The Art of Literary Translation

There is a wealth of literature out there that we will only ever get to read a fraction of. Time is certainly an impediment. There’s also lack of access. But a big part of it is that they’re written in languages we don’t understand.

Helping to address this are the literary translators of the world, who bring us stories great and small. They are the authors we hear little about, eclipsed by the writers of the stories they translate.

To try to understand what it is that literary translators do, the challenges involved with their work and what the market is like for translated books, I spoke to the President of the Australian Association for Literary Translation, Dr Brigid Maher, who has translated four novels by Milena Agus from their original Italian into English.


In 2008, Dr Brigid Maher answered a call put out by Scribe Publications. The timing could not have been better; she had just finished her PhD and was doing research on translation studies, and Scribe was looking for someone to translate three books by Milena Agus. Brigid submitted her translation of the sample chapter from the Milena Agus book Scribe had chosen, won the job, and promptly set to work.

What followed was a process that involved translating and submitting chunks of text 8,000 – 10,000 words long. Editors at Scribe read it, gave their comments and suggestions back to Milena, and a negotiation ensued if there remained differences in opinion.

As Brigid explained, ‘I might say, “No, I want it to be that way because that’s what [Milena] said,” and they’d come back and say, “Yes, but in English it sounds…” however. And then we’d find a way to resolve the problems so that it respected what was in the original but didn’t create problems for the reader in English.’

The Milena Agus books Brigid translated for Scribe were quite short, with each being around 150 pages. This, combined with the fact that the original texts were written in a straightforward, colloquial style, meant that Brigid was able to get through each one over a period of two to three months.

The work, however, wasn’t without its challenges. When I asked Brigid about the difficulties involved with translating Italian into English, she said that in the greater scheme of things they’re a relatively easy combination because they’re culturally and historically related.

‘But problems crop up at every minute because languages are so heavily influenced by culture and the two languages have very different grammars,’ Brigid added. ‘There will always be words in the source text that there either isn’t a word for in English or which, to translate properly you have to paraphrase at great length – which you don’t always want to do.’

With Milena’s books, Brigid wasn’t just working with Italian. The novels are peppered with Sardinian – which Brigid doesn’t know. Milena’s novels are largely set in Sardinia and she uses Sardinian in them in small, deliberate doses: ‘It’s often provincial characters or closed-minded older characters who use dialect.’

Brigid added that Milena sometimes uses footnotes in her books to tell readers what the bits in Sardinian mean, but that she herself wasn’t able to use footnotes in her translations.

‘Scribe wasn’t keen on footnotes and we don’t get a lot of footnotes in literary fiction in English – not counting classics, I mean.’

Brigid said that footnotes weren’t necessary and that she found ways around the issue – by putting dialect into italics and letting the context give readers a sense of what the words in dialect meant.

Just as Milena used Sardinian deliberately in her novels, Brigid left phrases of Italian in her translation to create particular effects too. She gave the example of the term case di ringhiera, which she described as being, ‘A kind of housing that was built in Milan after the war; apartments next to each other which had a big shared balcony.’

This phrase is used in the first of Milena’s books Brigid translated, The House in Via Manno. The grandmother of the book’s narrator lives in Milan but had a lover who lived in this sort of apartment in Milan. On a trip that the grandmother, Nonna, goes on to Milan, she sets out to find her former lover and begins by searching the parts of Milan which have these case di ringhiera.

Brigid said, ‘Rather than just say, “He lived in a big apartment in Milan”, I kept that term, partly to show that this for her was kind of a foreign concept. Even though they’re both Italian, she’s from a very different world.’

The experience Brigid had translating Milena Agus contrasted with the time she spent translating another Italian author, Nicola Lagioia, which involved a much longer editing process.

‘With Nicola… he uses a much wider range of vocabulary, much more complex structures in his sentences. There’s a lot of irony, there’s understatement, there’s quite cleverly and carefully chosen vocabulary to create certain effects of humour or of wryness.’

Brigid sought to preserve these elements of Nicola’s original text, including recreating some of the really long sentences – she said one was about 500 words long.

I asked Brigid whether it’s difficult to replicate an author’s style in translating from one language to another, and she confirmed that it is.

