Translation Tips & Tricks From the Experts
#language & literature
default, Translation Tips & Tricks
From the Experts, Translator at work, international climate conference in Poznań, 2008, photo: Tomasz Kamińsk / AG, center, #000000, tlumaczka_podczas_pracy_ag.jpg
Literary translator Sean Bye invites us into his process – and talks with fellow translators from Polish, including Marta Dziurosz, David French, Scotia Gilroy, Karen Kovacik, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Ursula Phillips.
People are usually surprised to hear I translate Polish literature into English. They always have lots of questions (like, ‘why Polish?’) and often start imagining what the challenges are. ‘Do you have to capture the voice and style of the author, not just the meaning?’ (Yes!) ‘What do you do when there’s a word that doesn’t translate into English?’ (It depends!) ‘How could anyone possibly translate Shakespeare?’ (Not my problem, luckily!)
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Sometimes people mention they’d like to try their own hand at translation. So I thought I’d lay out some tips and tricks from myself and my colleagues. But, as the joke goes, the answer to any question about translation is ‘it depends on the context’. So none of what I’m about to say is a rule – it’s just what’s worked for me and my colleagues.
Also, a word about definitions: translation is a huge field. But for the purposes of this article, I’ll be talking about the small piece of it that I do: translating written literary prose, both fiction and non-fiction, from Polish into English.
Finding a project
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Honoured with the Booker Prize: writer Olga Tokarczuk (at right) and translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones (at left) during a meeting at the New Horizons festival club in the courtyard of the City Arsenal in Wrocław, 2018, photo: Maciej Kulczyński / PAP
I do my work as a freelancer, for publishers in English-speaking countries and in Poland. Sometimes clients come to me with projects, especially smaller ones like samples or excerpts. But often I’m the one hunting out interesting books from Poland and pitching them to English-language publishers.
When I find a book I like, sometimes it’s tempting to dive right in. But I think it’s important to take things slow. Scotia Gilroy, whose translation of The Touch of an Angel by Henryk Schonker will be out this year, says:
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Before starting a translation, I first sit and read the text from beginning to end several times. I read it until the moment when I feel a deep resonance with it. I need to get the text fully into my bloodstream before I’m able to find a voice for it in English.
I look for that resonance too – because if I feel it, that means I’ve got a good book on my hands. It’s a strong clue that I’ve found something special. I also often talk about the book to friends and try to compare it to other books I know in Polish and in English – this helps me pin down what makes it different.
Software & hardware
Everyone has different tools and techniques for using them. I prefer a classic split-screen: PDF of the Polish text on the left, Word document with my English on the right. I usually have my electronic dictionary open, plus a web browser for research. I also have a two-volume physical Polish-English dictionary.
It’s rare for literary translators to use translation software, which is more useful for technical texts. But I know some who use transcription software (so they can type by speaking out loud) or listen to their source texts on audiobook. Reading your own translation out loud is also hugely useful – I often do this, especially when translating dialogue.
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Your work environment can also be important. For instance, I like music while I translate, but many people prefer total silence. Scotia says:
In order to protect myself from distractions and achieve the kind of intense solitude necessary for focusing on my translations, I need the quintessential Woolfian ‘room of one’s own’ – though in my case, rather than a room, it’s a balcony overflowing with vines and flowers, overlooking a wild garden bordered by the back wall of the famous building in Krakow known as Dom Literatów [The Writers’ House]. I feel the spirits of all the famous Polish writers who lived there in the past watching over me as I translate Polish literature – and that spurs me onwards.
Vocabulary & idioms
There’s a lot more to translation than putting words, one by one, into English. You want to stick as close to the original words as you can, but there are plenty of tricky ones that mean you have to get creative.
And just checking a dictionary isn’t as simple as it sounds! Karen Kovacik has translated many of Poland’s best contemporary poets, such as Krystyna Dąbrowska and Jacek Dehnel. She points out:
When looking up words in dictionaries, beginning translators often make the mistake of selecting the first or second definition. […] I’m fond of looking up even some words that I know to discern if there are shades of meaning of which I might not be aware, beyond the more obvious first or second denotations. For colloquial phrases that I don’t fully understand, I typically do internet searches so I can see how they’re employed in ordinary contexts.
