Essential Tips from a Passionate Translator

March 13, 2015

In our world of writing, what is it like to be a translator? Can you image? And you expect to find a passion inspired by Brit Pop,  Edgar Allen Poe, and a puzzle solving? Well, after meeting with Fanny Havel, international translation specialist and founder of Nuance Fidelis, and learning she loves the work so much, she actually Fanny translates her favourite books in her spare time – I knew we needed to get her perspective on our Write Along Radio blog. Read on for some strong takeaways you definitely shouldn’t miss, especially if you think you may ever translate your writing.


Write Along Radio: What made you want to become a translator?


Fanny: I had to pinpoint one moment I’d say it was during my teenage years. Back then, in France (where I’m from), Brit pop was all the rage, and of course … boys bands (hey, don’t judge me!). I was a good fan, collecting items of my favourite bands, including books that were written about them, but for some reason existed only in English. Why should I be penalized just because the book isn’t in French? Why should people be denied a wealth of information for purely linguistic reasons? I started translating (very poorly) those books in my free time, so that I could refer to them, and I just got the bug from there.

Write Along Radio: And, do you consider yourself a writer – if not what is your relationship to the words that you work with?


Fanny: As far as whether I consider myself a writer, the short answer is yes and no. I’m not a writer because when I’m translating, I already have a plot, characters that are developed, a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end, a style to reproduce.

“There is no truly neutral translator.”

However, I also am a writer because every translator incorporates a little bit of herself in the book. There is no truly neutral translator. Of course, our voice is minimised during our work, we’re trained to do so, but we still have to rely on interpreting what the author wrote, what details are important and not, and you must become the author to produce a great piece. Also, when you spend so much time on a translation, it becomes a piece of you. And we’re just as thrilled as authors when our “baby” (the translation) gets published.

“When you spend so much time on a translation, it becomes a piece of you.”

Write Along Radio: Fanny, I’ve seen classic novels have different translations – let’s say from French to English such as Madame Bovary or Count of Monte Cristo – and these translations seem to vary in success and quality. What makes for not only a good translation, but a beautifully written one?


Fanny: What a great question! There are different things at play here. The concept of translation has evolved quite a bit in history, so you may pick up an older translation of say Madame Bovary and think “wow, this is a terrible translation!” but when it was released, it was considered a good one. Historical context is very important in judging a translation; and nowadays we still find different schools as to what makes a good translation (I wrote a blog post on this very topic a while back to try and start to explain my philosophy).

“The concept of translation has evolved quite a bit in history, so you may pick up an older translation of say Madame Bovary and think “wow, this is a terrible translation!” but when it was released, it was considered a good one.”

Also, I think it’s a matter of being a good chameleon translator. The first step in the translation process is for you to become the author, take on their voice, and bring life to their story in a different language (and a different culture, let’s not forget this). The second step is for you to become the audience to make sure that they will get it and get entertained with it. It may be a great/accurate translation, but completely miss the mark with the audience. Or it could be a very successful book with the audience, but say something completely different from what the author intended. Both sides are equally important, and bad/unsuccessful translations typically miss the mark on at least one of them.


Write Along Radio: You translate novels in your spare time (coolest hobby ever, by the way). What books have you translated, and what are you working on next? What is it about certain stories that call you to translate them?


Fanny: Well thanks, I really appreciate that, typically people think I’m lame (‘wait… you translate at work, and then you get home and translate again???’ What can I say, I love my job!). It’s funny but when I started translating fiction, it was very intimidating, so I started with short stories because obviously short is easy, right? Yeah… not so much.

So I started with Edgar Allan Poe (I always translate from English/Spanish into French, which is my first language). I really like his short stories, and he’s got a style that intrigued me. I think style is the main reason why I choose certain books over others, it’s like a challenge to myself to see if I can reproduce a certain voice.

The second thing that appeals to me are linguistic challenges. I’ll give you an example. The book I’m working on now is called Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn, and once I tell you what it’s about, you’ll understand what I mean.

“This poses several pretty big challenges in terms of translation.”

The story takes place on a fictional island and is told through letters sent to each other by various inhabitants. Now this island was created after a group of people elevated one man to almost god-like position for his pangram (a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet with as few repetitions as possible). And they put each letter of this pangram on tiles, in a nice monument to the island’s creator’s life. One day, long after the creator’s death, one of the tiles falls off. Instead of thinking the glue may need to be reapplied, they see it as a sign from the creator to stop using this letter. Ultimately, all the letters start falling off one after the other, and it becomes more and more challenging to speak and write.

Since the story is told through letters, the characters use less and less letters to write. This poses several pretty big challenges in terms of translation. You have to start with a pangram in French (which obviously will be different from the English one), and letters need to fall off in a different order as well (because if a heavily-used letter falls off first, the inhabitant’s reactions would not be believable). Once I read the book in English, the first thing I though was “I wonder how I would translate that in French”. Needless to say, I started doing research, and it’s a slow process (also because I’m only working on it during my free time), but it’s so satisfying to see it take flesh in front of my eyes!


Write Along Radio: Hiring a translator vs. getting someone who knows the language to help, what is the difference?


