In a sparkling presentation, the distinguished literary translator Edith Grossman shared her insights at CAT’s “Lit & Lunch” series in San Francisco.


In her introduction, Olivia Sears, president of the Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), told us that Ms. Grossman had not set out to become a literary translator; her dreams were more along the lines of “a sculptor, or (the blues singer) Bessie Smith.” But in recent years she has been aptly referred to as the “Glenn Gould of translation”—a reference to the famed Canadian virtuoso pianist. Earlier this year she was invited to give a series of lectures at Yale on the art, entitled, “Why Translation Matters.” A longtime resident of New York, Ms. Grossman told us she had been a student at Berkeley and was glad to be back in the Bay Area, although she missed her 24-hour jazz station.

The first part of the literary lunch was devoted to readings from books Edith Grossman has recently translated. The first, from Manuscript of Ashes, was by Spanish author Alberto Muñoz Molina, to be published by Harcourt this summer. Very evocative and atmospheric, set in part during the Spanish Civil War, it was a perfect introduction to Ms. Grossman’s skill as a translator. She then read a more humorous excerpt from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl, published recently by Farrar Straus and Giroux, and this in turn showed her wonderful versatility and ability to take on different styles.


For translators, perhaps the most enthralling part of the presentation was the Q&A. Ms. Grossman displayed a wry, self-deprecating humor as she elaborated on a number of issues familiar to literary translators. Asked first about her relationship with publishers—and the certain clout which she can command as the translator of Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes, to name but a few—she pointed to the Vargas Llosa book and said that the publishers had agreed to display her name in large type and provide a short bio on the back flap. But when the book was published, her name was “too small, and there was no bio. The publishers apologized deeply,” she sighed, mock-wistfully. Does she have a lawyer for the negotiation of contracts? At the beginning of her translating career she had “made the mistake of swimming in shark-infested waters” and quickly learned her lesson: she now has an attorney to guide her through the “make-believe language” of publishers’ contracts.

Could she recommend a particular title to help novice translators in their career? “Guide for the Perplexed?” she quipped, and went on to elaborate that she is not an adherent of translation theory, nor does she feel that any one book can provide the guidelines better offered by the “school of servitude.” By servitude she means constant revision and editing, reading out loud, checking for accuracy—and then more revision. And, if at all possible, a cooling-off period for the manuscript to settle, before more revision.

Authors and poets

How does she pick her titles? She does not pick, but is contacted by publishers directly. In earlier years she tried recommending authors she had discovered and loved, but this, she lamented, seems to be the “kiss of death.” Now she never mentions an author to her publishers if she hopes to see him or her in English some day.

On the subject of collaboration with authors, Ms. Grossman said she finds them to be extraordinarily generous. She does not contact them until the final revision, to iron out the “ten or fifteen knotty places” remaining in the manuscript. Had it not been problematic then, translating Cervantes, since she could not question him? She laughed and said she once told García Márquez that it is easier translating Cervantes than a living author, because there is such a wealth of academic and scholarly work to refer to. But regardless of the “bodily state of the author,” she feels a huge responsibility to the writer to get it right; it is less an issue of translating actual words than of translating the author’s intention.

She does not believe you can be taught to be a translator, any more than you can learn to be a poet. The craft can be taught, she said, echoing Gregory Rabassa’s words, but to become a translator or a poet you either “have the impulse or you don’t.” Asked if she misses the sound of the language when working into English, she insisted on the necessity of putting the Spanish to one side after the second draft, to work solely on the English text; only when doing a final accuracy check does she return to the Spanish. She believes in maintaining the foreignness of proper names and place names, but does not subscribe to the position that a translation should “feel” foreign. “It should read like a domestic text” and provide the English-language reader with the same impact experienced by the Spanish language reader. If the text is in any way strange or eccentric, she tries to convey that oddness, too—but it must always read as smoothly as if it had been conceived in English.


“The author and the translator are saying the same thing in two different languages,” Ms. Grossman explained. While she hears the Spanish in her mind, it comes out in English. “It’s a mistake to think you can match words.” She illustrated her point by describing a cartoon she once saw in The New Yorker: a translator sitting across from the irate author says, “Do you not be happy of me as the translator of books of you?”

In Edith Grossman’s case, there is no counting how many happy authors— and readers—she has shared her talents with.



By Steve Goldstein

members in the news

Children of Magic Moon, Volume Two of the Magic Moon trilogy being translated by Stafford Hemmer and Barbara Guggemos, was published on October 9th. Congratulations are in order for this dynamic translating duo!


Untranslatable Words:
What’s in a Title?

By Jeannette Ringold

During the February 14, 2006 NPR broadcast of “All Things Considered,” host Michele Norris interviewed the Dutch novelist Artur Japin about his latest book Een Schitterend Gebrek, which had just been translated into English as In Lucia’s Eyes. In an otherwise interesting interview that explored the difficulties of translating the title, no mention was made of the translator. We try here to fill in some of the holes.

