Life as a Literary Translator

Posté par le 14 Mai 2012 dans Actualité, Édition, English Posts, Guest Posts, Traduction | 14 commentaires

Today is Blogathon Guest Post Exchange day. I’m very very happy to welcome Lisa Carter. Since she’s the one who inspired me to participate in this Blogathon, it seemed really logical that I invited her here. Today, Lisa will share with us some of the aspects of her life as a literary translator. Thank you, Lisa and happy reading to you all !

In any social or professional situation, the first question a new acquaintance asks is, « What do you do? » I feel a smile stretch across my face as I reply, « I’m a literary translator, from Spanish to English. » Saying that out loud never gets old. I love what I do and hope to do this work forever. Still, it’s not always easy.

The Search

I have built a reasonable career over the last ten years. At this point, authors, editors and agents find me through word of mouth. But not every project comes to fruition. Sometimes, there isn’t the budget to hire me. Other times, I might prepare a sample translation but never find a publisher. Occasionally, personality conflicts arise and I will decide not to pursue a particular relationship. Even when a project does come to fruition, there is almost always a lull between it and the next one.

All of this means I am constantly on the prowl for new opportunities. To continue in this business, I need to keep reading new works, writing to new authors, trolling the Internet for agents, publishers and editors. Every day, I read industry news and follow up when I see anything promising. The search is eternal.

The Work

At the start of every single book-length translation, I am filled with excitement, energy and inspiration. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the thorny translation challenges each book presents. In Turing’s Delirium, I had to think of a well-known ad that might appear on a billboard with a slogan I could use to create an appropriately sinister-sounding anagram. With Everything Under the Sky, I had to be sure all of the vocabulary fit usage in the 1920s. With every project, I delve into the work, spend entire days with my creative wheels happily turning.

But as a project wears on for months and I’ve done little else but work, my brain starts to slow down. Translation becomes a chore rather than a pleasure. This is particularly true when I have to juggle more than one project at a time. By the end of the day, my head is fit to explode in a jumble of words that invade even my dreams.

What I love most about this work is the challenge, but challenge requires energy, and energy diminishes over time.

The Setting

When I first decided to pursue literary translation work, I pictured myself sitting in a comfy chair, a book open beside me, pencil tucked behind my ear, a laptop on my knees, soft lighting, the warm glow of a fire. Well, that might not have been the exact image, but I know I pictured a relaxing, inviting environment.

In all honesty, I have been lucky enough to work in some very inspiring surroundings: at a Canadian cottage, looking out on a lake as ducks and loons swam by; on a shaded verandah in Costa Rica, surrounded by a profusion of green.

More often than not, however, I sit at a desk in my home office, interrupted by the phone and e-mail and Twitter, piles of paper and reference material around me, dusting, cooking and laundry crying out to be done. I have just moved into a home we are renovating and, while this is tremendously exciting, my office is still under construction and is also our makeshift kitchen.

As so often in life, the idyllic is rare, the mundane more common.

Yin and Yang

I suppose that this job, like any other, follows the principle of yin and yang, good and bad, light and dark. Still, for all the oscillation between inspired flow and exhausted plodding, this is a job I adore and would not change for the world.

Lisa Carter is a Spanish to English literary translator, with five novels and one book of non-fiction to her credit. Her most recent translation was recently delivered to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is slated for publication in Spring 2013. You can find Lisa on her professional website at, where she blogs about literary translation. You can also follow her on Twitter at @intralingo.

14 Commentaires

  1. Great post Lisa! It really never gets old. 🙂

  2. Hi Lisa (and Lise!)

    Loved reading your post – you always paint a great picture. I wonder how many translators were drawn to the profession by the idea of a cosy, relaxed environment. The reality can be quite a shock to the system! And yes, at times it can feel like a real chore, especially when feeling tired and cranky. But as you say, slivers of the romantic ideal do shine through, and these are the moments that tend to keep us smiling.

  3. Lise: Thank you so much for hosting me on your beautiful blog. 🙂

    Rachel: Yay for the smiley face; it’s clear you love what you do, too!

    Marie-Louise: So true about freelancing — whatever your business — sometimes being a shock to the system. It’s not all pyjamas and relaxed days, is it?

  4. Lovely post, Lisa!! Your insights into the ups and downs of translation are always educational, even for those of us who have been in the business a long time. And you’re so right about perception and reality: someone said to me the other day « Your job must be like the Nicole Kidman character in The Interpreter!!! » And I’m thinking « No, just me in my ratty yoga clothes, ponytail and reading glasses, swatting the cat off my keyboard. » But it’s nice that people think we’re so glamorous!

    • @Rachel, Marie-Louise, Corinne: I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I was really excited to publish it this morning. It’s all so true. But as Lisa says, there is always this deep passion that makes you forget joyfully the « less glamorous » part of the job.

      @Lisa: the pleasure is all mine 🙂

  5. Wow..This is so interesting…Who knew???


  6. Beautifully expressed, Lisa! I love your honesty. I was fascinated to hear about life as a literary translator. Plus I really needed to hear this today myself. I’m feeling those same kinds of realities with my own work – the contrast between the creative (sometimes idealized) inspiration and the sheer hard work in not always romantic settings.

    • @Babette and Milli, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed this post as much as I do 🙂

  7. Enjoyed the post. Thanks, Lisa & Lise. I can only imagine that it can become difficult to « stay in the moment » when projects lag. I feel the same about writing in general. When I’m in a groove, the words come to me better.

    Blogathon is rocking it this year!

    • Thanks for your comment, Tia. It’s my first Blogathon, but as you say, it does rock 🙂

  8. Absolutely wonderful read. I’ve read so many negative, discouraging things about being a literary translator from people who WEREN’T literary translators. It made me question whether I wanted to ever bother touching that field, but reading about your [lisa’s] life, even with it’s up and downs and less-than-romantically-ideal conditions, makes me feel spurred on to pursue my dream 🙂 thank you Lise for creating this post 🙂

  9. Dear Lisa, I liked this article a lot and I love your « job ». I love every side you depicted, both the Yin and Yang. I am an English-Spanish translator, specialized in technical translator (nothing « romantic » about it!) but always hoping to turn to literary translation. Now I am determined to find an opportunity. So your words are inspirational for me. Thank you.

  10. I, too, am a somewhat frustrated literary translator (English~Spanish, in both directions), looking for a project. Any ideas? Gil Grasselly (

  11. I was looking for some advices related to « how to become a literary translator » and I found yours. I loved reading your experience and it is such an inspiration for me. I’m a Translator (I translate from French to Latinamerican Spanish) and now I really want to start translating some novels, I want to start with some essais but it’s really really really difficult all to the way to become Literary Translator, specially when there is no budget.



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