wikiHow to Translate Literary Works

Literary translation is an art involving the transposing and interpreting of creative works such as novels, short prose, poetry, drama, comic strips, and film scripts from one language and culture into another. It can also involve intellectual and academic works like psychology publications, philosophy and physics papers, art and literary criticism, and works of classical and ancient literature. Without literary translation, human thought and art would be devoid of the souls of great minds and books, spanning The Bible to Don Quixote to Freud and Einstein to Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk. If translating literature and academia interests you, learning how to translate can be incredibly rewarding.


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    Become an avid and intimate reader in each of your languages. Translating creative works requires the ability to read between the lines. You have to love reading in the genre(s) you're translating and be both intimate with the writer and the nuances of language, culture, thought, and message.
    • If, for instance, you translate prose poems from Dutch into English, you have to read as many published (and unpublished) prose poems as possible, in Dutch and in English. This will help you to grasp the styles, the subtleties, the contexts, and soul of prose poetry in order to deconstruct the Dutch and reconstruct the English.
    • Remember to keep on top of your languages. Language is a fluid entity that constantly changes and evolves. Dialects change, semantics change, new words are coined, old words die and are reborn.
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    Master your writing skills in your mother tongue. Most literary translators, with very few exceptions, translate exclusively into their mother tongue, the language within best they express themselves and are most at home in. To translate a book, you have to write a book; to translate a play, you need to know how to write a play. The only way you can do this is write as much as possible in your language and continuously hone that skill. Most published translators are also published writers.
    • A rare exception to the rule was Israel's Leah Goldberg (1911 - 1970). She was European raised and educated, yet translated exclusively into Modern Hebrew, her third language, from six other languages. She however adopted Hebrew as her home and vehicle of expression and was a prolific writer exclusively in Hebrew as well.
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    Get an education. Academic institutions worldwide are one of the strongest sources and supporters of literary and academic translation. Consider getting at least one degree in comparative literature, linguistics, languages, or translation to give you a head start. Literary translation specifically is often offered through creative writing programs. Receiving academic training will also give you access to literary lectures, mentor ships with professors who translate, and libraries with well-established and worldly collections.
    • If academia is out of your league, you can teach yourself through books. Check out your local book shops and libraries on what is published on the subject and read, read, read. (See Tips below for more information.)
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    Research the writer and work you are translating. A writer's work is a piece of him/herself. In order to interpret what you're reading, you have to know everything about the person behind the words. Ask yourself: When and where was the work written? Where was the writer from? What surrounded the writer at the time the work was written? Does the work draw references from other literary pieces? What else has the writer written? And so forth.
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    Know the risks behind what you're translating. The translation of a particular work can cost both the writer and translator their lives depending on the statement of the work. The translation of books has sparked revolutions and wars. Know your audience.
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    Remember that no translation is perfect. The minute you begin to render your first sentence, the original is already lost in translation. It is your job not to find an equivalent but rather reconstruct the original as though it was written in the target language. Cultural concepts, shades of colour, shades of meaning, and even history can and will be lost. Don't be afraid of that but instead embrace it. You can always use footnotes / end notes if necessary. Who is your audience?
    • Proofread the translated finished parts one by one before the general read and review at the end. You might find a better word or an expression in the same language that gets the exact meaning of the other. Do not over process, but check to see where can you install your enhancements.
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    Find a publisher. Literary translations are largely contracted through publishing houses. Approach them, research them, provide writing/translation samples, and negotiate.
    • Some countries offer grants through federal arts/culture councils allocated specifically for translating literary works. Check out what's available to you and weigh your options.
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    Join a professional translation organization. Whether you live in Canada, Chile, Cameroon, or China, there are professional organizations for translators as well as organizations for literary translation. Joining an organization is important for your professionalism, it enables you to network, and it opens your doors to professional training opportunities and translation prizes.
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    Practice constantly. Find yourself a comfortable place and translate for at least fifteen minutes a day. You can only get better by working hard and maintaining a regular schedule. After a while, you will be amazed at how much work you have accumulated.


  • Always have your translating elements with you. The thesaurus is very important, followed by a dictionary (and pens and papers if the translation is handwritten).
  • Here is a list of reading materials on literary translation to get you started:
    • The Translation Studies Reader, Lawrence Venuti
    • Why Translation Matters, Edith Grossman
    • On Translation, Paul Ricoeur
    • Experiences in Translation, Umberto Eco
    • Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, Douglas R. Hofstadter
    • Translators on translating: Inside the invisible art, Andrew Wilson
    • A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel
  • In translating, there is a concept of terms used for a certain purpose. Check the book kind. For example, for lliterature, look for " Literary terms" that are more appropriately targeted at literature than just using any or everyday terms and vocabulary.

Things You'll Need

  • Monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, thesauri, and encyclopedias in all your languages
  • Notebooks and memo pads
  • Computer/electronic device
  • Plenty of reading and learning materials

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