There seems to be a commonly held belief (among translators, publishers, and readers alike) that the more books you translate, the faster you become.
Yes, I really was once asked this question! A Freudian slip that reveals how translation is sometimes seen as “typing in another language.”
I was prompted to pen this article in favor of “slow” translation after eavesdropping on a conversation between two veteran translators anxious about the fact that they felt they were “too slow”—as if that were a bad thing. There seems to be a commonly held belief (among translators, publishers, and readers alike) that the more books you translate, the faster you become. The opposite is true for me, because with experience I’ve become more alert to subtleties and complexities of which I was blithely unaware in my early days.
“Speed” is rarely discussed openly among translators, and I realized I had no idea what others consider a reasonable daily output or how they assess the amount of time a translation will take when negotiating a contract. For myself, I’ve developed a crude rule of thumb for a fairly challenging book (fiction or nonfiction), which is an average of 800 to 1,000 words a day. While I might be able to draft 2,000 to 3,000 words a day once I’m in my stride, when I take into account the multiple drafts, going through the copy editor’s suggestions, and then checking the proofs, it seems to work out at roughly 1,000 words a day. So, for a 70,000-word novel, I would estimate 70 days of work (i.e., 14 weeks, if I were working exclusively on that book). But since, like all translators, I usually juggle various projects and activities, I then double that figure, which comes to 28 weeks, so I would ask for at least six months to complete the translation. My ideal time is nine months, partly because it’s such a symbolic figure.
I decided to ask a number of award-winning literary translators whether they had a comparable formula and whether they felt that they had become faster with experience. Here is what they said.
Like all the colleagues I spoke to, Anthea Bell, OBE*, a translator from French and German with decades of experience and scores of titles to her name, doesn’t feel that her speed has increased.
“No, I don’t go any faster than I used to. I do think that I probably get a first draft out a little faster than when I was working on a typewriter. That is partly just technical, partly because with time one does become more used to doing what I can describe only as thinking in two languages at once. As I’ve said before (and translation is incredibly difficult to describe without a metaphor), it’s as if the mind hesitates briefly between the language of the original and the native language of the translator, in a place where neither language exists, but ultimately tries to come down on the side of the language of translation. And that aspect doesn’t change. But I find myself, if anything, even less inclined to think that the result of the first draft is the best. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I have to go back over it all and weigh up alternative phrasings.
I would certainly go along, in general terms, with your calculations. Yes, we do juggle several things at once. The easy parts are the rough draft at the start and the final read-through at the very end, when I read for English only, returning to the original only if what I’ve said strikes me as odd and in need of second thoughts. The hard work comes in between: revising, revising again, coping with copy editors’ queries, and then proofreaders’ queries. Yes, it’s all time-consuming, but I think it should be. We all know that it’s never just a question of substituting word-for-word between languages.”
Interestingly, Anthea has recently changed from her usual method of doing a full quick first draft of a book to revising each chapter or major section of the translation immediately to assist the publisher.
“I still need to do further revisions, and finally one of the whole translated book, but in case a publisher needs something in advance, I can then provide it. Although I point out that I may have to alter things in view of what follows.”
“I usually produce my first drafts fairly quickly, but it’s the revision that really takes the time. I read and reread and reread, keeping the trickier parts bubbling away in the back of my mind and waiting for inspiration to strike. That means that my translations aren’t actually ‘finished’ until near the deadline. That revision time is essential. It’s something that I need to take slowly, and I think I’ve taken more time over that element of the translation process with each book I’ve translated.
You want to create a great text that the reader will enjoy, so it’s always a good idea to make space to put a good draft aside for a while and then come back to it with fresh eyes to make sure it’s doing what you want it to.
I also take on other projects. As much as you may love a book, you don’t usually want to be cloistered away with its characters all day long, so I wouldn’t ideally choose to work on a single project for more than about three hours a day. You need time to think and time just to rest. An average of 800 to 1,000 words a day sounds reasonable to me. I’ve also heard the recommendation that a maximum of 2,000 words a day is advisable, but of course it all depends on the text. I generally tend to request a year for book projects, which feels comfortable. It’s not too intimidating and it’s short enough to keep things fresh.”