Fanny: That is one question I get on a daily basis (and I wrote another blog post about this a while back). It’s a common misconception that the main skill a translator has is that she knows one or several foreign languages. When I went to university to get my Master’s degree in translation, I didn’t spend five years learning English and Spanish. I already could speak them as well as I can speak them now. However, I learned tools and tricks to be able to reproduce someone’s voice, how to make sure that I’m not adding my own style to the mix (some people say translators are like ninjas, if you see them, they’re not good, I agree with this), how to transpose cultural elements, and how to do it efficiently and fast.

You’re not reading Madame Bovary by Flaubert anymore, you’re reading Madame Bovary by [insert person’s name here].

Hiring someone who can speak the language without being a translator is a little bit like reading a story “as told by” someone else. You’re not reading Madame Bovary by Flaubert anymore, you’re reading Madame Bovary by [insert person’s name here]. It’s not the same book.

I can dance, but that doesn’t make me a dancer. It’s the best start I could have to be a dancer, but just because I can move to music doesn’t mean that I would do a professional job on a stage. It’s the same here. Knowing another language is a very good start to being a translator, but it’s not everything you need.

Also, you should NEVER EVER EVER hire someone whose first language isn’t the target language (i.e. the language you want your book translated into). My first language is French, and I translate from English into French, and from Spanish into French, and never in the other ways. Any ethical translator does this as it protects the quality of the work.


I should add that a bad translation reflects very poorly on the author (and not on the translator). The translator’s name is in small print inside the book, on the page that no one pays attention to (unless you’re a translator). You must be very careful when picking your translator because your name is at stake here.


Write Along Radio: Are you open to sharing price ranges? We like to give very practical knowledge to our readers – so if you are comfortable, maybe you can share range “ish” prices for stories of say, 2,000 word short stories, 15,000 word novella and 75,000 word novel?


Fanny: I’ll start with a disclaimer: rates differ (widely) by country of publication. It also depends on whether the translator is working directly with the author, or through a publishing company. And of course it depends on the translator and her language pair (the rarer the language pair, the more expensive the translation). As another disclaimer, while I translate fiction in my spare time, what I do for a living is priced quite differently because it’s usually considered separately (my business, Nuance Fidelis mostly translates corporate documents, priced by the word).

As far as I know, there are typically:

  • a basic fee, which can be paid by the word, by 1,000 keystrokes, by 1,800 keystrokes, by the page or by the folio. Whether translating a short story, a novella or a novel doesn’t matter in this case (the short story will be cheaper simply because it’s shorter); and
  • I’ve never seen royalties being anything over 4%, with probably 0.1-1% being the average.

Overall, I’d say expect to pay anywhere around $20/1,800 keystrokes for an English-French translation (keep in mind that this is very “ish”). Typically, periodical payments are set up so that you pay a small amount up front, then some on delivery, and royalties are calculated as the book sells.


Write Along Radio: I’m really curious, what is localization and how do you think it could apply to people’s novels?


Fanny: Localization is a term that was coined some time ago to refer to the translation of a product (originally, video games) while adapting it to a target market. So say you are a renown Japanese video games company, and you want to sell your video games to the Canadian market, you may have to change the cherry blossoms in the background (synonym of spring in Japan, also Back to School season) because they don’t evoke anything for your Canadian audience. If you want to say something is happening during Back to School Season, you’d have to set it in the fall. Nowadays, the term has evolved to include software/websites/anything technological.

A translation that isn’t adapted to the target market is useless and quite frankly, terrible.

Personally, I don’t think there is a difference between translation and localization. A translation that isn’t adapted to the target market is useless and quite frankly, terrible.



Write Along Radio: How can a person tell they are working with a strong translator? Any ideas, particularly if that person can’t read or speak the translated language? Any clues to a good translation?


Fanny: That’s a tough one. There’s no clear-cut way to know. The first thing is always pick someone who is a professional, not someone who does this on the side (and someone whose first language is the target language).

Then I’d say talk to the translator. Get a sense of how passionate they are about their work. The more passionate, the better (usually). There’s a big element of trust between an author and the translator, so you have to build this relationship.

“Get a sense of how passionate they are about their work. The more passionate, the better (usually).”

I also like to ask “trick” questions, such as “what kind of tools do you use during the translation process?” If the person doesn’t mention any kind of unilingual dictionary (both languages), if the person doesn’t mention their creativity, or if it’s someone who can translate “in every field”, beware (as a side note, translation businesses can typically translate in most fields because they use several translators, to each their own field).

Worse, if they mention something like “Google Translate”, “Bing Translator”, “Linguee” or any kind of automatic translation tool, RUN! No matter if they say that they edit it or what not. Also, if it looks like the English too much, it usually isn’t a good sign.

Write Along Radio: Any final thoughts you want to share?


Fanny: Translation is a huge undertaking, one that can increase your readership by a large margin, or tarnish your name for a long time. Think about why you want to do it, and what it’s worth to you. When the time feels right for you to open up your writing to more people, don’t take it lightly. But don’t stress too much about it, as long as you pick the right person, everything will be all right!


Fanny_HavelIf you have more questions for Fanny, feel free to leave comments below. You can also find her over on her website, facebook, twitter, and blog, Understanding Translation. Thank you so much for your entertaining & insightful answers, Fanny! 🙂

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Images from this post (not including Fanny’s profile picture) are found on Vintage Printable. You are welcome to share them. We would appreciate a link back. 😉

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