Artur Japin found the story as a brief anecdote in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova. It mentions Casanova’s first love, Lucia, who disappeared without warning. Mr. Japin became fascinated by the elusive Lucia, and in his novel he imagines what may have happened. Young Casanova was very hurt and wondered why he was abandoned. It turns out that Lucia was horribly disfigured by smallpox, resolved that she did not want Casanova’s pity, and decided to flee. In the novel Casanova finds her again many years later when she is a successful prostitute in Amsterdam. She always wears a veil which makes her mysterious and attractive to her customers and also hides her disfigured face.

Why the English title, In Lucia’s Eyes? Although the NPR interview made no pretense to be primarily about linguistic matters, it was nonetheless disappointing that neither the interviewer nor the author mentioned the translator, or otherwise asked how this book was “magically” transformed from Dutch into English. This is doubly regrettable since Mr. Japin was fortunate to have David Colmer, an excellent Dutch-English translator who is an author in his own right, do the translation. David Colmer’s preference for the title was A Great Imperfection.

The following excerpt from the dialogue between Ms. Norris and the author points out some problems in finding a good title in another language and culture:

Norris: I understand that the translation was particularly challenging because there is a Dutch word for deformity.*

Japin: Yes.

Norris: That lends a certain weight and surprise to Lucia’s character, but I understood there is no equivalent for that.

Japin: No, we couldn’t find, it mainly has to do with the title. I would have wanted it to be in the title.

Norris: What was the Dutch title?

Japin: Oh well … it sounds horrible. In Dutch it is Schitterend gebrek, which is like “a beautiful defect,” almost.

To illustrate the difficulty of translating this title, it is instructive to look at the various meanings of the noun “gebrek.” The standard Van Dale dictionary gives five different meanings of the word, including lack, want, shortage; hardship, deprivation; ailment, infirmity; and shortcoming, weakness.

The adjective “schitterend: brilliant, splendid, magnificent” is more straightforward, and “great” is an excellent translation.

In an email to me, David Colmer detailed some of the problems he encountered in finding a suitable title for the book. His experience is not unusual, as finding a title for a book can often be an excruciating experience. One difficulty was that numerous people were involved. In promotional material the book was first called A Splendid Flaw. The translator thought that was terrible, and fortunately everyone else thought so too. His suggestion of A Great Imperfection is what the section of the book called “Een schitterend gebrek” is still called in the translation. But the publishers rejected that for the title. David Colmer then offered “suggestion after suggestion” until they finally liked one: In Lucia’s Eyes. He regrets not keeping his list of suggestions!

My own experience in translating the Dutch novel Twee koffers vol by Carl Friedman is somewhat parallel to David Colmer’s. “Twee koffers vol” translates literally as “Two suitcases full”—too much like “two bags full” from the children’s rhyme. And the word “suitcase” is not appealing in a title. The suitcases in the novel were filled with precious belongings and were hidden from the Nazis during World War II, and one of the main characters is trying to find them again after the war. That’s why I felt that the title of the movie that was made of the book—Left Luggage—was also inappropriate, since luggage suggests travel. The author and the publisher agreed with me, and we all started compiling lists of titles; a few memorable ones were First Love and Einstein and Moles in the Violin. In the end it was the author who came up with the suggestion that pleased everyone, The Shovel and the Loom, where the shovel represents digging for the past and the loom represents the attempt to cover the past and go on with life.

Obviously, there are other considerations besides linguistic ones when seeking the appropriate title for a book. Publishers are concerned with titles that will sell, living authors have their preferences, editors have their concerns, and the translator has his or her own ideas and is often asked to translate and evaluate the various possibilities. At least there’s that!

* Editor’s note: In the original transcript, the word “no” was not included in this sentence. The author believes this to be in error.


Re-translating the Classics in Hebrew

New lessons in literature

By Merav Rozenblum

The Hebrew-language book market may be small in Israel, but it is extremely passionate. Consider that among a population of some seven million people, only about 100,000—after subtracting Arabic and Russian speakers, children, ultra orthodox Jews, and others who simply don’t read—are potential book buyers. Still, these are avid readers who need translators to quench their literary thirst.

In a country where half of all books published are translations, a typical publication run numbers about 1,500. Selling 4,000 copies of a book makes it a bestseller. Into this rather concentrated market, put a translator with the ability to work from an exotic language such as Japanese or Portuguese, or with the opportunity to translate an important novel such as the Harry Potter series or Life of Pi (by NCTA’s own Ofer Shorr), and the result is an environment in which Hebrew translators may receive recognition (if not some modest monetary rewards) that is virtually unheard of here in the States. This is especially true with regard to the current trend of re-translating much of the classic literature of the 20th century.