Laura wonders whether the language combination makes any difference to speed.
“I’ve sometimes heard people suggest that certain language combinations are ‘easy’ and therefore make for faster translations. I don’t think I buy the idea of ‘easy’ combinations, though, particularly as I believe the bulk of the process lies in creating and polishing the target-language text.”
“I’ve no evidence for this since I only translate from Chinese, but I think that languages that are very different from English are harder to translate because you have to do more mental gymnastics to get an acceptable English version. Not even the simplest sentence can be translated ‘literally’ (yes, I know that word opens another can of worms!). Plus the fact that you’re reading characters makes even the reading process slower. There is nothing particularly scientific in my observations, but in my experience it’s mentally and physically (e.g., eye strain) more tiring.”
Nicky also has a formula for assessing the time needed.
“First, I estimate 2,000 (English) words (i.e., not Chinese characters) a day for the first draft (but believe me, they are very rough!). Then I estimate 4,000 words a day for the second draft. Then I add the same again for a third draft, and a few more weeks for further revisions/polishing, etc. I also calculate in a month or two for holidays and sickness, then another month because I’m fitting in other work. I sometimes add a month for luck. Then I compare that total to how I did on a previous book of similar length and see if it seems realistic. I have a dread of being late, or being under pressure at the last minute, because I like to leave a text to settle in my head and read it again with fresh eyes. Actually, I would say that my final calculations are pretty much like Ros’ estimates—six to ten months for a 70,000-word book (that would be about 105,000 Chinese characters).
Amazon Crossing has a bizarrely tight optimum turnaround (around two-three months for a book). What’s the point of putting that kind of pressure on people? Having said that, I negotiated 11 months for my current novel with them, though I’ll probably only need ten.”
“I think that in the first few years after I became a freelance literary translator (fairly recently), the more books I translated, the faster I got. I was rather pleased with my newfound speed because it meant I could actually make a living doing exclusively literary translation, taking on several books at a time. But inevitably—whether from age, burnout, or just regular old fatigue—I did eventually find I couldn’t keep up the pace anymore. My impression is that I’ve slowed down over the past two years.
Speed, for me, depends on the difficulty and style of the book. I did a difficult book this spring where I was pleased if I got five pages a day done, probably just over 1,000 words for that text. Most books I do about ten pages a day, sometimes close to 3,000 words. But that’s not counting the second and third draft, which is where I iron out all the kinks that may well have been induced by speed in the first draft. When I negotiate the contract I generally count eight to ten pages a day (once I know it’s of average difficulty) and then add on several weeks at the end for revision, plus weekends. The publisher is usually fine with this. I did once do a book where I had to churn out 5,000 words a day: never again. I got paid time and a half, as it were, but the long-term impact on my health and sanity weren’t worth it! And the quality must have suffered, although in this case the editor was going to ‘rewrite’ it.
Like most things in life, moderation is key. Finding the right speed to suit each individual text may be a luxury we don’t always have, but ideally it would make for the most careful, finely crafted work.”
Margaret Jull Costa
“I’m not sure if I’m slower so much as ever more pernickety and neurotic. I keep going through translations again and again, and this seems to get more obsessive the older I get. When I started out, I would do four drafts, maximum (then, of course, read through it again at proof stage). Now I tend to do nine to ten drafts, and then the proofs on top of that. It’s probably just that I’m more aware now of how easy it is to miss infelicities, and I’m a better editor of my own work. Or maybe I’m just neurotic.”
“I was never the quickest of workers, but now I seem to have so many elements to weigh in my mind. I probably feel less confident in my choices than I did at an earlier stage of my career and make even slower headway. Plus, once one has a reputation of sorts to live up to or lose, the fear factor is always lurking there as a further inhibitor of carefree productivity.
I’ve never got as far as establishing a rule of thumb, partly because each project seems to present new and unforeseen problems and my calculations then go out the window. I very often have a backlog and cannot start immediately, and that puts me under pressure not to ask for a comfortable amount of time to do the job, as I’m afraid of losing it (and I do lose some). I would always prefer to have six months, but occasionally have to settle for four. Of course, length and difficulty of books vary wildly. I very comfortably did a children’s book in a couple of months last year. I agree with Ros’ practice of taking 1,000 words a day as a rule of thumb and then doubling the number of days you have estimated. This sounds a lot nearer to what I can achieve than figures I’ve heard from some other translators.
