In July 2010 Vineet Lal attended the annual BCLT Summer School in Norwich. That summer would prove to be a turning point in his journey towards literary translation, as he was awarded one of the first-ever Emerging Translator mentorships (at that time run jointly by BCLT and the Translators Association). Vineet’s mentorship, with the award-winning translator Sarah Ardizzone, came to an end on 28 February 2011, almost exactly a decade ago. This is his chance to pause and reflect.
So, unbelievably, ten years have passed.
What lessons have I learnt?
I have learnt that getting into literary translation is really, really hard. Incredibly hard. No matter what your profile or background. But if you have the core skills (which you can constantly improve and refine), and determination, and the drive to seek out opportunities, and craft your own luck, you can – with time – find a way through. Sort of. I have learnt that there are so many wonderful translators out there and comparatively little work (because comparatively little gets translated) – and so competition, understandably, is intense. Yet once you have proved your ability, and established your credentials, you engender trust. You build confidence in yourself and, crucially, with publishers and ‘gatekeepers’, and hopefully a job well done will help you find the next.
I have learnt that there are so many factors that contribute to ‘making it’. Your skill as a writer in English (arguably the most important skill of all). Your ability to understand the finest nuances of your source language. Your education and upbringing, class, life experience and cultural awareness. Your personal connections and networks. Your visibility in the industry, being ‘top of mind’ and (this is a sensitive area, as witnessed by the Gorman debate) your ethnicity. And, to a certain degree, whether you live in London and the South East, although COVID-19, in a strange and wholly unexpected twist of fate, is changing that dramatically.
I have learnt that publishing is a world which tends to be risk-averse when it comes to translation – and the decision to go with X or Y translator is a hugely complex one (and one over which you have little control). Choosing an emerging translator is predicated, in large part, on the confidence that you can deliver work of the highest quality. A challenge, of course, given the circularity of the argument: you need those opportunities to have the chance to prove yourself, and you need proof of your skills to have those opportunities in the first place.
I have learnt to deal with hard knocks. Lots of them. Like all creative industries, the path to success is by no means defined – there isn’t a clear roadmap to follow, far from it – and you will encounter rejection far more than you will success. But when success does come (and you have to believe it will, to keep going), it means you are all the hungrier to prove your worth – and you will often surprise yourself with what you are able to achieve.
I have learnt that I love language. Juggling with syllables, exploring tone and register, making words jump through hoops, or perform a double somersault if need be. I love the challenge of dissecting the original, of breaking down its rhythm, its tempo, its heartbeat. Then putting it all back together. Making my version sound, well, the way I think the source text ought to have sounded, had it been written in English to begin with. As if I were a musician (and, on occasion, a magician) – playing the same score, but based on my interpretation, with all my little pencil marks and sticky notes in the margins.
I have learnt too that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’, or ideal, translation. A cliché, but there are as many translations of a text as there are translators. And none of them is any more ‘right’ than the other. Indeed, the differences between them are often a source of joy. In 2019 I took part in a translation slam, with the wonderful Ros Schwartz, and it was both daunting and thrilling in equal measure – not least because we had taken such contrasting approaches to the same set of words. (I’d used a different tense, for starters.)
I have learnt to be finely attuned to my own weaknesses. To avoid replicating, often inadvertently, syntax and structure where English would phrase things differently. To be conscious of the bits and bobs of source language architecture that would otherwise clutter up my translation, and to have the courage to sweep them away. To be on the lookout for traps – for false friends, for subtle markers of gender and number, for ambiguity and layers of meaning, for shades of doubt and uncertainty, and the complex renderings of modal verbs. To notice the strange, the unusual, the deliberate twisting of language. I have learnt that none of this is easy, and often the simplest of sentences hold the greatest of challenges. Tread carefully.
I have learnt to stand back and look at my work. To wield the red pen. To be a critical reader and a ruthless editor. To quiz, to question, to interrogate, as if the voice of my mentor were still in my ear. To ask myself if what I’ve written makes sense – and if it doesn’t, was that the intention? Or have I (as I suspect) misunderstood? To create fictional worlds with their own ecosystems and logic, and to be consistent in obeying their internal rules. To look for pattern, and thread, and theme. To think about the reader.
I have learnt to be brave. To be unafraid to change gear: to be both concise and meandering as the narrative voice dictates. I have learnt to ‘let go of the side’. To focus on meaning, not words. To have the confidence, at times, to step away from the original – because only by moving away can I be truer to the spirit of the text. I have learnt to find creative solutions to problems, to mull them over, to shape and polish and prune. To defend the choices I have made because, after all, that’s the task I was given. To make endless decisions. To check, check and check again. To have a sense of responsibility – because to be a translator is an enormous privilege too.
Perhaps most importantly I have learnt that there is so much still to learn. This has only been the start of my journey. With each successive translation I know that I am honing and sharpening my skills. Improving my craft. Just as no translation, they say, is ever truly finished – merely abandoned – so the learning process is an endless one too. I know that I need to read more, to listen more – to read the work of other translators, to read a range of original work in English and French, to listen to authentic dialogue, to reach for words that I wouldn’t normally use. And I know that I’m part of a community now, a community which I can always turn to for inspiration and encouragement, and a range of networks – including NCW, BCLT, ETN, The Society of Authors/TA, English PEN – all of which can provide help, advice and support. I remember, back in the summer of 2011, saying that I’d like to be ‘part of the conversation’. Thanks to the mentorship – and all that followed – I am well on my way.
Vineet Lal studied French at the University of Edinburgh and Princeton University. He has taught at both Heriot-Watt and Napier universities, and translated several well-known French authors including Guillaume Musso and Grégoire Delacourt. From September to December 2021 he will be a virtual Translator in Residence at NCW as part of the Visible Communities programme.