‘I know that I couldn’t translate just any writer. I really felt I had a connection with Nicola’s style.’

She mentioned another author who she translated a short sample chapter of, describing the writing as lyrical and beautiful.

‘I thought, “Gosh, I think I’d find this really hard work if I had to do a whole book of it.” It’s beautiful to read, but I don’t know whether that’s my voice.’


Brigid and I talked about the liberties and constraints that come with translating a book into another language. I mentioned the changes that occurred with the translation of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 from Japanese to English, which I read about in a paper published in the Australian Association for Literary Translation Review (which Brigid is the editor of). The changes included the elimination of certain passages that were deemed repetitive, changing the tense of some passages, and italicising a protagonist’s inner monologues.

In discussing these changes, Brigid posited that Murakami was probably involved in the decision-making around the translation of his work – a statement that aligned with what the paper by Anna Zielinkska-Elliot and Mette Holm indicated.

She went on to say, ‘Whereas we certainly didn’t leave stuff out. We tried to clear stuff up if it was ambiguous in the wrong way in the original; maybe swapped one half of a sentence around with another.’

‘It’s a tricky thing because sometimes editors might want to leave out a whole passage and if they were working with the original author they might. But we find ourselves in this bind where the editor might go, “I actually think these three sentences, we’d be better off without them”. But that’s not really a decision we can make.’

This kind of loyalty to the original text which Brigid outlined would certainly be of assurance to authors. I had asked Brigid earlier if there is someone who determines whether a translation is faithful to the original – especially if the original author doesn’t speak the language their book is translated into. Brigid answered that the assumption is that the translator has that responsibility.

‘There isn’t really a policeman there checking that you haven’t made mistakes or invented stuff,’ she said. ‘We did as a courtesy send the translation to Milena’s Italian publisher, and they came back with a couple of comments. I don’t actually know if Milena herself read it or if it was the foreign rights editor there who maybe mentioned it to her because I don’t know if she speaks English.’

‘Generally if you’re in a position where you’re doing the translation work, you’re enough of an authority. So most of the editing I’ve had has been more how it’s sounding in English rather than checking whether I’ve understood words or whether I’ve misinterpreted something.’


In the western world, books translated into English comprise a very small portion of the book market. Three Percent, an initiative within the University of Rochester which is dedicated to advancing international literature, takes its name from the estimated proportion of books published in the United States that are works in translation.

The group Literature Across Frontiers conducted a feasibility study in 2012 which indicated that translated books account for less than 3% of all publications in the United Kingdom and Ireland – although the picture was slightly brighter when they looked at poetry, fiction and drama in translation as a percentage of the same in the dominant language. That came to 4.59% for publications published in 2008.

Dr Brigid Maher said that the corresponding percentage for Australian publishing was difficult to pin down, but suggested that the figure would be in the ballpark of 3%.

‘The percentage of books on [Australian shelves] that are translated from another language is much lower than if you were to do the opposite in, say, France or Germany or Italy. We read a lot less in translation.’

In asking Brigid why she thought the figures were so low in Australia and similar countries, she said that it was hard to say.

‘I often wonder whether it’s related to the fact we also don’t learn languages very much or well. We sort of have a very big global language and there’s a lot already produced in our language; there’s a big population writing in our language. And I think that can make us get a bit insular.’

She pointed to other likely possibilities, such as the cautiousness of publishers over whether people will buy translated books and the difficulty of marketing a book by an author who lives overseas and may not speak English.

‘It’s sort of a chicken and egg thing whether publishers don’t get the sales because there isn’t the appetite, or whether there’s not much of an appetite because there hasn’t been much exposure to it. It’s tricky to know.’

We ended on an optimistic note though, talking once again about big names like Haruki Murakami who make the idea of reading a translated work slightly less daunting. Brigid mentioned also that recent interest in Nordic, Italian and French crime fiction is making a big difference.

‘You’ve got a nice kind of balance there between the foreignness and exoticness of Stockholm or wherever you might choose for the setting of your novel. But at the same time, crime fiction is a fairly familiar genre. So that’s hopefully helping and branching people out.’


This article was published in the June 2015 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre.

June 2015 cover

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