In my 12 years as an editor for the Swedish Book Review, I at least had a reasonable chunk of regular income I could rely on, even if the job monopolized masses of my time. But now that I’m back to relying primarily on translation income I feel under even more pressure to say yes to things, so I’m battling to remind myself that rushed jobs produce poor results and I’ll have to reconcile myself to losing a proportion of the books I’m offered because I can’t agree to unrealistic deadlines.
Among the book-length jobs, I’m also taking on a lot more short samples, which have their pros and cons. They are almost always required pretty quickly, but I still don’t want to compromise on quality.
In recent years, in part with the rise of literary agents in the Nordic countries, a good deal more work and aggravation has been added to the approval and copy editing stage, with authors becoming much more inclined to claim a good knowledge of English and to want a finger in the pie. This can all take an excessive amount of time, often eating into the allocation I’ve made for the subsequent project. It also increasingly takes some of the pleasure out of the job, as well as undermining one’s own confidence and turning translators into (unwilling) warriors battling to uphold the standards of the English language.”
“The first book I translated was important, and I was new to it so I took my time. I worked on Irène Némirovsky’s Suite française (about 425 pages) for about three or four hours a day (I was still teaching at a university ten hours a week) and took about nine months to complete it. The next 11 novels by the same author went much faster, but only because it was the same author and most of the other novels were not as difficult as Suite française. I’m not sure if I would have become faster had I not been used to Némirovsky’s style.
I don’t think experience is the most important factor. I think it’s the inherent difficulty of the work being translated. Is it subtle, does it have plays on words, slang, long descriptive passages, etc.? As a general rule, I aim to translate 20 pages a week, which means four pages a day with weekends off. (This may not sound like a lot, but I also still teach part-time and have a life!) So, a 200-page book should take me about three months, but then I add at least four weeks for re-editing. But then other things come up so I always try to negotiate extra time. My 20-page a week formula also gives me leeway if I need to work over the weekend. With rare exceptions, I’ve never had less than a six-month contract, and most are nine months. Moreover, it’s always so much better to submit early and be a hero than have to ask for extra time.”
Sandra emphasizes the usefulness of doing a sample translation: “I always insist on doing one (for contract reasons), and I can then judge how difficult the text is and add time if needed. I would also stress that it’s important to make it clear to the publisher that the timing starts from the date you receive the signature fee. Many publishers will get the contract to you fast and put the due date in—especially if they’re in a hurry—but you could wait months for the signature fee. However, if I’ve worked with a particular publisher before and know they are trustworthy, I always start as soon as I can, whether I received the fee or not. But you really have to know and trust them.”
“I’m constantly in the position of trying to dissuade publishers from trying to rush things. There was one American publisher who seemed to consider it entirely normal to be spending almost a year over the negotiation of the various contracts involved, and then he wanted the translation done in less time than they had spent over the negotiations.
I’m still unable to assess reliably how easy, or difficult, a project will be. I once agreed to translate Pushkin’s unfinished novel Dubrovsky. At the last moment the publisher suggested that we also include a separate fragment, ‘just ten pages,’ called The Egyptian Nights. I agreed, only realizing the next day that half of this was in verse, which, for reasons to do with the plot, absolutely had to be translated into strict metre and rhyme. The verse was mostly at the end of the piece, but I decided to translate it first. I didn’t want to waste my time translating the prose and then find that I was unable to cope with the verse and would have to abandon the piece.
To my astonishment, I translated the 70 to 80 lines of verse in only a few hours, and barely needed to revise at all. I was then equally astonished to find myself struggling with enormous difficulty through what I had imagined to be relatively straightforward prose. With the verse, everything had been clear-cut. A passage either worked or it didn’t; either the key turned in the lock, or it didn’t. If it did turn, that was that—there was no need to fiddle around further. With the prose, the number of possible translations of even the shortest sentence seemed almost infinite, and I found it very hard indeed to decide which I preferred. There were countless subtle ironies and shifts of tone, and I had the constant feeling that my English version was, in comparison, flat-footed or heavy-handed.”
