I had the loveliest time for an hour and half yesterday. My friend and colleague, Sylvie Lambert-Terrafria (you might remember her from this post), invited me to one of her Spanish translation classes at the University of Ottawa to speak about literary translation.

I told the room of 18 students a little about what I do, offered some thoughts on the industry as a whole and introduced the notion of style in literary translation. For fun, I gave them a hands-on exercise I thought we could repeat here!

First of all, my apologies if one of your languages isn’t Spanish; I normally like to keep things more neutral and inclusive… However, I do hope you will take my approach and apply it to a paragraph of text in your language. The purpose of this exercise is to illustrate just a few of the elements of style we need to take into consideration in literary translation, regardless of the individual language.

For those who do know Spanish, you can use the following — the first paragraph of the novel I am currently translating.

Read through the text just once without considering translation at all. Read it as if you had just bought the book and were settling in to read it for pleasure one evening.

Olía a pólvora en el pueblo castellano, a sangre de perdiz y de conejo, a humo de chimenea. Los cazadores, envueltos por el otoño, lucían sus presas entre las primeras ráfagas de un viento dorado. En las puertas de las casas, las ancianas se sentaban formando hileras de toquillas de luto con las vecinas para murmurar acerca de los que pasaban junto a ellas. Sus voces, curtidas por una vida de sabañones, pucheros y misas, se confundían con el arrastrar de las hojas secas. En cambio, las mujeres más jóvenes se ocultaban tras los visillos de las ventanas para mirar a los cazadores sin que las vieran, para hablar de ellos sin sentir la cercanía de la muerte.

What is the tone or feel you get from this paragraph? Jot down a few adjectives to describe it.

One of Sylvie’s students said “gloomy” and “romantic.” How else would you describe the tone? This is important because when the translation is finished, we want to make sure  English readers feel something similar.

Can you tell from this paragraph which Spanish-speaking country the author is from? What about when the story takes place?

It was clear to several students that this work is from Spain and took place maybe a hundred or so years ago. This knowledge is going to guide our translation. Certain vocabulary items are typical of Spain rather than Latin American countries (e.g. toquillas de luto, pucheros) and we’re going to want to make sure this cultural nuance comes through in the translation. In terms of when the story takes place, our vocabulary choices are going to be directly influenced by that era (in this case, the late 1800’s).

Read the paragraph again and pay attention to sentence style. What do you notice?

One student noted that sentences are rather long. This is true of most writing in Spanish and something we have to pay attention to in English, where shorter sentences are more common. Another student noted that a lot of additional information, details, are provided. Indeed. If we look closely, we’ll see that most of that information is parenthetical, set off by commas. This might be something we want to mimic in the English.

Now that you’ve identified the tone or feel, the country and era, the type of vocabulary and sentence structure you want to aim for, try your hand at translating the paragraph. Keep all of these elements in mind when writing your version.

This is a first draft only, so don’t worry about what actually gets on the page. As I told the translation students, you will revise your text many, many (many) times. Instead, as you translate, think about what it is you’re doing in English to make sure all of these elements of style are reflected, to the extent possible. What words do you choose and why? How do you structure the sentences? Do you have to stray from the source text? In what ways?

Literary translation is all about writing style. It’s not always easy to identify or convey, but that’s what makes every text such a fascinating challenge.

Care to share your translation and/or thoughts about the process of defining style?! I’d  love to hear from you in a comment.





Lisa Carter is an acclaimed Spanish>English translator. Her work has won the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation and been nominated for an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Lisa offers translation, editing, professional development and promotion services through her company, Intralingo Inc., at www.intralingo.com

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