Tips for translating a novel

By Nicolas Gambardella

In a previous blog post, I already covered a few tips for new translators. These, of course, apply to the translation of any text document. At aSciStance, I specialize in technical documents, in particular from the health and life sciences sectors. However, I have a secret life. In the evenings, I translate sci-fi novels. Besides the rules described before, there are a few do and don’t that apply when translating a novel. Here are some, in no particular order.

The most important thing when translating a novel (and presumably writing it in the first place) is to keep the reader enthralled. This generally requires an easy and smooth reading (I will put Lovecraft and Joyce aside…). As a result, the form becomes very important, and you should not necessarily need to stick 100% to the source. A word for word translation will be close to unreadable. Moreover, sentence segmentation tends to vary between languages. Therefore, some splitting and merging will be unavoidable. If the translation of a long proposition with many adjectives results in a boring or confusing piece of text, do not hesitate to replace it with a terse and punchy alternative. Conversely, depending on the source and target language, you might want to expand a single word in a lengthier piece of text. Such an expansion might also be needed if a piece of information is common knowledge in the population using the source language but not the population reading the target one (for instance, historical events or monuments).

You should therefore not hesitate to “find your voice”. The actual story is obviously paramount. However, the rhythm, the tone of the dialogs, the level of language, all participate in telling this story. These will change between languages. When I translated The Night of the Purple Moon, I chose to define three different levels of languages for three different groups of teenagers. The main protagonists were brought up in an upper-middle-class setting, where the father was a librarian. Their language is correct, but not too posh. While to distinguish some of the unruly boys, I used a more familiar language register, even a bit of slang (although profanities were a no-no). On the opposite, a couple of children were foreigners, coming from a country with different levels of deference. They learned English in books and make use of a very polite, slightly old fashion, language (for instance, calling their parents “mother and father” rather than “mom and dad”).

That said, each novel possesses specific rhythm, tone, terminology, and “feeling”. Sometimes they are part of an author’s trademark and should be respected as much as possible. Lovecraft’s stories would have a very different impact if his “wholly abominable and unspeakable horrors” had been translated into smooth and easy to read pieces. If you choose to change some of those characteristics, make sure to be consistent throughout.

Immerse yourself into the novel’s universe. What counts in a story is self-coherence, not accuracy. Particularly if you are translating a science-fiction novel, like NOPM and have, like me, a biomedical background, you should not be offended that bacteria or viruses can survive the cold void of space – and the constant radiation – or that they can kill a human by recognizing sex hormones they never encountered before. After all, in science-fiction, there is the word fiction…
Do not try to be too exact either. In an imaginary setting, translate 100 miles into 100 km, rather than 160.934 km. It just means “quite a long distance”. Except of course, if this distance is important for the story. As any ultra marathon runner will tell you, having to travel 100 km or 100 miles are two very different endeavors.

However, do not hesitate to correct the factual errors the author could have committed which you think could bother some readers. Obviously, only do so with the author’s permission. I will not list the instances where I did that in NOPM (you will have to read the English and French versions). But sometimes such as correction can kill two birds with one stone. In NOPM, the source mentioned that the germs were coming with the space dust. Space dust was not very clear to me. If we were talking about cosmic dust, it is a bit too thin to contain germs. Moreover, “poussière de l’espace” sounds a bit childish in French. However, comet dust fits well with the story and sounds better in French, as “poussière de comète” (although to be fair “poussière cosmique” sounds even cooler! #NoteForFutureTranslations)

Try to be consistent but not repetitive. If a certain item is always referred by a certain name in the source, try to always use the same term in the translation. In NOPM, the organisms that killed humans are always called “germs”. I chose to use “microbes” and stuck to it. I did not use “germes” or “bacteries”. Similarly, in Colony East (the follow-up from NOPM which I am translating as I am writing this blog post), I chose to translate “pills” by “comprimés”, and I do not use “pilules” or “médicament”. Such a consistency facilitate the reading, in particular for younger readers.

However, use such a consistency sparingly when it comes to entire expressions. It is sometimes quite annoying to find exactly the same description, or the same bit of dialog, several times. This is in particular true if the occurrences are in the same chapter. This problem is increased by Translation Memory-based CAT tools, and you should be cautious when using such tools (which I do. I use Cafetran Espresso).

Which brings me to the final pieces of advice. Now that you have translated your text, check it, check it, check it.

1) Use a Machine Translation engine (such as DeepL) to reverse translate your work. Are there inconsistencies between the result and the original text? Does that reveal a potential for confusion in the reader’s mind?

2) Proofread your work with dedicated software. I use three of them at the moment, Grammarly, Grammalecte, and LanguageTool. Yes, you are a fantastic linguist. But even the keenest eye might miss the occasional typo or doublet.

3) Read back each chapter after completing the translation. Read them aloud. Reading a piece of text aloud forces you to slow down, be more attentive to every word, and better detect subtle grammatical errors.

Here are a few links to other relevant web pages. Please feel free to suggest others in your comments.

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