“To my financial detriment no doubt, I rarely pay attention to speed at all. I’m a perfectionist after my fashion and concerned solely with doing the best job I can. Time constraints enter the picture only when a deadline I can’t overshoot serves as a sword of Damocles. I’ve never had the nerve to calculate my ‘speed’ by any method. It’s strange: I must work a good deal, but I’m always astonished when I finish, especially if I meet a deadline. And once the job is done I simply can’t remember the doing of it. I suppose this reflects my degree of absorption, and I guess that’s a good thing?
The last word on the subject in view of our general situation as translators in the-world-as-it-is must surely be: bad pay = fast work = rotten translations! But À bas le travail bâclée! (No to botched work!).”
Sarah, a translator from French, finds that when she hankers after a change of tempo, co-translating can greatly energize the translation process and accelerate the pace, but the proof stage still proves unavoidably time-consuming.
“Try as I might, the older I get, the less I hold out hopes of finding a way of short-circuiting this final and excruciating aspect of the translation process. Each time it feels like pulling teeth in ever-slower motion; and each time, the stabs of raw, un-anaesthetized pain are keener. Am I succumbing to all my worst obsessive compulsive tendencies and derangements, as I fail to see the wood for the trees? I mean, would any sane reader really notice the improvement afforded by that tweak? Or am I a craftsperson diligently holding the hand of my translation as I walk it to the finishing line? And would anything less be a dereliction of duty?
I live in the hope that one day I will be able to abide by the rule that Mairi Kidd, managing director of Barrington Stoke publishers, recently shared with me. It’s one that she wheels out at the final proof stage when she senses there are only so many ways a hair can be split: ‘Apocalyptic errors only!’”
“Every experience I’ve had of translation, as a reader, editor, and author, leads me to write here in praise of slowness. When I acquire a translation, I implore my colleagues in charge of scheduling to be more flexible than is the case with English-language books. First, translation itself should not be rushed. If it takes as long to translate a book as it takes to write one, so be it. I go out of my way to protect a translator from the pressures of the publishing schedule. If we have to move the book forward a few months, or into the next season, so be it. Our priorities should be literary, not commercial.
I believe in a discursive edit, especially when the conversation is triangular between an author, a translator, and an editor. If we have to go back again and again, so be it. An equality of voices, and an insistence on the quality rather than the speed of the conversation, should be the priority. If this sounds like wishful thinking borne of a luxuriously sympathetic publishing environment, then it probably is. I imagine my peers publishing bestselling crime novels to a vast and ravenous readership might roll their eyes at this pro-choice slowness.
As an author, I’ve been startled by the range of experiences in different languages. As an editor, I find it alarming when a translator asks no questions of an author. As an author, I find it frankly terrifying. Especially with a book filled with nonsense poetry, puns, literary homage, and carefully concealed allusions. I’ve fallen in love with my French translator, Charles Recoursé, who unpicked the language of my book word by word, etymologically. Back and forth we went countless times (Does it mean this? Does it mean that? May I explain a certain liberty I’m taking here that I think will make something right, something different but true?). The result is a book that I’m certain sings the same tunes as my book does in English. It wasn’t just that he asked many questions, it was that his questions were intuitive and generous. It wasn’t that he was slow, it was that he wasn’t in a rush. The distinction seems vital.”
* OBE stands for Order of the British Empire.
Ros Schwartz is an award-winning literary translator, a Fellow of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, and an active member of the Translators Association of the Society of Authors. Since 1979, she has translated over 80 works of fiction and nonfiction from French, including a new translation of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The founder and co-director of the literary translation summer school at City University in London, she frequently leads workshops, is a regular speaker on the international circuit, and publishes articles on translation issues. In 2009, she was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her services to literature. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Ros Schwartz. This article was first published in the summer 2016 issue of In Other Words, the journal of the U.K. Translators Association and Writers Centre Norwich. Reprinted by kind permission.