Translating

Translation Troubles: Gender

For everybody interested in the process of translating fiction, I’m going to post some snippets about specific problems that can cause distortions between the source and the translated text. Please keep in mind that I address mostly English to German. These two are closely related, but they’re also surprisingly different. They occupy just one tiny area of the whole field – different languages, different problems. Also: different genres, different problems, and apart from the odd outlier, I’m firmly rooted in speculative fiction and related genres. So: YMMV, greatly (and I’d love to hear about it!)

Gender is one aspect often forcing my translations to be more specific than the source text – and I have to make decisions (after asking the author, if possible) for things that were (deliberately) left undecided.

Every noun is gendered in German (and a lot of other languages). This is especially interesting when it comes to job titles and other personal nouns. I have to clarify the gender of every guard, cook, pilot, soldier, visitor, stranger, and so on. In the source text, these people are sometimes not important enough to know their gender, and sometimes it’s convenient to keep this information ambiguous. This option is nonexistent in translation, and neither am I able to refer to a “doctor” with a female pronoun – I would have needed to call her a “doctress” in the first place. So imagine the blast of translatorial joy, after a leader’s aide has been popping up on the pages now and then, when discovering in volume three of the series that she has been female all along!

Male forms are default in German; female forms are an extra effort. So female visibility is lowered in a lot of contexts. And stereotypes are prone to lingering in translations: the translator might not “see” a woman in a group of guards or officers, even if the writer imagined women among them.

A side-effect of these unavoidably gendered nouns is the fact that animals, artificial beings, and just about anything else is gendered, too: a robot, a dog, or a ghost are always “he”, an AI is “she”. There’s a neutral form, “it”, mostly used for certain objects. You don’t want to use it for persons (which are gendered as “he” or “she” anyway, unless they are girls. Yep, girls are “it” in German …)

And here’s the last bummer: All available options are of course not applicable to non-binary people. There are some proposals for non-binary pronouns which are either awkward (like she_he), or most people have never heard of them. The nice, practical option to use “they/them” is not working in German, I guess (you can adapt to innovations in language pretty fast, so I’m not 100% sure).

Frankly, I don’t know what I would do with “they” at the moment. It never came up till now, unfortunately (about time some new books with non-binary characters get translated). Ask my publisher, I guess. Try out a few things and strive to establish a solution that readers could get used to. And face a shitstorm, probably.

Thou shalt have no other stories …

After another few months spent in translator-bot mode, producing daily word-counts I can only dream of as a writer, I have some thoughts about writing and having a day job as a freelancer in the publishing industry at the same time. It seems like a dream situation – to gain a foothold, to learn the business … and when I started this line of work over 10 years ago, it was a dream job. Second best thing to publishing my own stuff. A chance to work with words, with languages and their intricacies, in the genres and with the authors I loved. Translating has always been very close to my heart – it’s a special kind of approach to a text and can be extremely rewarding (for everyone involved, yay!).

Some aspects didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped for, but that’s a different story. A job closely connected to writing is, in some ways, a major boost for writing. I learned a great deal about language and how to construct stories while translating superb novels, and then some more by editing not-so-superb-yet novels. The moment you have to propose a solution when something isn’t good enough, a vague feeling of “I don’t like it” just doesn’t do. You have to get to the root of the problem, and that makes you see what will work and what won’t.

So I doubt I’d be able to write the way I do without my job, without being surrounded by professional words and stories daily.

But.

My own words inevitably dry up when I am deep in the translating game. I’m surrounded by another person’s story and strive to get into its style, mood, tone. If I try to start writing then, I might end up emulating the thing I’m working on at the moment.

Mostly I don’t even try: I simply can’t bring myself to hack out another word on my keyboard after I already spent 6 hours straight doing just that. Braindead. Daily amount of words used up. Instinct for stories vaporized.

I’m aware that the majority of writers out there are writing in their free time, and surely there’s no shortage of jobs eating your brain. I’m in awe of everyone who sits down to tell their story anyway.

I seem to be at a point where my day job isn’t producing synergies for writing anymore, or even just some (mildly lucrative) background noise; it has turned counterproductive. I guess that’s mostly because I’m working and writing in exactly the same genres. It’s just so close to my own words, and if I want to do it justice, I have to live the to-be-translated text in the same way I have to live my own stories. So my own writing is always relegated to the backburner.

