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it's only words

What does it take to translate a best-seller into another language?

We asked an award-winning author and his translator what it’s like to translate a best-seller from Spanish to English.

FERNWEH. FORELSKET. WABI-SABI. Words that don’t have a direct translation into English, but which we really wish did.

The joy of languages is that for all the similarities you can find between some of them (like Celtic languages such as Irish and Welsh, or Swedish and Danish), it’s the differences that can be most interesting.

The cliché that Inuits have 50 words for snow is apparently true, while some words that can’t be translated into English, like schadenfreude, have been adopted by English speakers.

Then there are words like fernweh (German for ‘feeling homesick for a place you have never been to’) and mamihlapinatapei (Yagan, meaning ‘a wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start’), that would be very satisfying to sneak into conversation.

But for all the fun you can have with trying to use these words in everyday chats, think of the translators whose job it is to bring best-selling novels from one language to another.

What happens when a word simply doesn’t exist, or a sentence doesn’t quite make sense once translated?

Translating a novel

International IMPAC Dublin literary award Juan Gabriel Vásquez Niall Carson Niall Carson

The author Juan Gabriel Vásquez is no stranger to translation. He’s a translator himself, having brought works by Victor Hugo and EM Forster from English to Spanish. He’s also an award-winning novelist who has just won the IMPAC International Dublin Literary Award.

While sitting down to chat about the award in Dublin earlier this week, Vásquez was joined by Anne McClean, the award-winning translator of his books. She’s the woman who translated his Los Informantes into The Informants, and worked her magic on The Sound of Things Falling.

The latter won this year’s IMPAC award, and saw Vásquez receiving €75,000 of the prize and McClean €25,000.

Perhaps the reason the duo work so well together is that they both understand the process of translation.

Vásquez described it as “a fascinating process with Anne”. If we talk about the language in books in percentages, he said, “the percentage of English language in my books is very high, so this is a book built in part on the shoulders of The Great Gatsby, or A Good Soldier, or Philip Roth’s novels.”

“But I was [writing] in Spanish and I was going back to those sources in a way,” he explained. This must have provided McClean with an interesting canvas to work from – one that was already imbued with a sense of English within the sentences she was tasked with taking apart and reconstructing.

The process

So, what happens when a word is untranslatable, or a sentence sounds odd? Vásquez makes the solution appear to be rather easy – but not all authors are bound to be as amenable to change.

“She will complain once or twice because the literal translation of this sentence doesn’t sound good,” he said, while McClean looked on, knowing that his use of the word ‘complain’ was clearly not in a pejorative way.

And I will just say, ‘so change it’ – put a skirt instead of some pants, or have them drink this kind of juice instead of that other kind of juice if it sounds better.

In The Sound of Things Falling, one of the characters drinks lulo juice, a Colombian drink made from the naranjilla fruit. McClean had never heard of this juice – and was pretty sure most readers of the English translation hadn’t either – so there was a period where it could have been swapped to another fruit.

“He does understand what’s going on and how everything has to change in order to make it as much the same as possible,” said McClean, who described Vásquez as “very helpful too”.

“I don’t know if I have any other authors who actually read the whole translation. Not many Spanish writers speak English as well as he does,” she said.

“It is a privilege to be able to do this, and to be able to do this in two languages,” said Vásquez. “So why not take advantage of it, as fully as you can?”

But “not all authors consider it a privilege”, countered McClean. “Many decline the [translating] – it’s taxing, it’s a lot of work.”

Vásquez, who counts James Joyce as one of the writers who made him want to write, nodded. “Yes, it is, but English is so emotionally important for me, I would hate to read my book in English and find it is not as ‘mine’ as it could be. So I get very involved in the process.”

When it comes down to it, he has his fears about translation, but doesn’t let them stand in the way of a good novel.

When we first did a book together, The Informers, my biggest fear was the same fear I had when I was a translator, which is writers who think they know your language better than you do. So I tried very hard not to be one of those men.

Read: How a childhood in dangerous Colombia inspired an award-winning novel>

Read: €100k IMPAC award goes to author of Colombian thriller>

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