37. 20 Questions for Literary Translators

SEPTEMBER 16, 2022: Whether you’re an emerging or an established translator, clarifying what this practice of translation means for you can help you stay productive, efficient, and grounded.

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Dear Reader,

Ever since I started this newsletter, there’s been a regular stream of messages, emails, tweets, etc. from emerging translators asking me how-to questions. I do share whatever I can about my own winding journey, which has not been via any of the usual routes. However, often, I’m tempted to ask them some questions right back. So I’m dedicating today’s newsletter to some questions that will be, I hope, food for thought for translators of all stripes, whether established or emerging.

These questions pertain to the art and craft of translation but also the translating life and how we want to manage our goals, aspirations, setbacks, and more. Sometimes, I wish I’d had a mentor or an experienced translator friend sit down with me when I first started out. Not to alleviate any anxieties or fears because everyone will have those when starting something new. I don’t see them as a bad thing either because anxiety or fear is our mind telling us to slow down, pay attention, and understand what’s really going on before responding. I do think having a mentor or at least having these questions to clarify to myself what I wanted to accomplish and why could have made me more productive, more focused, and more accepting of what came (or didn’t come) my way.

So take a look. Let me know your thoughts in the always-open responses section below. I always reply, as some of you know by now. And if there’s a particular question you’d personally like to add to this list because it’s helped you and might be useful to others, please share that too? Thanks.

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Oh, and one caveat before you go further. I’m not suggesting that you have to have all of the answers worked out right away. Sit with these questions for a while. Check in from time to time to see if your thoughts have changed. The idea is to simply have a way to stay in touch with your own evolving work values and ethics.

1) Do you read translated works from around the world on a regular basis?

Even if you don’t know the source language, there are always some nuggets to be gleaned from how a translator has approached their work. I’ve discussed the importance of reading translators’ notes or introductions before. Beyond that, it’s also a way to stay attuned to what kinds of translations are being published. And beyond all of that, there’s the sheer pleasure of reading books from different parts of the world because they allow us to see our own literary traditions in a new light.

2) Have you reviewed at least three works from the source language that you will be translating from?

For me reviewing a book is just another deeper way of engaging with it. I’m convinced that doing a close reading of a book and understanding its many nuances and textures makes us better translators. At any given point in time, I have at least one Gujarati book in my current-reading pile. And I write about it in my private journals as I’m reading. In fact, I never read a book without a notebook and pen beside me. Sometimes, if the English translation of the book is available, I’ll read that alongside too. That’s rare, though, because we have so few English translations of Gujarati literature and I’ve discussed that and the South Asian translation pyramid before too.

You don’t have to share your reviews publicly, of course. In fact, if you’re just starting out with this kind of exercise, I recommend doing it privately so you can find your reviewing voice first.

[Note: In a couple of months, after I’m done with some deadlines, I will be setting up a separate opt-in subscription for those interested specifically in Gujarati literature in translation. I will be reading both the original text and a translation alongside and sharing my notes. This is a rather niche topic as I’m sure there aren’t that many bilingual readers of Gujarati literature. But I’m hoping there might be some interest. More details on that in a short while.]

3) Have you reviewed at least three works of translation in the target language that you will be translating into?

For most of us, the target language is English. And, again, reviewing an English translation (from any language) is different from how we might review a work written originally in English. I’ve shared a bit about that in an earlier newsletter and here’s an entire reading and reviewing translations resource list that resulted from that discussion.

I won’t repeat the benefits of reviewing again but I’ll add one more suggestion: pick a couple of translators who also review books and start following their reviews. There’s a lot to learn from them. I have several personal favorites and I’ll share those in a separate newsletter in the near future because I want to share some of their reviews as well.

4) Have you taken at least two workshops on translation craft?

This is not always possible for many of us as it depends on time, location, money, and more. But, increasingly, there are workshops being offered online. I share these in the weekly WAAT links roundup when I come across them.

Another way to learn is via online webinars, seminars, and events about literary translation. I share these often in the links roundups too. Many are free and even put their recordings online for later viewing.

One more way to learn is by reading books about craft. I maintain an ongoing list of US-published books here. I’m planning to add a separate list of such books published outside the US shortly too.

My point here is more about a conscious process of continuous learning as part of your translation discipline. It doesn’t have to be a formal workshop.

5) Do you have a regular discipline or routine for doing your translation work?

This doesn’t have to be daily but it does have to be regular. So if you can only sit down once a week, that’s fine. But give yourself a specific time and goal for that weekly translation work.

There are many theories for why it helps to have a regular practice if we want to get better at any skill. I won’t go into all of those here.

For myself, I use an app to shut down all social media and email at a set time each day to focus on translation work. Some days, I don’t hit my word count, especially if a section of the text is particularly challenging and requires a fair bit of research. But I keep count and make sure I can catch up at least on a monthly basis.

