I’m very happy to have Alluvium editor Susie Gordon back for another conversation at A Polite Lie this month, where we will once again cover a wide range of topics.
Susie’s course with Tender Leaves, entitled Editing Literary Translations, includes 6 video modules (audio and written transcripts available), a suggested reading list, and 1-month paid access to all content at A Polite Lie.
Hi, Susie! Thank you for joining me for another conversation here at A Polite Lie. Your insights are always so valuable.
I have been thinking about your work as an editor and how it came to connect so closely with translation. If I’m not wrong, it came about because you lived in China, where much of the work produced by what we might call “budget” translation centres was so poorly done that it was unusable. Could you tell us a bit more about how that happened and how it has worked in practice for you?
Hi! Thanks for having me back.
My trajectory into editing translations has been a slightly unconventional one. When I began my career in Shanghai back in 2008, my first role was sub-editor at an English-language lifestyle magazine. I envisaged continuing in this vein, as I enjoyed the atmosphere and pace of the magazine office. However, when the publication closed down after just a year of my working there, I took on freelance editing work from an academic press, which led to projects from other clients in a variety of fields. Due to the amount of material that needs to be translated from Chinese to English, there are a lot of the budget translation companies that you mention. Due to economic factors within the industry, it is usually cheaper to employ non-native English speakers to do the initial translations, and then hire a native English speaker to edit and polish. This was my role. From project to project, I began to notice the foibles and characteristics of English when translated from Chinese by a non-native speaker, for example, rhetorical registers that work perfectly in Chinese, but fall flat or jar in English. I was always very aware of the feat that these translators were performing, translating into a language that they did not speak as their mother tongue. In a lot of cases, the task of editing their work was very satisfying, like polishing a gemstone to reveal its potential! As the years passed and my own proficiency in Chinese grew, I felt even more drawn to editing work in translation, as I could now make sense of the original, and do a better job of editing a text in its English translation.
I think a lot of editors and translators in China may have started out in the industry in a very similar way. My own path into the field was not very different.
I like that you have pointed out the massive feat of translating from one’s mother tongue into one’s second language. I admire those who do that, especially when they do so with the awareness that their work is not likely to be publication-ready and are thus willing to work with an editor who will do the work you do. When a pairing of this sort of translator and this sort of editor works, it can yield some wonderful translations.
One of the things I’ve noticed often being an obstacle to this sort of pairing working as it should is the idea some translators have that the edited version “loses the beauty of the Chinese,” rather than seeing it as a reworking of the same beauty into the shape of English. On the other hand, I’ve often seen editors inexperienced in working with translations make alterations that basically miss the meaning of the original text entirely. How do you find a balance between these two demands on your work as an editor, especially when working in a language you don’t speak?
It can be very difficult to strike that balance. That's why I do the majority of my editing work on English that has been translated from language that I am at least familiar with, if not proficient in. That's not to say other editors should avoid working with languages they don't speak; it very much depends on the individual. When working consistently with translations from a certain language, you begin to notice quirks and patterns. Once you've developed a familiarity with how a (for example) Thai translator renders English, you begin to understand how light or heavy a touch you need as an editor to preserve the feel of the original, even if you can't read the original yourself.
That’s a very interesting point that you bring up. There are many principles that are going to be the same for any editor working on any work in translation. These principles are not language-specific, but apply across the board. At the same time, there are also language-specific quirks that appear within particular language-pairings. Do you think cultural familiarity with the original context of the work is important for an editor? I know I have worked with both types of editors – those who are familiar with Chinese culture (but don’t speak the language) and those who know little to nothing about Chinese culture. I can’t say that either experience has been fully better or fully worse than the other, but it is a different process, to be sure.
For me as an editor, I'm most comfortable working on translations when I am at least familiar with the culture of the source language, if not well-versed in it. However, in my work as editor of Literary Shanghai's Alluvium journal, I have been fortunate enough to receive submissions of translations into English from languages as diverse as Romanian, Tagalog, Urdu, and Saraiki. I'm afraid to say that my knowledge of southwestern Punjab, where Saraiki is spoken, was non-existent when I accepted the submission from that translator. However, as we worked on polishing the English version of his short stories for publication, he was able to explain to me some of the objects and events in the narrative that were unfamiliar, so that we could render them understandable for the English readership they were aimed at. It was a very enjoyable and enriching process for both of us.
That sounds like fun! It must take a lot of extra time and effort to do this sort of work – it goes beyond the editing of what is on the page, really, in that it requires you to think very carefully about what is not said, but is assumed/known by the reader of the original language. That’s such a huge part of cultural fluency.
Do you have any little tricks that make this easier, or is it really just a matter of taking the time to listen and communicate well with the author?
For me, it's definitely a case of simply taking the time to understand the author or translator. That really acts as the bedrock for a successful translation. However, a trick I like to use is to imagine that I know absolutely zero about the culture being translated into English. In many cases, this is actually true, but even if I do have some knowledge, I try to view the text as if I didn't, and identify which points (if any) jar or trip me up as a reader. Of course, there's the issue of over-explaining, which can also bog down a text. It's a question of finding a happy medium – a subtle but adequately explicatory touch!
That makes me think we need to talk a bit about footnotes. Let’s start there next month!
I’m looking forward to it already!