New perspectives

Why the re-translations? Efrat Lev, a Foreign Rights Director with The Deborah Harris Literary Agency in Jerusalem, explains that some world classics are taught in schools and there’s a real need to update the language. Modern Hebrew, after all—now about 140 years old—has developed rapidly in the past 40 years, and a 17-year-old girl today will not be attracted to a 1958 Hebrew translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. (The new translation of this Russian masterpiece became a bestseller within weeks of its publication.)

Several high-profile books have been retranslated recently in Israel, among them Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens. This book was re-translated by a well-known journalist, Irit Linor, an author in her own right, and a TV and radio personality well known for her acerbic wit. Whether it was because of her celebrity status that her name is featured prominently on the cover is open to speculation (Ms. Lev thinks it is something of a PR stunt), but the fact remains that that the translator has assumed a new prominence in this evolving author-translator-publisher relationship.

Language to the fore

In addition to Nicholas Nickleby, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh has also seen a recent re-translation (supporters of the new translation say children can understand it more easily; opponents argue the language has been dumbed down), and other classics are also receiving fresh interpretations. Gili Bar-Hillel, who gained her reputation primarily as the translator of the Harry Potter series, is working these days on a new translation of The Wizard of Oz, of which she is a long-time fan.

For Huckleberry Finn, Yaniv Farkash deliberately did not use previous translations as a reference. “The point of departure was just so different,” said Mr. Farkash. “The previous translations focused on the story; in one of them, the translator, a famous author of children’s books, even decided to omit the murder scene, thinking it wasn’t appropriate for children. I wanted to convey the text as in the original language, with all its linguistic richness.”

Most of the translators of the great Western masterpieces first published in modern Hebrew in the 50s, 60s, and 70s were poets and writers, who felt it was their duty to teach the new language to readers through their work. These translations are therefore highly poetic, using a register that might sound stilted and unnatural to many of today’s native speakers.

Mr. Farkash is very much aware of his advantage as a young native-Hebrew speaker living in 21st century Israel. It has been only in the last couple of decades that the use of slang, as well as informal and colloquial language, has been legitimized in original Hebrew literature, and even more so in local Hebrew newspapers and media.

As if to underscore this point, one of last fall’s bestsellers in Israel was a 10,000-word dictionary of Israeli slang, which not only reflects the influx of foreign words into modern Hebrew, but also illustrates the ancient language’s challenge in adapting to modern times.

New words, new ideas

The Academy for the Hebrew Language (the Israeli equivalent of the Académie Française), which generally tries to inhibit the importation and use of foreign words, often tries to invent Hebrew alternatives to these imports. In this forum, the nation’s most respected linguists offer their creations, which are then debated (often vigorously) and voted upon. A list of new words is published several times a year, and while state radio and TV are asked to use them, the requests are not binding—and often not heeded.

“Every word has its fate,” explained Avraham Tal, deputy director of the Academy, admitting that the Academy does not have a stellar record of getting its creations into the modern vernacular.

The greatest challenge in the new translation of Huckleberry Finn was in fact the treatment of language. Mr. Farkash worked closely with his editor, a privilege that only translators working with the more serious publishing houses get. They wanted the Hebrew text to be fluid, dynamic, and fun, just like the original English. Mr. Farkash used his intuition and tried to differentiate between the various voices that Twain employs. The glowing reviews that the book received attest to his success.

Literary translator as celebrity? Welcome to Israel, where this idea is not necessarily a contradiction in terms

Note: Some material sourced from the article “Hebrew Slang Pushes Aside Older Words,” by Karin Laub, Associated Press.


Crossing Cultures and Borders:
At the Banff International Literary Translation Centre

By Ofer Shorr

The primary focus of Canada’s BILTC is “to afford literary translators a period of uninterrupted work within an international community of translators.” Sound too good to be true? It’s not, as Ofer Shorr found out this past summer.

“A deepening of literary translation work.”

I arrived at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Canada, on a cold and rainy June evening. Little did I know that the next day would be the beginning of the most thrilling three weeks of my professional career.

The Banff Centre for the Arts is a sprawling complex of art galleries, performance halls, and rehearsal rooms situated on a mountainside above the city of Banff in the breathtaking Canadian Rockies. Dedicated to furthering the various arts in Canada, the Centre offers stipends for artists in a wide variety of disciplines, including music, visual arts, dance, writing, and, yes, translation. During an artist’s visit – for which all expenses are paid – he or she is free to structure his own time, with free access to the Centre’s many facilities.

At the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, translators may request a joint residency with a writer, allowing the translator to consult and deepen his or her knowledge of the writer’s intentions and the context of the work being translated.

What this – forgive me – translates into, is three weeks of detachment from the problems and interruptions of the outside world, allowing for a true deepening of the literary translation work.

The Literary Translation Centre gathers translators from around the world, the only condition being that their project be focused on a Canadian writer. Our group consisted of about 20 translators from many countries, including Mexico, Holland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Israel (yours truly). All in all, we were working on about 15 books.