Many texts have specialist vocabulary: a crime novel might talk about forensics, or nature writing might include different species of plants and animals. Standard dictionaries don’t always get specialist vocabulary right, so I try to check multiple sources. I always do a huge amount of online research.
I also am wary of anglicisms and false friends in the original. If a Polish word looks like an English word, I always look it up, because they rarely mean the same thing. For instance, rezygnować can mean to resign, but more often it means to give up on or withdraw from a task or event. Plenty of Polish words are also borrowed from English but changed their meaning – like klipsy, meaning earrings.
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And sometimes it’s the simplest words that are trickiest. David French, who translates Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels, reminded me:
‘Drugi’ should quite often be translated as ‘other’ and not ‘second’. The whole range of ‘obie’, ‘oba’, ‘obydwóch’, ‘obiema’, ‘obydwojgiem’, etc. don’t always mean ‘both’ but may well mean ‘the two of them’. ‘Drzwi’ is usually ‘a door’, rather than ‘doors’, because in Polish it’s a plural noun.
I myself have an ever-growing mental bank of possible translations for przecież – a very common Polish word used as a sort of sentence tag (‘isn’t it?’ or ‘after all,’ or even ‘come on’).
Lastly, I find idioms an absolute minefield – because, as a non-native speaker, I don’t always know a given Polish phrase is an idiom! It would be easy to mistranslate machnąć ręką as ‘to wave one’s hand’ – but it means to dismiss something or let it slide. A recent epic mistranslation I heard was ‘sorry from the mountain’ – for przepraszam z góry (‘I apologize in advance’)!
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Grammar & syntax
I am a complete and utter nerd about grammar. I try to remember that not only can Polish do some things English can’t, English can do some things that Polish can’t. So I try to look for opportunities to use English to its full potential.
But Polish and English grammar are very different, and there are no hard-and-fast conversion rules between the two languages – for instance, the Polish perfective and imperfective are used very differently from the English perfect and imperfect. I find it often helps to step back and look at the full sentence. I make sure I understand all the information contained in the Polish, then ask myself how would I convey all that in English? This keeps me from getting stuck in the Polish structures while also grounding me in the full range of English grammar.
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I find I spend a lot of time on word order – Polish word order is very flexible, and writers often use word order to parcel out information in a deliberate way. English word order is much more rigid, making changes nearly always necessary. Karen says this affects how she translates poetry:
Because Polish syntax is more pliable than English because of our stricter subject-verb order, creating tonally appropriate rhymes often means altering the sentence structure, disentangling the twists and turns of the original.
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Ursula Phillips and Adam Żuławski, view from the exhibition of illustrations by Magdalena Burdzyńska 'Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi' at the Clapham Library, London, September 28, 2019, photo: Marcin Libera
Ursula Phillips has translated classic authors like Zofia Nałkowska and is now working on Jacek Dukaj’s historical sci-fi epic Ice. She says that in her view:
Whilst it is important to convey the atmosphere and tone of the original, it is equally important to expunge the complexities of Polish syntax in favour of cadences that naturally suit English (yes, I put the reader first). Sentences have to be well-modulated and rhythmic as well as stylistically appropriate and varied.
Jennifer Croft is best known for her International Booker-winning translation of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. She has put her nuanced understanding of Polish syntax right at the heart of her translation practice. She cited the German translator Susan Bernofsky’s words about syntax in the anthology In Translation:
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Every sentence is a journey that begins with a particular phrase or image and takes the reader somewhere. So what does the itinerary of a particular sentence look like, and where does it lead?
Jennifer says: ‘I love this way of thinking about sentences and focusing on the final word or words: the reader's destination.’
Style, register & voice
Style, register and voice – the ‘atmosphere’ of a text – are crucial and probably the hardest part of the job. Scotia says:
I sometimes feel like a tight-rope walker as I attempt to tighten a text into a form that’s palatable for the rationally-minded Anglo-Saxon reader while simultaneously remaining faithful to various Polish stylistic idiosyncrasies.
Ursula emphasizes the importance of tuning one’s ear:
I find it helpful to continually immerse myself in English-language novels from, or historical novels about the period in question. […] I am always looking out for words, synonyms or alternatives that strongly convey a flavour of milieu and period.
