The Literary Translator’s Hardships and Delights

Some texts are harder to translate than others. Some authors are tougher to adapt than others.

Are they complex or delightful ?

According to readers, the writing style of the author wholly contributes to the pleasure and richness of the act of reading. That also holds true for translators.


In a recent interview given to the ATLF (Association of Literary Translators of France), Nathalie Bru defines her work method along with her appreciation for Paul Beatty, the writer who led her to literary translation.

“Exulting while suffering atrociously.”

Nathalie Bru explains that she discovered this author while studying and that, being captivated by his work, she decided to overcome the obstacles by choosing it as the topic of her thesis. Believing Paul Beatty deserved to be better-known in France, she then presented her thesis to publishing houses.

She underlines the importance of distancing oneself from the text in order to translate it better, and the necessity to “absorb” the text to save its essence and meaning, rather than its form. Fidelity implies a precise knowledge of the French language so as to find a writing method meant to save the essence of the source material, instead of wanting to stick to the text at all costs. Nathalie Bru explains : “I let myself be carried along by the text as I see fit, as the text resonates with me. Then, I try to adapt this music to a French one that seems to be in keeping with my style, all the while letting myself be carried along as much as possible by my writing. Numerous adjustments obviously need to be made afterwards. (…)

With this kind of writing, trying to remain as faithful as possible to the original text paradoxically means taking more liberties than when translating more ‘typical’ texts.” Translators themselves have to create innovative structures and seek new sources to draw their inspiration from. Their colleagues, friends, and children become part of the creative process, putting their new ideas to the test.

This method is reminiscent to that of Andre Markowicz. When he translated Dostoïevski’s works, he chose to recreate the intensity of the author’s words, their musicality and their theatrical aspect. This decision caused quite a stir among purists.

Nathalie Bru mentions that a text filled with cultural references could raise. These types of texts require translators to ask themselves, both beforehand and while they translate,  if they fully comprehend each reference to transcribe them properly. Will the reader understand these references ? Did the writer intend for the reader to understand them or not ? Is their understanding essential to grasp the meaning of the text ? Do they need to be explained ? How can they be explained ? How can translators resist the urge to give readers all the clues -proof of the writer’s skill- they have happily gathered during their research ?

To quote Nathalie Bru, isn’t every literary translation “a work that is both exhilarating, exhausting, rewarding, at least culturally if not financially, and extremely frustrating” ?

Alexane Bébin

Translated by Céline ECHILLEY

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