Spotlight on Literary Translators is a regular feature here at Intralingo. The aim of these interviews is to get the word out about our profession and the works we bring into other languages. The insight the interviewees provide is also sure to help all of us who are aspiring or established literary translators. Enjoy!

Spotlight on Literary Translator Sue Burke

LC: What language(s) and genres do you translate?

SB: I translate from Spanish to English, leaning toward science fiction and fantasy, including both fiction and poetry.

LC: How did you get started as a literary translator?

SB: This was a natural transition. I’ve been working as a professional writer, journalist, and editor for 40 years, landing my first paid job in high school. Twenty years ago I began writing fiction, mostly genre fiction, and since then I’ve had more than 30 short stories published and some poetry. A novel will be coming out soon.

Meanwhile, my husband got a chance to work in Europe, so we moved to Spain in December 1999. Because readers and writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror form a close-knit international community, soon I was involved in local literary activities and enjoying the writing and friendship of Spanish writers.

I began studying Spanish in junior high school, and once I was in Spain, it improved fast by using it in daily life and by taking more classes. Eventually I earned certification as a translator, taking the Chartered Institute of Linguists Diploma in Translation examination in Madrid.

Then it was just a matter of finding opportunities to translate for publication. As a writer, I already understood the publishing field – to the extent that anyone does these days. Between economic and technological changes, everything I used to know is wrong, except that there is still no sure long-term path to success besides quality. Short-term success is another matter that no one has ever understood.

LC: What do you love most and least about this work?

SB: For me, learning a second language made my world twice as big. The language divide keeps a lot of amazing literature from reaching eager readers, and I am excited to be able to help cross that divide. I also love to write, and translating is almost like writing. I can apply what I’ve learned about style and expression to maintain the quality of a work across languages. Among other considerations, certain specific details about the best ways to handle dialogue–such as punctuation and dialogue tags–vary between Spanish and English. The differences between the grammar of possessive pronouns can mean that an entire sentence must be recast.

Another thing I love is that literary works have usually been professionally edited in the original language before they get to me. In that respect, they’re easier to work with: they make sense and don’t contain meaning-altering typos. Non-literary translation may, for example, involve working with a dental report so badly written that it’s hard to tell exactly how many teeth were extracted.

However, writers are a fussy bunch, and working directly with a writer can be a joy or disaster. I was translating for one author who knew just enough English to be dangerous. He could not understand that while you can translate word for word and say, “There is rain in the street, so take your umbrella,” you should still translate it as, “It’s raining, so take your umbrella.” I eventually fired him as a client.

LC: Can you tell us a little about a recent project?

SB: I just turned in a translation of Prodigios by Angélica Gorodischer, an important Argentinian science fiction author, to be published in 2015 by Small Beer Press. The novel features highly poetic prose in long, gorgeous, complex sentences. In Spanish, meaning can flow through a sentence because nouns, pronouns, and adjectives are gendered, so words can link back over some distance. To reproduce the text’s beauty in English, I often recast them into parallel constructions. Parallel forms have marked elegant prose in English ever since the St. James Bible, which strove to reproduce ancient Hebrew poetic forms that used parallel structures rather than rhyme. Yet, because Spanish elegance draws on different historical sources, that kind of repetitive prose would seem impoverished if translated literally from English into Spanish.

Years of editing in English have helped me become aware of other writers’ styles as well as my own style, and to respect what they are trying to do and the resources they are using rather than to re-do it my way, which some editors do. It has taken some effort and investigation to develop that awareness in another language, but that has been a labor of love.

Another interesting project involved working with a Spanish translator to produce the English-to-Spanish first draft of a collection of Krazy Kat cartoons, published as Krazy & Ignatz, 1925-1926 by Planeta DeAgostini. The original was written in a kind of phonetic slang popular 90 years ago but impenetrable for my Spanish friend even though he’s an excellent translator. Luckily, my grandfather had enjoyed that kind of joking slang and used it often, so I read the strips in his voice and understood them–and understood my grandfather a little better, too.

As a hobby, I’m also translating the Spanish medieval novel Amadis of Gaul into English chapter by chapter as a blog. There’s a lot to say about that project, but on the linguistic level, medieval Spanish is easier than it looks. The Spanish Royal Academy keeps the language from changing as fast as English does, and Spanish has been a self-consciously literary language since the time of King Alfonso X. I have also accumulated some good medieval reference material, since Spaniards love their history and love to write about it.

Dear readers: Leave your questions or comments for Sue! I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.

Sue Burke was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and now lives in Madrid, Spain. She blogs at and her professional writer’s site is at

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