Add in the precarious nature of freelancing, which makes you inclined to always take on another rush job, another project, because there’s no way to know whether and when the next thing might come up. And soon there is no room left for your own stories to unfold. I can relate to every writer who just wants an unobtrusive, not-too-demanding job.

What I do now, accompanied by a lot of anxiety, is decline some jobs. And try to shift a certain portion to other modes and genres, mostly non-fiction, to create synergies again. (But who am I kidding here – offer me a cool science fiction or fantasy project, and I’ll bite).

So, fair warning: having a second dream job apart from writing might not be the best strategy for producing a lot of words, especially if said dream job is, well, also writing, just for other people in another language.

Do what you love and you'll work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally

This has been all over the place recently … I simply had to add it. (from adamjk’s Instagram )

Reanimation

Hey, what have you been up to since November, Simone?
November, huh? It’s been so long, I even need a lousy fake interview set-up to get these rusty gears going.
Mostly, I’ve been a good little translator-bot. I translated a net total of 532,000 words of text, fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic MCU in-universe encyclopaedia which nearly killed me with its legions of weapons and gadgets, half of them real things, half of them Marvel inventions (yeah, thanks for nothing, Captain America!). I copy-edited a smaller amount, about 364,000 words, also fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic DC Comics encyclopaedia which nearly drove me crazy with its (sorry, DC) stupid timelines. Superheroes galore for me!
I read 25 books as a judge of the Seraph (original works) and the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis (translated works), both German sff awards. I co-conceptualized and co-hosted an awesome three-day workshop about storytelling as a tool for photographers with my camera-wielding partner in crime Chrononauts Photography.
And I last-minute-applied for Viable Paradise, because it sounded like pure workshop goodness. Which turned out very well so far: I don’t think I have ever experienced such a warm (virtual) welcome anywhere.

Did you write stories?
I wrote a thing for my VP application. Next step: improving my miserable story/workshop ratio. Feeling like the fraud of frauds here …

But you did write something, somewhere, didn’t you?
I didn’t even do much social media. Just work, eat and see to it that my back won’t give out, work again and then some more, sleep, repeat. Every single day (I had three free days over Easter, yay!). It felt like a never-ending nightmare, and that’s why I’m taking some time off now. Otherwise things would become an endless slog towards self-annihilation. Not cool.

What about stories, passive mode?
I didn’t read much apart from the nominated titles for the awards. There was T. Kingfisher’s romance/rpg adventure novelization hybrid Clocktaur Wars, which I thoroughly enjoyed (gonna write more about that one). I went to the movies a few times, to avoid becoming a hermit and such: I liked The Shape of Water – not the deep story about encountering the Other I expected from the trailer; but a beautifully shot film about misfits. Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok where my favorite MCU movies so far, one for its vision and coolness, and the other for combining heroics and fun.
I played some Overwatch. I also played Fortnite, but that was for a job (and it’s probably not my cup of tea). Ah, but now, as this full-frontal march towards burnout is at its end, I’ve been reading nice things again. A short story collection by Roger Zelazny. What a feast! I started reading the Sword and Sonnet anthology recently. And after that, Murderbot vol. 3 is waiting for me. Oh, and I picked up Divinity 2 again, so good (gonna write about it).

What now?
There’s still some editing work and small jobs to do. Probably should be looking for bigger jobs, too, but apart from that, I feel like I could sleep a whole month.
Most of all, I miss my lizards and robots and powerful ladies, and my random ramblings about stories and stuff. But I’m beginning to find back to my own words, so stay tuned. Winter is coming! Again! Ugh, this has been a long time off …

Worldcon & Work Done

Attending Worldcon 75 in Helsinki made the deadline of my last translation project a real challenge (and I had to switch to translatorbot mode upon my return). But I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Welcome in HelsinkiHelsinki was quite welcoming, giving out free public transport rides and a warm, fuzzy feeling in between the frequent showers. While it felt a little bit disorganised in the beginning, Worldcon got better by the day at managing its huge crowds of fans.