My project was Yann Martel’s The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, which I was translating into Hebrew (I also translated his better-known recent novel, Life of Pi). I was lucky enough to have not only my Bulgarian and German colleagues working with me on the book, but also Yann Martel himself on hand.

After the tiredness passed and we got to know each other, our individual projects began in earnest. What an amazing experience! Free from the constraints of day jobs, family, and children, we were able to concentrate solely on the work at hand. Working with the other translators was absolutely thrilling – even though we usually didn’t speak each other’s language. Manfred, Magdalena, and I spent long hours honing solutions to various translation problems, such as place names, abbreviations, and colloquial language.

Working with Yann was an experience in itself. He is such a brilliant and fascinating man, and did a lot to help me understand the intricate details of his writing. In one story, for example, he gives some specific details about Canadian History. As we discussed the appropriate tone of the excerpts, it became obvious to me that they were not randomly chosen, but each expressed an overarching emotion which was echoed by what was happening at the time to the protagonist. I thus had to find a way to achieve the proper tone, balancing the documentary style of the text with the emotional burden it needed to shoulder.

As time passed, I came to an understanding, indeed a revelation, as to why translators are, in general, such a nice and unassuming bunch: always working against a text which is not yours is a humbling experience; it maps out your limits for you, reminds you that there is always someone else out there besides yourself, and so your ego cannot soar to the heavens, as very often happens to writers, for good and bad.

As three weeks drew to a close, it seems as if I could have stayed there forever. I met some amazing people and had great experiences, which I will never forget.

Translators have until December 1st, 2005 to apply for BILTC’s 2006 residency program. For more information, visit


Finding that “je ne sais quoi”:
The French Literary Translation Workshop

By Olivia E. Sears

As part of an ongoing series of literary translation workshops, NCTA and the Center for the Art of Translation jointly sponsored on June 4th a French Literary Translation workshop moderated by noted local translator Zack Rogow. In this half-day workshop, Zack led an intimate group of translators through the ins and outs of literary translation, touching on both poetry and prose translation, as well as rights acquisitions and book proposals. Zack himself has worked in both commercial and literary translation, and has won several awards for his translations of great French writers (including André Breton, George Sand, and Colette). He is the new editor and artistic director of the Center’s journal of translation, TWO LINES.

The workshop began with a general introduction to the translation of poetry. Zack focused on several translations of a French sonnet, Arthur Rimbaud’s “Ma Bohème (Fantaisie).” By comparing three different English translations of the poem, Zack delved into the difficulties of translating the Petrarchan sonnet form into English: is it worth trying to achieve the same meter, or replicate the rhyme? This discussion led to an overview of the literary translator’s priorities. Zack suggested that the translator should decide which of these priorities is paramount when confronting a text: is the top priority to capture the spirit of the poem, or the literal meaning of the poem, or the music and form of the poem? To demonstrate his point, Zack broke the participants into small groups, each of which had to argue over these priorities and try to come up with a balanced translation of Rimbaud’s poem “O saisons, ô châteaux.” The results of these translations-by-committee were extremely diverse and quite amusing.

Next we turned to prose translation with a look at several different works in French: the first chapter of the satirical Micromégas by François-Marie Arouet Voltaire; a page from Colette’s Les Vrilles de la vigne; and an excerpt from André Breton’s Nadja. We discussed the tone of each piece, the form, and the voice, all aspects of the original work that must be considered prior to embarking on a translation.

The last part of the workshop focused on practical questions for the literary translator. First and foremost, how should a translator choose a project? Because literary translation doesn’t pay well, Zack urged participants to seek out authors whose style they have an affinity for and to choose a text they love. Retranslations can be rewarding, especially if there is a book a translator feels is important but that has fallen out of attention or was poorly translated. It is essential that translators revisit even classic texts periodically, particularly works with dialogue, which changes substantially over time. A new translation can help us see a text in a new light.

To close, Zack briefly discussed rights and contracts—including consulting the sample contracts created by the PEN American Center—and urged translators to push for their name to appear on the title page and the cover of the book. All in all, the participants left the workshop with renewed excitement about their craft. The Center hopes to continue the collaboration with NCTA and discuss possibilities for a variety of future workshops.


Literary Translation Panel at General Meeting

By Nina Scott

The May General Meeting held a cornucopia of delights for literary lovers, and lovers of language, in the form of a panel discussion among three of NCTA’s “transliterati.” In a talk moderated by Translorial editor Steve Goldstein, literary translators Anne Milano Appel, Alison Anderson, and Olivia Sears shared their insights about language, writing, poetry, and the business of translation.

All three of the panelists hold extremely strong literary credentials. Anne Milano Appel has been a full-time Italian/English translator since 1996; her recent nonfiction translation of Stefano Bortolussi’s Head Above Water won the 2003 Northern California Book Award for translation. Alison Anderson is not only a literary translator, but also a published novelist, whose most recent novel, Darwin’s Wink, was published last fall. She has just completed a translation of Ensemble, C’est Tout, by best-selling French author Anna Gavalda. Olivia Sears is a poet as well as a translator of Italian poetry. She is the founder of both Two Lines, an annual journal of new, international literature in translation, and the non-profit Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), which promotes translation as a bridge between cultures.

