In Roland Barthes’s famous essay, “The Death of the Author,” he tells us that when we read a text, we don’t need to worry about what the author thinks. Rather, it’s our interpretation that matters—and this holds true for translators as much as it does for readers.
However, when you’re translating a work by an author who is not dead, but in fact alive and well, and moreover competent in your language, things can get difficult. After all, you’re bound to disagree at some point. Who gets the final say?
Many translators try to hold on to their “say” by keeping their translation behind locked doors and only contacting the author for questions or clarification. But as we all know, the solitary nature of translation makes it nice to have an extra pair of eyes when we just can’t do another round of edits. That said, it can be hard to find a reader who can understand the source text as well, and nearly impossible to find one who can spot those oddities in your text that just might be the result of a translation mistake.
In fact, if you start to think about it, who better to read your work than your author? After all, he or she is the only person (apart from any previous translators) who has spent as much time with the text as you have.
While this may sound like a foolhardy undertaking, I’m speaking from personal experience in offering a few reasons you might want to give this a try.
First, your author will almost certainly draw your attention to things you may have missed. It’s likely they will immediately notice your translation mistakes (even when you’ve tried to make sense of that strange word or phrase by rearranging the syntax so that it somehow makes sense, in a way that most readers wouldn’t notice). They can also clarify or explain things you didn’t initially think to ask about.
You may also get their permission to edit the text. In fact, my author was quite keen to use my translation as an opportunity to correct a few “errors” in the original published text. Later on in the process, I found another inconsistency she hadn’t even noticed, but was happy for me to fix.
Third, you might get behind-the-scenes access to the text. Over the course of our conversations, my author revealed parts of her original plan for the book that didn’t make it into the final version, as well as historical and cultural details that went beyond the text itself. Given that writing is just as solitary as translating, many authors may be open and even enthusiastic to share their experience with someone who has spent so much time with their work.
But what happens if (and when) you disagree? While this may come as a surprise, even disagreeing with your author can be helpful for you, since it gives you the chance to stand up for your decisions, or figure out why you made certain decisions you previously took for granted. Even better, defending your translation choices to your author will prepare you to explain yourself to your editor(s) and provide you with lots of material to discuss in your translator’s note, as well as any interviews or talks you may give about your work.
The best part of letting your author read your work? Your author will learn something about translation. After all, no other reader will read your translation with such a clear idea of the source text in mind and therefore be able to seamlessly compare the two while reading. This means your author will likely gain a great deal of insight into all those different decisions and tricky problems you faced with each and every sentence. But more importantly, your author will have to reckon with the transformative power of translation and the fact that your translation is a different text from the one they wrote. And that’s down to your creativity as a translator.
I realized this when reading the following comment from my author about one of my sentences:
“This is quite different from what I put, but I should tell you I very much like the way you write.”
It was different, but she liked it. And, better yet, she considered my work to be writing.
If you let your author read your whole translation, you just might turn your author into a reader, one who Barthes would proclaim fully alive.
Have you ever let an author read your translation of their work? How was the experience? Was your author appreciative of your work, or did you disagree too much? More importantly, would you try it again? Why or why not?
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