A translator’s process

Over at Arabic Literature (in English), there’s a wonderful extensive interview with Marilyn Booth, who teaches at the University of Edinburgh and has been translating fiction from Arabic into English for thirty years. Marilyn Booth speaks eloquently not only on the process of translation but also on the translator’s relationship with authors and publishers. This particular answer suggests just how much work goes into a literary translation, provided one is not rushed by the publisher:

SI: What does your translation process look like?

MB: The first step, of course, is reading and re-reading and re-re-reading, and just thinking and dwelling inside the text. When you have a new text and you’re excited about it and you want to start translating it, you want to start immediately, but I try generally (not always successfully!) to resist that impulse, to spend a bit of time letting it just seep into me before I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I think that’s a really important thing to do and sometimes I’m more successful at that than at others. Of course sometimes there’s more pressure to get something done quickly, although that’s something I really resist and I do NOT – I never have and I never will – agree to do a translation where the timeline is shorter that I feel comfortable with. That does a complete disservice to the book, and to me as a writer. Just as it takes a writer an indefinite amount of time to write a book, that has to be regarded as a feature of really writerly translation. So I would never try to rush.

But once I have started actually translating, generally I like to go through the whole thing and do a rough translation, because that brings up a lot of things and raises a lot of issues. And it also means that I’m grappling in a different way with some of the things I was pondering before I started translating. So I do that, working of course very closely with the Arabic. And then do a second draft where I’m still going back and forth but I’m looking more globally in a sense. It’s not necessarily start to finish, because sometimes there is a piece in the middle that holds a key to the whole thing that I need to work with first. So I do that second draft and if time permits I try to put it away for a little while. And when I go back to it for the 3rd draft I really try to get away from the original text and try to work with the English for a while, although I still obviously go back to the Arabic quite a bit. At the end of the third draft I have what is not yet really polished in the way it has to be, but it’s a fairly good text and hopefully I’ve ironed out most of the problems.

With the fourth draft I actually go back to the Arabic and work very, very closely with it, having been away from it for a bit. And then the fifth draft – it’s usually about five drafts – is really the point where for me it almost becomes like a Sufi space in that I have to be inside it, I have to let the rest of the world recede, although one doesn’t always have the circumstances to do that. This is where, ideally, you can go to a translator’s retreat, but it’s an ideal one can’t normally have. But in the 5th draft I’m inside it, I’m trying to hear the voice, I’m again moving back and forth inside the text but trying to let that writing process happen with respect to the author’s voice on the one hand and the resonance of the Arabic but on the other hand with respect to my voice in the English and the translation, so I’m kind of doing this double thing.

That’s also when, in my experience, you start having dreams about the text – hopefully not nightmares! – and sometimes that produces surprising results. And that’s the stage I really love, but sometimes I also really hate it because you’re, like, ‘this is it’. But that, for me, is really the stage where I’m the writer, and the voice of the original work and my voice on the page are hopefully coming together, mingling, and often shouting at each other, but in general coming together. And that is also the only point where I can really appreciate what some writers mean when they say that at a certain point it just writes itself. Which of course doesn’t mean there’s no labour involved, or that there’s no tension or no frustration. But there’s a point of no return, and hopefully at the end of that point you resurface and you have this beautiful text!


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