The session got off on a high note at the very beginning with the reading of a press notice from that very morning announcing that the prestigious Man Booker organization in Britain had inaugurated a new, $28,000 award for literary translation. With spirits thus suitably raised among both the panelists and the audience, the discussion began in earnest with a look at the kinds of qualifications that are required for literary translation. First and foremost: a love of books and reading, and a “feel” for language.

Building relationships

“It’s like trying to figure out a crossword puzzle,” said Anne, a former library director before becoming a translator. “You have to have a feel for literature and language to begin with … it’s about finding the right word, and hearing the text breathe.”Being exposed to a second culture at a young age was more an advantage than a true requirement, the panelists agreed. Anne shared that she grew up having her maternal grandmother speak to her in Italian and recalls she would always answer her grandmother in English. She feels this experience gave her an advantage, adding, “you can’t have language without culture”—a notion not disputed by the other panelists, who nonetheless came to their second languages a bit later. Olivia, whose specialty is Italian Renaissance poetry, didn’t grow up immersed in foreign languages and didn’t touch Italian until college. She says, “I didn’t know the culture and it was not in my blood so I had to work at it.”

That work includes developing a relationship with the author, if possible, if he or she is still alive—and even if not! And not just for relatively straightforward issues of terminology, either. For Alison, translating gives her the chance to get “… into the heart and soul of the author,” which allows her to participate in his creativity.” Similarly for Anne: “You have to get into the mind of the author. Most authors are flattered if you’re interested.”

How do authors and translators find each other? There rarely seems to be a fixed pattern, although networking, writing proposals to publishing houses, and oftentimes sheer determination, helps. As does, at times, serendipity, as when a delayed airplane flight allowed Alison to read a book she might otherwise not have read. When she later contacted the publisher about the book’s translation rights, the publisher offered Alison another, larger translation project on the spot!

The translation of poetry is a special type of literary translation; it is the very subject for which Robert Frost penned the immortal phrase “lost in translation.” While it is not a prerequisite to be a novelist in order to translate fiction, it is almost indispensable that one be a poet if one is to translate poetry. Olivia cited one exception to this, but it was the exception that proved the rule. This is understandable when one considers that poetry translation brings with it a host of special challenges, from meter to register to that perennial bugaboo, rhyme. “Translating rhyme is especially difficult because it makes poetry hard to access,” commented Olivia.

Considering the audiences 

When asked about where fidelity lies—to the source text, the author, or the reader—the panelists had a variety of insights. Anne, for example, found herself translating plays differently than prose. Once, when translating a play, she found the process “too stiff” but tried to hear how it sounded in the source text so as to be as true to it as possible. Alison tends to try to improve language where appropriate: “I will do it if it’s unclear, for example, or if it seems like it needs to be broken into smaller sentences.” Other topics the panelists addressed included pay rates (“Decent money is possible with commercial projects,” commented Olivia; “Don’t quit your day job!,” said Alison), credits and copyrights, and book recommendations. At the end of the session, a lively question-and-answer period ended with Steve posing one final question for the audience to consider:

How can we get Oprah to do a show on translation and translators?


Translating Harry
Part II: The Business of Magic

By Steven Goldstein

Part I of this series, “The Language of Magic,” appeared in the December 2004 Translorial and addressed several of the more important cultural and language-related issues involved in the translations of the Harry Potter books. This installment covers various contractual, procedural, and otherwise special challenges that the translators faced.

As July celebrations go, it can’t possibly hold a candle to the pomp and ceremony of, say, the national Independence Days of countries like Canada, France, or the United States.

But then, nobody’s talking about those festivities the way they’re buzzing about the upcoming birthday of Harry Potter, VI.

With Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Princethe penultimate book in the tale of the magical young wizard – set to be published on July 16th, 2005, Potterphiles the world over are already kicking into overdrive. The rumor mills have started cranking. Chat rooms are overflowing. And after an unusually long period of slumber this time around, the sleeping giant that is Potter global merchandising has once again been awakened. Welcome to the next installment of Harry Potter, Superstar. And to the workings of the translators who are so integral to its production.

Working for a living

Torstein Høverstad, the Norwegian translator of Harry Potter, is among the many who have described the experience of being a literary translator as that of attempting something inherently impossible, being badly paid, and remaining virtually invisible and that’s if you’re successful. Yet still, in our celebrity-addled world, it is hard to imagine that there’s not at least a certain cachet that comes with being a Harry Potter translator, basking in the ever-widening glow of rock-star author J.K. Rowling’s fame, fortune, and adulation. This cachet does, in fact, have some truth to it, but the reality is often far different from our perceptions.