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Marta Dziurosz, translator, photo: courtesy of the subject
Some grammatical features in Polish have to be conveyed through stylistics in English. Marta Dziurosz is currently translating Marcin Wicha’s Things I Haven’t Thrown Out. She told me about the challenges of translating Polish’s many diminutive endings, which convey smallness and cuteness:
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The suffixes in Polish diminutives can be so expressive and meaningful, so initially I was a bit stumped. I've collected some ‘-ettes’, ‘-lings’, used phrases like ‘a wisp of’, [or] created some tiny-sounding neologisms […] to find words suggesting the tenderness that diminutives evoke.
When it comes to character voice, it’s important to keep in mind that the way someone speaks often conveys information about social background, level of education, culture, ethnicity, and so on. These often operate a differently in English than they do in Polish. I find it helpful to imagine a concrete person who fits a similar social profile – ideally someone I know, but maybe a public figure or a character from a movie or TV show –and ‘tune’ my translation to how that person talks.
Some aspects of style, like slang or regionalisms, are very difficult to translate because their social context is so specific. But English has the benefit of being a hugely diverse language: Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose many translations include Olga Tokarczuk, Zygmunt Miłoszewski and Witold Szabłowski, says it’s important to ‘be open to all manner of Englishes, across time and space.’
Some closing words of wisdom
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The summer house of the translator Zbigniew Batko, Anielin, photo: Tomasz Stańczak / AG
You might be wondering if you can translate. Maybe you think of translators as eminent scholars eternally hunched over a desk, or jet-setting citizens of the world conversant in a dozen different languages, and worry that that isn’t you.
The truth is that translators can come from all kinds of backgrounds, and you don’t need to have studied a language formally to translate from it. Plenty of successful translators are non-native speakers of English, or work from a language they grew up with or learned informally. Some monolingual speakers might even pair up with a native speaker of the source language and translate as a team.
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And it’s important to keep working on your English too – even if it’s your native language! Antonia notes the importance of ‘reading lots of very good books written or translated into your own language.’ But it doesn’t have to be all serious stuff. Antonia says: ‘Do word puzzles, especially cryptic crosswords, and explore comedy word play such as Ronnie Barker’s sketches or Roger’s Profanisaurus.’
One thing that’s crucial though, is to take the time to be thorough. One of the strangest things about translation is that no one checks your work: no one will ever take my translation and go line-by-line, word-by-word and make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. That means I’m the only one who can hold myself accountable, so it’s crucial I do my due diligence. I often look up words I know – or think I know – just to be sure. If there’s subject matter in the text I don’t know, I research it to make sure I understand. I ask experts, if I know them. I track down quotes and literary references to make sure I’m translating them properly. I ask the author if I’m not sure about anything (they’ve always been happy to help). I check and double-check and triple-check. I revise, revise, and revise again. This is really time-consuming, but it’s all an essential part of the job.
So I hope that gives you some idea of the behind-the-scenes work of a translator. It’s a fun, challenging and necessary job – and I hope my perspective gives you some inspiration.
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Sean Gasper Bye’s latest translations from Polish are Ellis Island: A People’s History by Małgorzata Szejnert and The King of Warsaw by Szczepan Twardoch. Marta Dziurosz’s translation of Marcin Wicha’s Things I Haven’t Thrown Out is forthcoming from Daunt Books. David French has translated six books from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series, as well as film screenplays and subtitles. Scotia Gilroy’s forthcoming translations include The Touch of an Angel by Henryk Schonker (Indiana University Press) and Dr Bianco and Other Stories by Maciek Bielawski (Terra Librorum). Karen Kovacik is a poet and translator, as well as editor of Scattering the Dark: An Anthology of Polish Women Poets. Antonia Lloyd-Jones has translated many of Poland’s leading novelists, journalists and poets, with recent titles including How To Feed a Dictator by Witold Szabłowski, Mrs Mohr Goes Missing by Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk. Ursula Phillips’s translation of Jacek Dukaj’s Ice is forthcoming from Head of Zeus.
english translations of polish literature
Written by Sean Gasper Bye, Sep 2020