Make sure you save a little of the “joy of discovery” for the actual translation process by not reading your source text too closely before translating it.
readingWait a minute, this is kind of familiar?
Reading is when I have to know a book inside out so I can translate it. Having been a graduate student (specializing in Victorian poetry, no less), I have a pretty good idea of the level of intensity that literary critics have to read at in order to discover something new in their source texts, and they as a group are the closest to translators when it comes to close reading—but let’s not kid ourselves. At the end of the day, translators reign supreme. No one reads a book as closely, or as slowly, as we do. Monolingual readers have a single sausage machine to process their reading. Translators have at least two. I’m not going to say that I read the book unless I’ve considered in multiple languages, in every other sentence, the many facets of a single word for its possible congruence to an extended metaphor—like I’m willing forth a Blakean vision of a whole world in a grain of sand.
So yes—believe it or not, we have read the book we’re translating. We just haven’t read it. Unless you are among the very few, very privileged group of translators who work a hundred percent on commission, you have to get a translation contract before you actually translate the book, and to do this you need to write up a book proposal, and to do that you need to have a full synopsis of the plot, and this is why you need to read the book before you translate it. But you don’t have to read the book to do any of that.
But why not read the book before translating it, then?
Well, no one is stopping you—except your other deadlines, surely? I don’t know a single literary translator who does this job full-time who doesn’t have several books on their burners at once and are always reading as widely as possible to find their next (or next-next-next-next more likely) big project. I have to be reading new things constantly, and I can’t do that if I’m reading all the time. Also—and this is the most important reason not to read before you translate—you want the joy of discovery to happen while you’re translating. Because that joy will translate to the reader as well. If you know too much about a book before you translate it, you’re just doing paperwork, and the only thing that will translate to the page is your boredom.
A book is more than just a sum of its parts, more than just information; it’s a mysterious sausage factory of its own, an opaque, enticing experience that will make you think and feel and think-feel, so that by the end of it you will never again be the same person you were when you entered the story. Reading is about getting sausage-factoried over and over again. That’s the experience that I hope to deliver to readers when I translate, and to do that, I have to do more than read a book. I have to read it.