In Part I of this series, we saw how the Potter translators had a certain freedom to decide for themselves on matters of linguistic integrity, most notably in whether or not to translate Rowling’s marvelously whimsical and inventive names. Torstein Høverstad believed that everything in the original that could be translated should be translated. Many of the 60-odd other translators, however, opted for a much less aggressive posture in the matter, leaving many of the names in their original forms.

Much of this, although admittedly not all, has had to do with the entrance of Warner Brothers into the picture. In 1999, around the time of the publication of the third book in the series, the media conglomerate purchased the rights to the entire Harry Potter franchise, in effect buying creative control for how all subsequent items in the series movies, toys, video games, and yes, foreign book translations would be marketed. With this came the company’s attempt largely successful, it should be noted to impose on the translators a contract that would oblige them to give up many of the translation rights that they had originally held.

The translators must wait, like everyone, for the English publication

In addition to restricting or even forbidding the translation of names which would make it easier to conduct global marketing campaigns the contract generally redefined the terms of agreement, including remuneration and deadlines. Those translators who had the most flexibility in negotiating these conditions with their individual publishing houses were those, like Hoverstad, who had completed translations before Warner Brothers appeared on the scene. At the other end of the spectrum, however, the negotiations tended to be far harsher: in one notable instance, the Catalan translator of the first four novels, Laura Escorihuela, adamantly refused to give up her rights by signing the contract, and was thus barred from translating subsequent Harry Potter books.

And what do Harry Potter translators get paid for their efforts? It varies, of course: while royalties are rare anywhere and in some countries, like China, the rate can actually be below market, in general fees range from slightly above the standard market rate to even fairly generously above it in certain countries. Even in the latter instances, however, most of the translators will still say that they are paid like … well, like translators.

A need for speed

Much has been written about the often brutal deadlines imposed on the Potter translators. And much of it is true. As Warner Brothers is intent on preventing any leaks of the stories to the general public, the translators must wait, like everyone else, until publication of the original English version before being able to begin work.

Although a five-month period has not been unusual in some cases for the most recent, very long volumes, there is often pressure from Warner Brothers to have the translations completed much more quickly. Jean-Francois Menard, the French translator, translated the 700-plus page fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in just 63 days. Torstein Høverstad negotiated a bonus percentage with his publisher if he was able to finish the same book in a similar two-month period. (He did.) And Hanna Lutzen and Victor Morozov each formulated plans to translate the even longer Book V, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, into Danish and Ukranian, respectively, in the same eight-to-ten week timeframe.

Gili Bar-Hillel, the Hebrew translator, agrees that the pressure is intense but in her case believes that this actually contributes to the quality of her translations, for two reasons: first, she must by necessity be single-mindedly focused on the task, and second, everyone around her including her family is geared to helping her work as fast and as effectively as possible.

Even in the face of such pressures, the translators tend, on the whole, to work alone (although their work is of course checked by the publisher’s professional editors and proofreaders). Lia Wyler refused to hire an assistant for the Brazilian Portuguese version, saying that she would in effect need a clone of herself, someone with an identical linguistic background, right down to her neighborhood and accent. “Language is collective,” she says, “but vocabulary is extremely individual.” Even when confronted with difficult linguistic problems, the translators often must rely on their own ingenuity and creativity (and dictionaries) to solve them. Contact with J.K. Rowling is not an option, as the author has generally not made herself accessible to the translators, nor has her agent been especially forthcoming on problematic areas of the translations.

Of pirates and proofreaders

Publishers demand speed for another reason: the existence of “pirate,” or unofficial, translations, that are often collaborations of Potterphiles on the Internet, and which can be published months ahead of the sanctioned version. In China, several Harry Potter fans started to translate Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix two months before the publisher’s paper edition was due to appear, updating it on the Internet at a rate of 10,000 Chinese words a day. Although these counterfeit translations are for obvious reasons of a generally inferior quality, they demonstrate the zeal of Potter fans to get their hands on the stories as quickly as possible.

A somewhat more satisfying, but no less vexing, issue is that of the hordes of Potterphiles who care so much about the books that they read every word as if they were professional proofreaders or editors. Within a week of the Israeli publication of Book V, Gili Bar-Hillel already had a list of four mistakes that readers had found, including a missing period, a missing letter, and two minor spelling mistakes (all of which were corrected in subsequent printings). This was nothing, however, compared to the ten-year-old bilingual Brazilian child who challenged quite publicly and aggressively Lia Wyler’s Portuguese translation of the difficult word “muggle”!

