Translation Tips: Frank Wynne

English PEN has gathered a collection of top translation tips from established and award-winning translators. Every fortnight we publish advice from a different translator on how to improve your translation skills. Here Irish translator Frank Wynne, who translates from French and Spanish, tells us to ‘get out more’ and shares some more valuable advice

frank wynne

1.  Don’t believe those who say “Only translate books you love…”  There is so much to be gained from the challenges and (yes) frustrations of working outside your comfort zone, whether that be in thrillers, crime novels, poetry, historical novels. Having to craft language to render an unusual voice, a different style, an unfamiliar form of dramatic tension stretches your own linguistic muscle and adds to the voices in your arsenal and will make you a better translator.

2.  Get out more: Watch TV, theatre, movies, listen to a broad range of music. The linguistic choices we makes as translators are as much about what we hear as what we read. Strange expressions, slang words, similes and accents have a cadence, a rhythm; hearing them means that you can recreate them on the page

3.  Never be afraid to be wrong. You can never be right. There is no correct answer when it comes to translation, it is entirely a matter of interpretation. There is, of course ‘literal fidelity’, but, though vitally important, it will never make a translation sing, never breathe life into a character or a text. This is something only you can do, and it is invariably subjective. Trust your voice: there is no perfect translation of even the briefest text, but there can be many passionate, beautiful ones.

4.  Use your eyes: I’m not sure how I survived as a translator before the internet, which makes it possible to wander the streets of Caracas via Google street view, look up that painting in the Louvre, track down the sound of a possum rummaging through a dustbin. We create with all of our senses, so the ability to see a place, a painting, to hear a sound, may solve a tricky linguistic dilemma

5.  Never undervalue yourself.  Even if you’re just starting out, don’t work for free, don’t accept a paltry rate that will mean having to rush the work or scrimp for months. I’m not suggesting for a moment that publishers will try to bilk you, but knowing how to read a contract, what the current TA recommended minimum is,  what royalties translators earn and the difference between cover price and net receipts means you can make informed decisions before plunging into the vertiginous pleasures of translation itself.  Find out what grants, residencies and bursaries are available – it can be vital information for you and your publisher. Translation is an art, a pleasure perhaps even a vocation but it also a profession.

Frank Wynne is a writer and award-winning literary translator. Born in Ireland, Frank Wynne began working as a translator of graphic novels. He discovered languages not in school but in Paris; starting as a book seller he began his translation work with graphic novels. He has now translated more than thirty novels, among them works by Michel Houellebecq,  Boualem Claude Lanzmann and Ahmadou Kourouma  In 2002, his translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised won the IMPAC Prize, and he decided to dedicate himself full-time to writing and translating. For several years he lived in Central and South America, and in 2010 was persuaded to begin translating from Spanish. Since then he has translated a number of Hispanic authors including Tómas Eloy Martínez, Marcelo Figueras and  Alonso Cueto and Almudena Grandes. In addition he has contributed translations to The Paris Review, Index on Censorship. He is currently based in London.

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