Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Harry Potter and the art of slow translation

Regularly I get asked for quotes on how much a document or book might cost to translate. It's a normal part of my job to do these sorts of quotes. Translation is an expensive business, life would however not be more interesting if we all spoke the same language. But the other really big problem is not money but time, often alongside a quote for money goes a quote for time "So how long do you think it will take?" is how these conversations begin and I say "hmmm you want it yesterday I suppose ... "
It's difficult to explain to people that translation takes time, that translators aren't machines and that if your text is more than 2000 words long it will probably take more than a day to translate. Then Harry Potter came to my rescue. As the books about the child wizard began to take off the later volumes were kept secret even from the translators until the day of the English publication. Even with all of the money that J.K. Rowling's publishers had available, and their army of proof readers, revisers and checkers - to say nothing of the money they had - it still took them at least 5 months to get the different languages out. It's an example that people seem to have at least some understanding for, after all we don't have quite such human or financial resources at our disposal. Nor unfortunately will much of what we translate get read by quite so many people.
I was thinking about Harry Potter and the art of slow translation while leafing through a new magazine we've got at home. It's in French but it's called Books - l'actualité par les livres. Many of the articles in it are longer book reviews translated into French from a variety of other langauges and it is a really brilliant read. I've just finished reading about "The Bloody White Baron" and noticed that the original English review was published in February this year. It takes time for things to get published in other languages, this is June's magazine.
Where books rather than just articles are concerned it can often take longer than just a few months to get the translation done. On Friday this week we'll go and eat with Edouard and Bridget Dommen. Edouard, who is a Quaker, is one of the translators into English of André Biéler's chef d'oeuvre on Calvin's Economic and Social Thought. The original was first published two years before my birth more than four decades ago. The good news is that getting the English translation done has inspired a Chinese publication which is now finished but looking for a publisher(read more in the Calvin special magazine in English here). Translation is a slow and hopeful process, often also a labour of love.


J. K. Gayle said...

Lovely, thoughtful post! It's all too easy to take translators and their translations for granted.

Jane said...

Thanks J.K. - one of the other projects I've been involved in recently has been trying to find a publisher for a lovely man who has out of love of the text translated Bishop Spong's the sins of scripture into French. I know enough about myself to know I wouldn't even begin such a project - especially if I was not going to get paid.