“It gives me so much joy to translate poetry”

[interview with Monica Manolachi]

by Ines Vig

How do you perceive the role and significance of working as a literary translator in your career?

I have translated literature ever since I graduated from the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literature, University of Bucharest, almost two decades ago. It has shaped me both as a researcher and as a writer, I have learned a lot from the translated books and from my peer translators, and I feel I belong to a community. Therefore, working as a literary translator is a significant part of my career.

Could you elaborate on your methodology for translating a book? Are there consistent steps you follow for each project, or do certain books necessitate unique approaches? Additionally, do you engage in multiple readings of a book before initiating the translation process?

In my opinion, the way of approaching a book depends on several factors: its linguistic, cultural and aesthetic complexity, its length and the interval available for translation. Reading it – at least partially – before accepting it for translation is essential for finding out if you like the topic, if you are familiar with its terminology and if you can translate it in the given interval. I often translate a few pages before accepting a contract, in order to feel the rhythm and the level of language complexity. Some books that contain many cultural references and specialized vocabulary or use different types of discourse (journalistic, colloquial, political, legal, medical etc.) need further attention, research and work. You may need to consult specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias or other reference books. You may need to ask experts or native speakers to clarify certain issues. Last but not least, it is important to read about the author, the book and the context: interviews, book reviews, articles about the book etc. Reading for pleasure is different from reading in order to translate a book. It is like the difference between just eating a cake and baking it.

Reflecting on your career, could you share your recollections of translating your first book? What was that experience like for you?

The first book I translated was a retranslation of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. It was almost two decades ago. I had read the book and saw the movie when I was a child. Translating it for a younger Romanian audience meant that I had to pay attention to the language of the present, to update its spirit. I remember that, after translating each chapter, I checked with the version I already had at home, to see if my translation was grammatically correct, but insisted on shaping my own version. Retranslation is a way to learn how to translate, but you need to be very careful and honest and avoid plagiarism. One of the risks of using a previous translation too much is to reproduce some of its mistakes. Using a previous translation is also a way to spot errors if there are any in the older version(s). In general, retranslations are desirable in order to have better and better versions.

Among the various genres, do you have a preference for a specific kind of text to translate? Can you elaborate on why a specific genre is your favourite?

Having translated many books for children and adolescents, I could say I have become fond of them and pay attention to young readers’ language when working on such books. Since I was an avid reader as a child and a teenager, translating books for these ages makes me feel young at heart. Poetry is another genre I really like to translate, including poetry with fixed rhyme schemes. It gives me so much pleasure to be in that realm between the languages and try to pick the right words to reconstruct an image, a certain rhythm with a specific sonority! The reason I like translating poetry is that I am a poet myself, I did a PhD focused on poetry and feel good when I translate work from elsewhere into Romanian.

What challenges do you find particularly formidable in the process of translating books?

Understanding the grammatical structure of English, which is often different from the Romanian grammatical structure, is essential, but not sufficient. Reading, listening to and writing in Romanian are very important for a translator in order to develop their linguistic sensitivity and be able to make the best word choices. Apart from these basic conditions, a literary translator needs to be aware of different types of registers and specialized language. Too many neologisms and a style that is too formal may spoil a book, for example. Translating colloquial texts requires a good ear for how people actually speak. Specialized terms need to be checked in specialized dictionaries, glossaries and specific contexts. When it comes to poetry, in which language is more concentrated than in prose, things can get really complicated. Given the various prosodic restrictions, a poem can be like a puzzle or a game of logic. You may need more time and stages to make sure you produce a very good version. Something similar happens in prose when the author uses puns and other forms of wordplay.

Looking back on your portfolio, which book posed the greatest challenge during the translation process, and conversely, which one brought you the most enjoyment? Could you elaborate on the reasons behind these experiences?

Alice in Wonderland was a challenge for me because it contains poetry and wordplay and you need to be very careful with many details. Lewis Carroll was also a mathematician, which is visible in the structure of the book and sometimes in its playful language. Although there are several versions of the book in Romanian, including Frida Papadache’s and Antoaneta Ralian’s, I hope my version brings something new, especially in terms of the poetic sections. It gives me joy to translate poetry, no matter what kind it is, because I have a mind that craves for complexity and for devising solutions to manifold translation problems.

Regarding the practice of translation, what aspects do you find most gratifying and what aspects pose greater challenges or are less enjoyable for you?

Translation is a quiet and static job, a rather lonely one, for those who like and master languages. In the final stages of the editorial process, you should be ready and open to collaborate with the editor, the proofreader, the publisher and sometimes with the marketing team. When the book becomes available for sale and people start speaking and writing about it, you have a strong feeling of achievement and of being useful in the community. We should be aware of its challenges though. Since it is a static job, make sure you practise some sport on a regular basis, check your eyesight and lift weights from time to time.  In terms of organization, it is good to distribute the number of pages on a longer period of time, so as not to be forced to have to translate too much in the last week before the deadline, since it can affect your health. Payment can be a problem for various reasons, especially at the beginning of someone’s career, but things have improved over the past decade. ARTLIT has a page about the first steps in this field, which might be useful from many perspectives.

For individuals aspiring to pursue a career in literary translation, what valuable advice would you offer to guide them in their professional journey?

  1. Read literature as much as you can, in all the languages you know.
  2. If you want a career in this domain, get involved in translation projects as early as possible.
  3. Have a look at The Framework for Literary Translation to see where you are in this field and what you can do to advance.
  4. Follow ARTLIT and become a member at some point, to get used to what is happening in the field.
  5. Become a member of the groups of translators on social media.
  6. Read interviews with literary translators, in Romanian and in other languages.
  7. Study literary translation for an MA degree or a PhD.
  8. Get a job in a publishing house with a portfolio of literary translations.
  9. Participate in book launches and literary festivals to meet writers and translators.
  10. Be part of translation workshops held by specialized organizations.


Note: The above interview is part of the project “Adopt a Translator” conceived by the MA in Translation Theory and Practice, West University of Timișoara, Romania.

“It gives me so much joy to translate poetry”

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