The hardest part, for me, is when other things crowd my to-do list and the translation work falls off. For example, with my recent translation just released on July 26, it’s gotten a bit busy with some promotion-related work. I’m working to wind it all down and get back to my routine now.

6) Do you have a regular discipline or routine for submitting your translation work?

This is mostly for emerging translators.

For years, I did my translation work but didn’t submit it anywhere. There are several venues that put out regular calls for translations from anywhere in the world. I share some of these in the weekly WAAT links roundup. There are plenty of other resources if you go to Submittable or even just search on Google. Erika Dreifus runs an excellent newsletter for writers and often includes translation-related links too.

I can tell you from experience that every “yes” to a submission arrives after at least five (or more) “no” responses. And that’s totally fine. Plenty to learn from rejections too, especially if the editors are good about giving specific feedback as to why they did not accept your submission. It’s all a learning experience. And, if your work is accepted by a decent venue, you’ll get thoughtful edits from the editors and that will only up your game.

7) Have you had at least 5000 words of translated works published at professional venues?

Related to the question above and for emerging translators.

To me, publication at literary venues, whether they pay or not, is like warming up for the big game. Ideally, yes, we want to be paid for our hard work. But I’ve also had work published at a venue because I wanted to work with the editor.

The other main benefit of getting some translated works published before you start approaching agents and publishers for book-length works is that the publication history will strengthen your case.

8) Do you have role models for the kind of translation work you would like to do?

Again, this is more for emerging translators.

If you don’t have a formal mentor, this is one way to keep yourself inspired. So many well-known literary translators are on social media these days. Follow the handful that you respect and watch and learn from them. They’re not always going to be sharing their wisdom or their works. Sometimes, it might just be cute animal or baby pics. But even seeing how they engage with their readers and build their translator platform can be enlightening. You may have entirely different approaches for these but it doesn’t hurt to observe how others are doing it and glean some best practices.

Who you consider a role model or why is entirely up to you. And it doesn’t even have to be someone from your part of the world, of course.

9) Do you have a mentor for the kind of translation work you would like to do?

This isn’t always possible for many of us. I don’t have any formal mentor for any of my work (writing, translating, book reviewing, running Desi Books.) I didn’t come up through the traditional routes to any of these vocations so I don’t have the networks or connections. But I have role models I follow, observe, and learn from.

There are times I’ve thought it would be good to have a formal mentor I could turn to with questions or just to run something by them. And I know some others who’ve approached their role models directly too. I have not done so yet but let me suggest one good practice here if you’re planning to do so: please make sure you’ve engaged with the translator first in a genuine way and built some interaction history before jumping into their DMs or emails and asking for help. It will also help greatly if you’ve been sharing their work with others to show your appreciation. There’s a certain social etiquette and it will only work in your favor if you’re doing this with thoughtfulness, politeness, and generosity.

10) Are you cultivating and nurturing a support system away from the literary world that will be there for you when things are tough?

This is important for all of us. The publishing world is a tough one filled with inequities and trend-followers. It can be frustrating, confusing, and downright disheartening at times to see how mediocrity is rewarded because of manufactured hype or some network effect. Having a support system offline that you can turn to will help you keep things in perspective no matter what happens. That is all.

11) Do you connect with and uplift other translators and their works on a regular basis?

This is self-explanatory, right? If you’re hoping for people to support you, mentor you, and uplift your work, you need to put some of that kind of energy into the world yourself. I’m agnostic by faith but I believe in karma. What goes around, comes around. Put more of what you’d like to see into the world. Someday, somehow, it will come back to you.

One important way to show this kind of support is by interviewing or reviewing the works of certain translators in ways that can bring them more visibility. Another way is to show up for their events to cheer them on. Yet another approach is to share their work on social media. Each of us can do some small thing for a few minutes a week.

12) Have you defined your mission as a translator within the literary ecosystem?

You’d think I’d have started with this one but it’s actually not as easy as it sounds. I had been translating for a few years before I defined my personal mission as a translator. I work with Gujarati, which is an under-represented language even in the South Asian language pyramid, never mind globally. This is despite Gujarati being the sixth most spoken language in India and the third most spoken language in the South Asian American diaspora. So my translation work is a mode of recovery and reclamation. I translate into the colonizer’s language as an act of decolonization. I want to bring the richness of Gujarati literature and literary traditions into the English-speaking world as a cultural intervention, if you will.

All that sounds good, right? But do you know what it also means? It means that most of my work will never be as visible as that from more dominant languages on that South Asian language pyramid (e.g. Bangla, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, etc.) or European languages. It means that I will have a tough time getting my translations even picked up by publishers. And, when they do get published, I will have a tough time getting people to pay attention to these translations. But clarifying this mission and understanding all of what it could mean for my career and work as a translator helps me set realistic expectations. It helps me prepare for the hard slog of getting the word out there about my work and be clear with myself about what I’m willing to do and where I will draw the line.

