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The Translator's Practice: An Interview With Brett Jocelyn Epstein

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This month “The Practicing Writer” considers an aspect of the craft and business of writing that many of us don't necessarily think about every day: translation. What does a translator do? What are the ties between writing and translation? And where can we learn more? In an interview with Erika Dreifus, Brett Jocelyn Epstein shares insights on these essential elements of the translator's craft and business.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein lives in southern Sweden, where she works as a writer, translator, editor, and English teacher. She is the author of a forthcoming textbook, Ready, Set, Teach: Creative Lessons for the Intermediate English Classroom. She was graduated from Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, with a BA in English and creative writing, and she received an MFA in fiction from Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Please visit her website for more information.

Erika Dreifus: Brett, can you briefly describe the job of a translator?

Brett Jocelyn Epstein: Translation is the art and craft of bringing an author's actual words, as well as his ideas, implications, moods, voice, style, and so forth, from the source language (the language to be translated from) to the target language (the language to be translated to), without being either overly literal and strict with the text or overly free and loose. A translator must consider what and how would the author have written this document if he were writing in the target language. So, translation is the delicate and formidable job of perfectly recreating the author's original document.

ED: What kinds of business opportunities are open to translators?

BJE: The great majority of translators support themselves with non-fiction work. My partner, Daniel Elander, and I mainly translate articles, websites, business documents, and menus from Swedish to English, though we've also worked with Danish. Translating legal documents, articles, reference works, textbooks, websites, and other such items unfortunately pays better and is much easier to get into than translating poetry, plays, or novels. I personally feel that translating creative work is more challenging and more interesting, but since only approximately two percent of all literature published in the United States is in translation (and the translations that do exist come primarily from Spanish, French, or German), it is clear that there is little work available for people who want to translate novels or poems. Most people who do this work don't do so because they want to make money (translating literature is far from lucrative), but rather because they are dedicated to literature and/or to the specific author or work and because they want the intellectual and creative challenge.

ED: In a recent article, you issued a call for more people to "join the ranks of translators." In what ways may practicing writers be particularly suited to the work of translating texts?

BJE: I really do think that writers are the ideal people to be translators. To translate a text, you must understand it fully and be able to basically rewrite it in a new language. Clearly, then, it helps if a translator has experience with writing, the writing process, analyzing literature, and editing. Certainly there are good translators out there who do not work on their own original writing and likewise there are good writers who don't have the patience for or interest in working with other people's documents, but in general, I believe translating and writing are worthy and compatible mates and I find both that reading, analyzing, and translating texts has benefited my own writing and also that writing stories and articles has helped me better understand the English language and how to translate into it.

ED: What works "on translating" would you recommend for anyone interested in learning more on the topic?

BJE: One of the best ways, I think, to learn about translation is to carefully read and study a document in both its original language and its translation. When I did this with Pär Lagerkvist's The Dwarf, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what words and phrases really meant and why the translator had made certain choices and I compared this to what I would have done, had I been the translator. In fact, I realized that I was not satisfied at all with the English translation and I hope that one day soon a publishing company will decide to issue a new version of this novel. As for actual works on translation, I have particularly enjoyed and learned from Vladimir Nabokov's essay "The Art of Translation", William Weaver's essay "The Process of Translation" (which can be found in an interesting volume called The Craft of Translation, edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte), and Performing Without a Stage: The Art of Literary Translation by Robert Wechsler.

ED: Thank you, Brett!

This interview is from the November 2004 issue of "The Practicing Writer" newsletter. Erika Dreifus is a writer, teacher, and the editor of "The Practicing Writer". Please see for more information.

Brett Jocelyn Epstein is a Swedish to English translator who has translated articles, menus, websites, stories, and other works. She is also an English teacher, writer, and editor, and she has a BA in literature and creative writing from Bryn Mawr College and an MFA in fiction from Queens University.
Please visit her website at for more information.

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