Found in Translation

By the time Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was ready to find an English translator for his novel Snow, he was getting desperate. He’d already worked with, and lost, three translators.

An old friend, Maureen Freely, offered to translate Snow—and the result paid off for them both. Snow made the bestseller list and earned Pamuk a Top 10 spot on The New York Times 2004 list of notable books.

“While I may appear to be fluent in English,” Pamuk says, “in fact, I am not. My mother tongue is, of course, Turkish and I am embedded there. It is crucial to have a good translator, and Snow would never have found success in America without Maureen.”

Pamuk speaks for many authors who’ve found acclaim abroad. Until recently, translators like Freely went unrecognized for their part in rendering an author’s vision and narrative into a new language. With the success of authors like Pamuk, editors, publishers and reviewers have begun to elevate translators from mere scribes to partners who co-create original texts.

But finding a long-term translator isn’t always easy. Pamuk’s first novel, The White Castle, was well received, but his translator had other projects and was unable to continue with him. “I found a second translator who worked on my next two books,” he says. “And while I approved those translations, the books received harsh criticism. When I look back, I see that the translator and I were not a good match.”

For My Name Is Red, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Pamuk found Erdag Göknar, currently a visiting professor in Balkan Studies at Duke University. “I approached Göknar because he had already written some interesting papers on my work,” Pamuk says. “He was a wonderful combination, Turkish and American, who understood the nuances of both languages. To my mind, he did a magnificent translation but, unfortunately, he was finishing his Ph.D. and did not get along with my editor. These things happen, and they are disasters.”

Pamuk believes that he and Freely work well together because they have much in common. “She grew up in Istanbul, we attended the same university and she established herself as an author at a very early age. I remember I was trying to get my first book published in Turkey, and I saw that she had already been reviewed in Newsweek.”

While his work has been translated into more than 40 languages, Pamuk pays special attention to the English translations. “Many times, I have learned that a foreign translation did not come from my native language but from the English version. This can be a problem, so it is very important that I have a good relationship with my English translator.”

Why become a translator?
You might wonder why a writer like Freely—a successful novelist in her own right—would offer to labor in obscurity translating another writer’s work. “Because I love Orhan’s writing,” says Freely, senior lecturer at the Warwick Writing Program in Coventry, England. “And I love the Turkish language, whose subtleties are difficult to get across in other cultures. I want to make the beauty of Orhan’s sentences visible to people reading English, and I want readers to hear Orhan the way I hear him.

Snow was the first work I translated,” she continues. “It has a mesmerizing quality. In all his work, Orhan aims to put the reader into a trance. As a novelist, I know how important the storytelling trance is. If you can invite readers into your world, they’re going to start to see it the way you want them to. My first ambition was to do whatever I could to recreate that trance in English. I’d start with the first sentence and think, I’m not going to be able to do that, am I?”

When she translated Snow, Freely and Pamuk developed a process they’ve continued with her recent translation of his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, and her current project, a re-translation of Pamuk’s The Black Book. She translates about 4,000 words a day until she completes a draft.

“I send the draft to Orhan, who at first is happy to read it. And then there’s a moment when he’s not too happy. But he gets over that,” she says. “He checks the draft against his work, marks the whole thing up, and sends it back filled with comments and exclamation points.”

Next, Freely and Pamuk meet in Istanbul and spend long, intense days going over the text. “When we come to something Orhan wants to change, we discuss why he wants me to change it,” Freely says. “If his suggestion makes no sense in the context of the English language, we can always find something better.”

After Freely and Pamuk finish the manuscript, she sends it to his British and American publishing houses. “The publisher understands that the editing process doesn’t start until they get an identical draft from me,” she says.

But Freely warns that copy editors may have their own agendas. “For Snow, there was a copy editor in England who decided he didn’t like the motivation of Orhan’s main character and changed it,” she says. “It made me realize that authors or their translators who don’t follow every step of the process risk losing control of the finished work. I’ve noticed a kind of cultural imperialism with some editors. There’s a tendency to throw away a word or a phrase if it seems strange or foreign. Growing up in Istanbul, I had a strong sense of a one-way conversation coming to Turkey from the west. Pamuk’s work has changed that. As a translator, it gives me great pleasure to become part of what has become a two-way conversation.”

From Japanese to English
J. Philip Gabriel, professor of Japanese literature at the University of Arizona, has translated a number of the celebrated Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s short stories and books, including Murakami’s most recent novel, Kafka on the Shore.