Readers become proofers and editors

A tale in motion

Beyond the contracts, the money, and the deadlines, the Harry Potter series presents one final, and unusual, challenge: it is an unfinished story; the fact is, some things are simply unknowable until J.K. Rowling puts the final period at the end of the final sentence of the seventh book. None of the translators was aware there would be a second book until each had completed work on the first. Lia Wyler acknowledges that this fact would certainly have influenced her reinvention of certain proper names. The Spanish translators did, in fact, go so far as to make a mid-course correction: they had translated “Professor Sinistra” as (a masculine) Profesor Sinistra, and had to make a quick gender change to Profesora Sinistra when they found her dancing with Mad-Eye Moody in Book IV.

Retranslations are commonplace with great literature. Is it possible that once the series is finished, and perhaps after a generation has passed, other translators, who might be able to work at leisure, would want to tackle the saga anew, in the quest of new versions that might reach a fuller potential? Maybe. But for now, our current translators have only one thing on their minds. A birthday, this summer.

Test Yourself

How would you translate the famous “Riddle of the Sphinx,” from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Give it a try, and then check your translation against that of the published versions, at If you don’t have Internet access, drop a line to the editor for a copy of the answers.
(Source: TransLittérature, ITI Bulletin, No. 24, Winter 2002, Paris, with kind permission.)

The Riddle of the Sphinx
”First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.
Next, tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?”


For more information on Harry Potter translators, see the following resources, which in part informed this series:

  • “The Translatability of Harry Potter,” by Miranda Moore, in the Wikipedia Internet Encyclopedia
  • “Harry Goes to Paris,” Translatio (FIT), Vol. 4, 2003
  • “Harry Potter for Children, Teenagers and Adults,” by Lia Wyler, Meta XLVIII, 1-2, 2003

Special thanks to Gili Bar-Hillel and Lia Wyler for their generosityin sharing their illuminating insights into the translation experience. The author is also extremely grateful to the many NCTA members who contributed their impressions, opinions, and encouragements, without which this series would have been by far the poorer: Thank you Catherine Theilen-Burke, Brigitte Keen, Anne Milano Appel, Naomi Baer, Martin Hoffman, and Christoph Niedermair. 


Alison Anderson’s Literary Voyages

Interview by Michael Schubert

NCTA member Alison Anderson leads a triple life as a novelist, French-to-English literary translator, and employee of the French consulate in San Francisco. After growing up in the eastern United States, she moved to Switzerland as a teenager. There she earned a degree in French and Russian literature and later an M.A. from the University of Geneva School of Translation and Interpretation. Widely traveled, she has taught English in Greece and Croatia and also lived in France.

After two decades abroad, she returned to the United States, finally settling in the Bay Area in 1987. Her first novel, Hidden Latitudes, was published in 1996 and named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle. She is a recent NEA grant recipient for literary translations (works of Christian Bobin), and her published translations include Onitsha by JMG Le Clezio and a comprehensive history of the Surrealist movement. Alison’s latest novel, set in Mauritius, is entitled Darwin’s Wink and has just been published by St. Martin’s Press. Alison’s association with the NCTA goes back to 1988.

You’ve cited your travels as inspiration for your novels – specifically, your sailing trip to Mexico for your first novel, Hidden Latitudes, your trips to Mauritius for Darwin’s Wink, and your time in Greece for your novel-in-progress, The Road to the Island. Can you elaborate on how travel inspires you?
ALISON ANDERSON: Travel heightens the senses and attunes you to the exotic. It makes you more aware of the people who surround you, even if you don’t speak their language. Travel opens your imagination.

Are language and culture important plot elements in your fictional work?
Not in Hidden Latitudes, since it’s set on a desert island! They are more important in Darwin’s Wink, because Mauritius is a melting pot of many different cultures. I had to reflect these historic and cultural differences. The Road to the Island is more homogeneous, about a Greek-American woman who goes to Greece to research her family history.

Is your multilingualism and your experience as a translator always present in your thoughts as you write? Do you imagine how people of different cultures will understand your words or how translators will render them?
First of all, I came to writing through translation; it was the confidence I developed through manipulating other people’s words which gave me the strength to try it on my own. As far as incorporating my knowledge of languages into my own fiction, in The Road to the Island, I am aware in writing the dialogs that the people are actually speaking Greek and I imagine this dialog in Greek and “translate” it. The same was true for French in Darwin’s Wink. But I don’t imagine or worry about the job of some future translator when I am writing in English!

Tell us about your career as a translator.
I translate almost exclusively literature now. After I earned my M.A., I began doing general translation work. I tested for the United Nations, but they weren’t hiring. I did various other jobs before finding my way to literary translation. My first translation, of La place by Annie Ernaux, was not accepted by the publishers, but they thought enough of my work to steal my rendering of the title! (The British translation, which they ended up using, had been called Positions; it was published in America under my title, A Man’s Place). My next experiences were better: two books on sailing for Sheridan House. In a nice instance of serendipity, it was through them that I found the agent for my first novel. Since then I’ve translated a number of art books, several novels (I’m most proud of Onitsha, which is a beautiful autobiographical novel about Africa), and am currently working on two more novels, one a fictional biography of the great Egyptian singer Oum Kalthum.

