by Feb 8, 2021 267 views 15

Why literary translation takes so long?

Why literary translation takes so long?

When one of my clients asked me this question, I had a mini stupor: on one hand, there were all sorts of answers to this question swirling in my head but on the other, I could not fit those answers in just a few words. So hopefully, in this blog post I will be able to give the full answer to this question.

Translation of (let’s say) 80 000 words of fiction takes 3 – 4 months.

But why so long?

1. Preparation

Did you know that it takes from one to two weeks for a translator to prepare for the actual translation?

My preparation routine (which is also the routine of many other translators I know) consists of reading the novel I am going to translate at least two times, writing down all the terms and figuring out how exactly those will be translated, finding translations in the same style to get a better understanding of how language works in the particular narration, working on translation of the title (which sometimes takes weeks, guys! no joke here), and only after all of that, do I start the actual translating process of the novel.

2. Cognitive complexity of literary translation

How long does it take to write a novel? Well, in theory, a writer can tackle writing a 80 000 words novel in two weeks by writing 6 000 words every day. But in practice, to write a novel can take up to a year (sometimes even more than that.) All because of the cognitive complexity of this process.

The same is with literary translation. In theory, a translator can translate 10 pages a day, so to complete a translation of 300-pages book can (in theory) take a month, but let’s be realistic and not forget that our brain’s ability to maintain concentration, to solve problems (and literary translation is full of them), and to make decisions is limited. So even though, in theory, we could be a Hercules and translate 10 – 15 pages a day, in reality, it is really impossible to do it consistently.

3. Editing of literary translation

Translation is just the first step of many-steps ladder that a translator must climb in order to deliver a good quality translation. It is not enough to just translate – editing is just as an important part of literary translation as it is of writing. You cannot skip it!

4. Proofreading of literary translation

Editing and proofreading of translation are fundamentally different processes. This is why a translator dedicates time to each of these separately.

Proofreading of literary translation (read one of my previous postson what proofreading of translation is to have a better idea what I am talking about) aims to check the accuracy of the translation.

Working on translation of a massive document (and it is a purely human factor that unfortunately even the most experienced literary translators often face), it is unavoidable to pick poor options of translation that can be fixed only during the proofreading stage; poor choice of vocabulary or a wrong interpretation of a phrase that can be noticed only in the overview of the context.

Translation is like looking at the world through a magnifier, so it is absolutely natural to miss on some aspects of the bigger picture. And considering the complexity of the literary translation as such, it can take some time to find and fix those missed aspects as well.

These are the main reasons why literary translation takes so long (though now, as you know all the stages of literary translation, I hope 3-4 months do not sound too long to you anymore.)

Literary translation is a complex intellectual work and unfortunately, even if a translator works 24/7 (which is a very bad idea to even try both for translator’s mental health and the quality of the translation) it will still be impossible to finish translation of a novel in a few weeks.

There are also some inner struggles that literary translators go through which can add up to the total time of literary translation as well. If you are interested to know which those are, let me know in the comment section below. Have a nice day and do not forget to support me by clicking on the like button below.

Tom V.

Tom V. Feb 8, 2021

Every time you use google translator, one translator is sad


Franka Feb 9, 2021

@Tom V., haha, so true!!! :D

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