapers and magazines online, and French books when I can, and I telephone my French friends as often as possible!
Do you have any examples of words or phrases that you just can’t capture in English or vice versa?
There are many! One came up just recently: passeur, which means “ferryman” or “boatman,” as in someone who “passes” people from one shore to another. But in the specific context—Chateaubriand as a passeur of aristocratic ideals — the meaning was broader, something like a “conveyor.” Yet because “conveyor” in English immediately brings to mind manufacturing, and not a person, the word just didn’t seem right, and it was very hard to find a suitable translation. And so passeur—with a gloss—was kept in the translation.
Are there any particular translations of a work that you especially admire?
I’ve been hooked on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (the series that includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. The translations are seamless, you have no sense you are reading a translation, yet you feel you are in Sweden. One of the most difficult challenges is translating a culture. Keeland does this brilliantly.
When readers are in a bookstore and are looking to choose from multiple translations of a work, what are some tips for picking the best one?
Sometimes the copyright date is a good place to start—the more recent the better, usually. But it’s also good to read a passage or two, comparing the same text in two editions. If one rings more “natural,” that’s a good sign! If you’re browsing online, it’s always helpful to see if any reviews have been done on a given translation.
Teresa Lavender Fagan has translated over twenty-five works from French. She is also the marketing distribution manager for University of Chicago Press.