Do your writing and translation careers compete with or complement each other?
Complement. Of course, they sometimes compete for time, but they complement each other in their methodology. I devote roughly equal amounts of time to both translating and writing, though that can vary depending on my specific projects. My travels, my knowledge of foreign languages, and my experience with different cultures have all helped my careers in both writing and translation.


Center for Art in Translation Reports on Joint Workshop

By Shevi Berlinger and Olivia E. Sears of the Center for Art in Translation

The Center for Art in Translation was thrilled to present its first collaborative workshop with NCTA, entitled “Literary Translation: An Introduction for the Novice and New Ideas for the Experienced Literary Translator.” Hopefully the first in a series, the workshop was presented at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco and was well-attended by an audience of almost 50 literary and nonliterary translators alike.

The workshop provided an overview of the field of literary translation, covering both practical advice and artistic approaches to the craft. Opening with a discussion of thorny copyright issues, the workshop included an informative slideshow, group translation exercise, and ample opportunities for questions and answers. Marian Schwartz, an award-winning Russian translator and former President of ALTA, was the workshop facilitator. Judging from the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the audience, CAT is looking forward to holding many more translation workshops in the future. We thank NCTA for this wonderful opportunity.


NCTA Member Anne Milano Appel Wins Translation Award

By Steven Goldstein

Congratulations are in order for one of our very own, Anne Milano Appel, who has recently been awarded the Northern California Book Award (formerly the BABRA Award) in the translation category. Anne, holder of a doctorate in Italian literature, was recognized for her translation of Italian author Stefano Bortolussi’s debut novel, Head Above Water (Fuor D’Acqua), published by City Lights Books of San Francisco.

Presented by the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association (BABRA), the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, and Poetry Flash, the Book Awards honor excellence in a variety of literary genres, recognizing exceptional service to the literary community and to the broader culture. Anne’s translation— which competed with two other outstanding works—was described as “elegant and transparent.”

The road to the award was long, although—as many of Anne’s fellow translators might concur—perhaps not entirely atypical. After having her initial proposal to translate a different work rejected (it is difficult enough to have a proposal accepted at a large publishing house, let alone a small one—even one headed by a renowned translator of Italian poems, as is the case with City Lights!) Anne was referred by the publisher to a different author, who hired her for a completely different project—a collection of short stories. Although Anne’s translation of these stories was never published, it was only after completing this work that she was offered Bortolussi’s intriguing and beguiling manuscript about a man, his past, and the opportunity for redemption.

For reasons that largely have to do with the nature of the publishing industry in Italy—and in other European countries, for that matter, where the sheer volume of imported literature is enormous—Head Above Water was never published in that country. But inspired in part by the story’s blending of family, mourning, and renewal in 1970s Italy, Anne believed it was important to make the publisher feel that she was the right choice to bring this novel to an English-speaking audience.

Instead of merely agreeing to do the translation, Anne translated a prova, or sample, of what she felt was a pivotal part of the novel, and presented it to City Lights. Thus began what would quickly grow into a solid and ultimately satisfying relationship among all three parties: author, translator, and editor/publisher. While Anne’s translation proceeded fairly smoothly with very little interaction between her and the author, she nonetheless feels that the trust they shared—and the opportunity for her to have access to him—was very important.

In a moment of reflection, Anne touches upon the one-sided nature that translation can sometimes represent. “I feel it’s unfair for them,” she says, referring to authors, “because I get to know their minds—I get to know them from inside their heads—and they don’t get to know anything about me except the final product that I’ve created, which is their work.”

That the final product in this case satisfied the author, however, was never a question: Mr. Bortolussi—a translator himself— supported Anne’s work throughout the process and called her translation “masterful” in his generous acknowledgements in the preface to the novel.

What does the award mean to Anne? Aside from the niceties of an elegant reception and the nervousness associated with a formal awards ceremony (as with the Academy Awards, she did not know in advance whether she would win or not), Anne is appreciative of the recognition. She is, however, under no illusion that this will make her a rock star among translators.

“For me, just getting an article or a translation published is a reward,” she says. “So this was especially nice.”

Anne sees the award primarily as a validation from her peers. Whereas going to a conference and being part of a reading or panel is certainly satisfying, the recognition that comes from receiving an award is both deeper and broader at the same time. It also confers a sense of satisfaction for labors that go all too often unappreciated— and sometimes, unfortunately, completely unnoticed—in our larger culture.

“In addition,” she says with a smile, “the award meant getting away from the computer for a change and getting to talk ‘live’ with people who have similar interests! We translators live like hermits, so human interaction is always welcome!”

If her recent award is any indication, Anne may soon find herself getting out more: at the reception for the Book Awards, she was invited to an upcoming PEN-West-sponsored book party, at which all of the past year’s published authors will be gathered. Although she maintains she is not tempted to write her own book, her recent efforts may well translate into new opportunities in the future.