A workshop about societies in post-apocalyptic fiction taught by dramatist Taj Hayer was a great way to start the con and meet new people. It wasn’t only fascinating to learn about all the different backgrounds people brought up that got them interested in post-apocalyptic settings. We also did a cool group exercise about world and plot building and ended up with a world reminiscent of Mary Rickert and Octavia Butler stories, where only children are able to communicate, and form an anarchist society. I wonder which one of us will end up writing it … Anyway, I really appreciated Taj’s teaching, so if you’ve got the chance to attend one of his classes, go for it!

I could totally relate to the things stated in a panel about writing while multilingual (with Ken Liu, among others), fell in love with the sheer display of knowledge in “The Times that Shaped the Science” (mostly about the birthing age of modern science and how it came to pass), and had the best of times with an epic snark battle-panel between Babylon 5 and Star Trek, shortly before rushing back to the airport (no big spoiler: Babylon 5 won).

But my favourite panel was “True Grit: The Appeal of Grimdark Fantasy”. So much thoughtful input here, especially from Scott Lynch, on a fascinating topic. You can watch it on Youtube, too (with appropriately gloomy lighting).

Posing with Major Ursa

Posing with Major Ursa

Apart from that, there was a small Taos Toolbox meet-up, a visit to a glorious steampunk bar, meeting old and new friends, and discovering cool Finnish artists and a really flourishing sff scene. I didn’t know that so many books are translated into Finnish (and they’re beautifully designed, too).

Oh, and the Hugos were a blast, of course: I loved the fact that many of my favourites won, and they were dominated by women this year! Bam!

When you look into the abyss …

There is one question I really dread when I talk about my job as a literary translator: “Of the works you translated, what would you recommend?”

First of all, I usually don’t get to choose. Translating is my day job, and as much as I love it, it has to be well-paid work. Um, as well-paid as it gets when you’re at the bottom of the publishing industry’s food-chain. So I can’t be picky. Also, as long as it’s genre, I get paid roughly the same, whether it’s a super easy quick and dirty text without linguistic finesse, or a complex work testing the limits of language. So what I want is a good mixture of quality and quantity: I don’t like to get bored to death by samey, bland stuff, but I also can’t afford to spend forever and a day on a demanding text.

I got lucky a few times. Or that’s what I thought. I got to work with a few of my favorite authors – some of them I adored before getting the chance to translate them, some I discovered on a job. But then the book market happened, and there’s nothing much left to recommend anymore.

But that said, I have to admit I tend to find something to appreciate in nearly every work I translate. I look very, very closely at all those texts, by doing several drafts and chipping away at the surface until I can hope to capture the real thing. During this process, I stumble upon the annoying traits of my heroes (because I notice every over-used mannerism and every lazy phrase). But more than that, I always discover something worth reading, something charming, something working really well. I might not be thrilled in the beginning, but at the second draft, I have an idea about what the author set out to do, and I can see where they succeeded.

Whatever it is, whatever it does, I get attached. And I get sucked in in ways that are not entirely healthy.

Every line of thought, every development of plot and character, every plunge off imaginary cliffs, I have to follow. I have to incorporate the whole thing, and articulate it anew. But I can’t do it by my own rules, with my coping mechanisms, my ways. I have to do stick to whatever works for somebody else.

That’s a good thing, in an of itself. It’s what I love most in fiction: It shows me the world in a way I can’t see it myself. I learn a lot this way. But I also have to swallow things I don’t like. I have to stay on track when I’d rather run off in another direction. It gets hard when there’s not much common ground, and even harder when the text hits home due to entirely individual reasons.

I suppose that’s one reason why I write in English. German fiction is work, it’s adapting my voice to the demands of another person’s ideas. After some hours of doing this, it’s often difficult to step out of this mode again.

So in this weird, complicated relationship I develop with my translations, recommendation is a category that doesn’t fit anymore. But even after going through all of this, there are some texts I still love.

Setting sail

I need a place to share my love of stories (and good storytelling) in all their incarnations and talk about translating and writing speculative fiction, which is what I do because there are never enough good stories. And because I’m allowed to work at home at odd hours wearing jammies.

So stay tuned.