“In 1986, when I discovered Murakami’s work, I focused mostly on his short stories,” Gabriel says. “I loved his quirky humor, the sense of loss and nostalgia, and his unique outlook on life. Aspects of Murakami’s writing reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, two of my favorite writers at the time. Right away, I knew I’d run across a one-of-kind-writer I wanted more of.”

When he met Murakami for the first time, Gabriel was particularly impressed by the author’s knowledge of contemporary American fiction. “He reads widely in this genre and has done quite a few translations into Japanese, including Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye,” Gabriel says. “This spurred me on to read more of the American writers Murakami enjoys. Reading them has helped me find the right tone of voice when I translate his work.”

With all of Murakami’s work, especially the novels, Gabriel goes over the translations carefully, suggesting changes. “He’s quite flexible and open,” Gabriel says. “I thoroughly enjoy the back-and-forth e-mails we share as we pore over the copy of the edited text.”

Following a process
“When I begin translating a novel,” Gabriel says, “I create a rough draft, writing three to four pages every day. After I complete the rough draft, I re-edit the English text, checking it line by line against the original to see how far I may have strayed.”

Gabriel then sends the finished translation to the publisher, who copy-edits it and sends it back. When Gabriel receives that draft, he spends several months going over the editor’s suggested changes and checking them with Murakami.

“Next, the editor, Murakami and I go over these changes through three or four more versions,” Gabriel says. “At the same time, I’m revising the British edition, which in some cases has gone through different editorial hands.”

For Kafka on the Shore and several short stories, Gabriel and Murakami made additional editorial changes in a process they call “naturalization”—where they work to create a text that changes words for common Japanese brands into their English counterparts. “For instance, we changed the name of a popular chain of Japanese restaurants from Royal Host to Denny’s,” Gabriel says. “And a sports car called a Matsuda Roadster became a Mazda Miata. These changes reflect Murakami’s hope that English-speaking readers of his books won’t get hung up on details that a Japanese reader wouldn’t notice.”

Working with Murakami requires that Gabriel deal with an additional challenge: transforming Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. “While Chinese and Japanese are unrelated languages,” he says, “they share a writing system called Kanji, or Chinese characters. You need to master several thousand individual characters to be literate in Japanese. It’s been said that in the time it takes to master Japanese, you could learn two or three European languages. That reflects the difficulty of the Japanese language and the great challenge of translating it into English.”

Translating back again
National Book Award-winner Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, whose most recent book is Queen of Dreams, was born in Calcutta, India, but moved to the United States in l976, eventually earning a Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley. While she’s fluent in Bengali and Hindi, Divakaruni prefers to write in English. And that puts her in the interesting position of overseeing others who translate her work back into the languages of her native land.

“I work very closely with my translators,” she says, “especially in Bengali, my native language, and I have been pleased with the results.”

Divakaruni currently works with two Bengali translators, one for her novel Sister of My Heart and another for her children’s novel The Conch Bearer. “My translators send me chapters as they finish them, and I give comments where needed. Often the work is fine as it is, but sometimes they have a question about my intention in a passage or the nuance of a sentence.”

While Divakaruni’s work has been translated into 11 languages, including Japanese, Indonesian, Croatian, Dutch and Finnish, she says that because she doesn’t speak those languages, she must trust that those translations remain true to her original text.

Like Pamuk and Murakami, she has the advantage of understanding more than one language. “I speak a smattering of French and German,” she says. “And as far as the languages I know, I don’t see a tremendous difference in the context or nuance of the text once the book has been translated.”

Currently, she’s writing a novel that retells the story of the great Indian epic The Mahabharata from a woman’s point of view. To write her novel-in-progress, she, too, must rely on translated texts—because the original story was written in Sanskrit more than 3,000 year ago.

Following the path
For anyone thinking about working in translation either as an author or a translator, it’s important to keep in mind that translations ultimately require a close working relationship between two people. Trust must exist between partners, along with a willingness to negotiate editorial changes.

Like all publications, translations are subject to copyright laws and the rights of the original authors and their publishers. According to the PEN American Center (, before a writer can translate a piece of work, he must get permission from both the author and the publisher. And authors should be careful not to grant translation rights unless they’re sure they hold them.

Once a writer establishes a partnership with an author she admires and begins the translation process, she might find that she’s begun a lifelong pursuit.

“I’m always scanning the horizons for new writers and works to translate,” Gabriel says.

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