Susan Buchanan – How hard is it being a translator?

Today I’m please to welcome Susan Buchanan to the blog. Susan has is an author and has just set up her own translation company Perfect Prose.

About Susan:


Susan Buchanan lives near Glasgow, Scotland and is the author of three novels, as well as being  a proofreader, editor, and translator. She has an MA in French and Hispanic Studies from the University of Glasgow, although ironically her most fluent language after English is Italian.  She has lived in both Spain and France and worked for 15 years in European and international sales, using her  languages daily, as well as proofreading, editing, and writing copy in various fields, including IT, electronics, electronic components, and the water industry. She also speaks French and Portuguese.

Twitter -@perfect_prose

Here Susan tells us all about translation, what she loves about it, and what she doesn’t like so much

“Every year many of us buy books, sometimes by authors whose native tongue isn’t English (although clearly for those living in non-English speaking countries, this is the norm). We buy those books in translation. I particularly like the Nordic crime writers: Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo. I’ve also read many authors over the years in translation, including many classics, sometimes as a dual text (where it appears in the original version and in English) – Macchiavelli, Boccaccio, Flaubert. But do you know the names Laurie Thompson, Steven T Murray, and Don Bartlett? No? I thought not, but if it wasn’t for them, you wouldn’t be reading the Nordic writers’ works in English. As a languages graduate and a linguist, I know just how much work is involved in translating books. It’s not just a case of ‘working out’ what it means in English, but also remaining true to the author’s voice and style, whilst also capturing all the subtle nuances of English, and ensuring you don’t mistranslate.

Neither is it just a case of simply translating what you see? What if you are translating a 14th century text into English from Italian? Dante’s La Divina Commedia for example. You’d have to know the language of that era and be a student of the language of the time to be able to do the translation justice. Likewise, if you’re translating Mexican Spanish or Brazilian Portuguese into English, you need to bear in mind that many words have completely different meanings from their European equivalents. It can be quite a minefield – and that’s why I love it!

I actually started writing novels as, 25 years ago in high school, I was told that if I wanted to translate books (languages other than English were my first love back then)I’d have to be a published writer before I would be considered as a book translator. Naively I believed this. In the end, that wasn’t why I became a novelist, but I still harbour a desire to translate a full-length novel and I’m sure that I will do it at some point. I used to translate sections of novels just for fun, as I read in Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Yes, my book-buying habits are not restricted only to English!

Yet translation clearly isn’t only restricted to translation of books. For more than 15 years I worked in European and international sales, and I was called upon regularly to translate instruction manuals, press releases, website content, media articles, product flyers, presentations, and trade show information packs. In the business world, translators are often chosen by specialism. It has been my experience that those who do well are those who specialise in a particular sector or have a technical area of expertise. For example, from a technical translation perspective I focus mainly on Manufacturing and Environment . Other key sectors often looking for translators include Life Sciences, Legal, Oil and Gas, Medical, Financial, Public Sector, and Financial Services. Very specific terminology is used within each niche industry, as well as a lot of jargon which a layman is unlikely to know. Therein lies the need for someone with that specific knowledge to ensure a flawless translation.

Although you should be a native speaker if translating into a language, or bilingual if translating professionally from and into the given language, just speaking the language doesn’t automatically make you a candidate for being a good translator. In the same way as not all English speakers can write English well, this is also true of other nationalities. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve proofread a translation done by a well-meaning native-speaking employee, into their mother tongue, and discovered a whole array of spelling and grammatical errors. Hence, hiring a professional really is the only way. I only translate into Italian and Spanish at the moment, as

although my French was fluent when I lived in France and my Portuguese is pretty good, I just don’t feel they are currently of an elevated enough standard for professional translation.

As someone who reads in five languages, I’ve read some great translations and some by which I wasn’t quite so enthralled. I’ve witnessed the practice on job auction sites where translators are requested to bid for a quarter of a book. How does that work? With language being so fluid, one person’s interpretation of a clause or sentence might be phrased slightly differently from another’s. Some words have more than one direct translation in English. How do they ensure consistency? They can’t. I’ve seen this firsthand when working in industry when a translation agency we’d employed had two translators working on the same piece of material. When I read the translation, I spotted straightaway it wasn’t the work of a single person, as later in the piece of work, there were different translations for the same word used in the first section. I can only imagine how annoying this would be in a full-length novel.

However, my favourite part about translation, aside from simply knowing I’ve nailed it, is when I come across an absolute howler. These examples all happened in the same week: someone referring to a lawyer used the term ‘avocado’ instead of ‘abogado’ , ‘cobra’ for ‘cabra’ , (goat) and my favourite one of all was ‘me duelen mis osos’ , trying to say ‘their bones were hurting’, but actually saying literally ‘their bears were hurting them’. Images of being chased by a grizzly bear abounded. Now that’s what I call a mistranslation!”

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