None of this is easy. Take your time with understanding your mission. Your response to every other question on this list will depend on the clarity of your mission. Also, this question is directly related to questions 13) and 14) next so you’ll want to iterate all three a few times to get to a full picture of what you want here.

13) Have you clarified to yourself, in SMART terms, what success will mean for you personally at the 1000-foot level and the 10,000-foot level in the next twelve months?

[Note: SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound.]

Once you know what your mission is, you do need to clarify what you mean by “success.” This is also not an easy one. There are degrees and levels of success. They can be personal and professional. But understanding what you value as “success” will help you stay grounded. It will stop you from chasing things that will not be as meaningful in the end.

For example, my recent translation is of a canonical Gujarati writer who died in 1965. This means the work is not eligible for most big literary awards, which require the original author to still be alive. Also, my book is a short story collection, which is not as popular as novels for award lists. But my mission with my work has never been about awards. They do help bring more visibility to a work, for sure. But look at most award longlists and shortlists and you’re going to see, often, books that follow certain publishing trends. If your idea of success means awards, then you’re going to have to pick those kinds of translation projects. And if your projects are like mine, where they don’t fit the typical award criteria, then you’re going to have to get creative with how you work to bring awareness to it.

14) Have you clarified to yourself, in SMART terms, what success will mean for you personally at the 1000-foot level and the 10,000-foot level in the next five years?

Pretty much all of the above in 13) but for a five-year timeframe. Why that long? Because most book-length translation projects take that long from starting the work to getting the finished, published book into a reader’s hands. So you need to know what success will mean for you during that entire time period.

15) Have you saved enough money or do you have a regular source of income to fund your writing/translating projects?

Writing and translating are only full-time sources of income for the top 1% of writers and translators. Unless you have a rich inheritance, trust fund, or well-earning partner supporting you, like the rest of us, you’ll need other sources of income.

I always tell anyone who asks me: don’t ever give up your day job for writing or translating work. It’s not worth it. There is too much uncertainty throughout the process of writing and then publishing. In fact, writing and publishing are two entirely different processes. And both take a lot of time during which the bills have to be paid.

I teach creative writing and write for other publications. This means I have to balance my workload and can only manage so much time for my passion projects. Being clear about the need for this kind of balance helps me prioritize more effectively, though.

16) Are you building a network of honest, genuine (i.e. not based only on reciprocity) connections with folks within your industry?

I’ve mentioned this already a couple of times above so I won’t repeat myself. No matter where you might be in your journey as an emerging or established translator, we all need our network of connections and friends within this industry. And I don’t mean cliques where we scratch their backs and they scratch ours back. Those are not lasting relationships built on any solid foundation of mutual trust, respect, and appreciation.

I’m still navigating my way through this one, to be honest. What I know for sure is that if you create value for others and genuinely support folks whose works you appreciate, there will be goodwill sent your way. That is all.

17) Are you building a credible platform where readers and industry stakeholders can find and connect with you and your work?

Alright. This probably needs to be a whole newsletter of its own. I mean, what is a platform for a translator? Is it the same as for a writer? I’ll share more on this at a later time. For now, at the very least, you need to have an online home, a website. At the very least. It doesn’t have to be fancy. And there are many free resources out there to help you put a simple, clean website together. Do that, please.

18) Are you cultivating a self-care routine that will keep you internally motivated and inspired even when things are rough?

This is self-explanatory and should be something we do for any job or profession. But, surprisingly, many of us put ourselves last on our to-do lists. I’m personally guilty of this one and have to add self-care tasks to my to-do list so I don’t forget. There are entire essays out there on this topic. In the end, it’s whatever works for you, nourishes you, replenishes you. Just make sure you have a regular discipline of filing your personal well and reserves.

19) Are you ensuring a process of continuous learning of craft and process by pushing yourself to do at least one new thing a year? By making each successive translation project more challenging?

Another question that deserves an entirely separate newsletter. What do we mean when we say learn at least one new thing a year as a translator? More on this one soon, I promise.

20) Do you have an annual self-evaluation process where you assess what’s going well, what isn’t, and how you’re doing on all of the above?

If you’ve come this far and have been thinking about all of these questions and then some more, please make it a regular annual process for yourself. For years, I’ve been doing this at the start of each new year as a ritual. I walk through these questions, make changes or updates, and set myself an intention word (I wrote about this at The Millions in 2020.) It’s a private exercise and like a reset for the coming year. You might have a different approach and that’s fine. Just have a regular process to check in with yourself about all of these important questions. That is all.

This turned into a much longer missive than I had expected. I hope it’s useful. Please let me know your thoughts in the responses section below.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. The best way to show your appreciation is to buy/review my books or hire me for literary events.

Until next week.

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Jenny Bhatt

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