Translating worldwide bestsellers


Добро утро почитувани гости, дами і господа.
Задоволство ми е што сум овде.
Good morning my dear friends, I’m very happy to be here with you in this beautiful country and in this gorgeous city. I must admit that I feel completely at home here, first of all because the Macedonian language is so similar to Ukrainian. For example “sky” is “небо” in Macedonian and „небо” in Ukrainian. “Sea” is „море” in both languages, “book” is “книга”, “water” is „вода”, even “beer” means “пиво” here in Ochrid as well as back home in Kyiv or Lviv. In fact it was harder for me to find words which sound different in our languages or have different meanings like, for example, the word “godina”. I remember that when I came here 3 days ago somebody at the hotel reception asked me how long it took me to fly here from Ukraine. Trying to be polite I answered in Macedonian: “o, три години” (that means of course “three hours” in Ukrainian) but the woman with whom I spoke looked at me as though I came from Mars or from another galaxy, because “три години” in Macedonian means not “three hours” but “three years”.

But not only are our languages so very similar, we have a lot of similarities in our mentality, in our feelings of pride for our ancient and at the same time still young countries, for our history and culture. About two years ago I was invited to take part in a Ukrainian radio talk show in Toronto. It was a small multicultural radio station targeted at different national groups and communities. Our Ukrainian talk show slowly came to an end, and the next hour was to be dedicated to Macedonian political and cultural events. So I met with the Macedonian host of that programme and had a brief conversation with him. First of all he told me that Macedonians helped us, Ukrainians, create our written “Cyrillic” alphabet, and then he proudly stated that the Macedonian language is actually the most ancient language in human history from which all other world languages were born. I must confess that I immediately felt that we were on the same mental wave-length, that we were in the same psychological boat, because many Ukrainian scholars are also absolutely convinced that all world languages were born from one single prehistoric mother-language, only in their case this mother-language is not Macedonian but, as you might have already guessed, Ukrainian. Actually there are some Ukrainian scholars that can easily prove in their “scientific” research that even Jesus, Moses and Buddha were of purely Ukrainian origin. That’s why I was so eager to meet during this session with my Macedonian counterpart – the translator of the Harry Potter series into Macedonian – because we could explore together which English words or phrases in this famous book came from the Ukrainian language and which came from Macedonian. Maybe we could even come to some sort of mutual agreement, dividing the English vocabulary in two parts – one of Ukrainian origin and the other of Macedonian, and probably, only out of a sheer sense of political correctness, we’d leave some tiny part of the English vocabulary for further discussions as to whether it could have been born on its own, without the strong influence of our prehistoric languages. But unfortunately the Macedonian translator couldn’t be present today and so I am here all alone. There’s nobody with whom I can have lead a dialogue or informal conversation as was planned from the beginning by the organizers, so we decided that I’ll talk to you a little bit about my experience in my role as a translator of worldwide bestsellers. And I really mean “my role”; as in some sense I am just playing the role of a translator, because I don’t consider myself a professional translator like all of you sitting here. I’m actually a musician, and I’d rather sing now some lovely Macedonian song for our beautiful host Christina and also for Marina, Maria and other charming Macedonian girls, something like “Македонске девоjче”... Because music is my first and real profession, but sometimes it starts to bore me a little, sometimes I get sick and tired of music, and then I desperately try to find something new, something that will inspire me. And so I’ve found this new source of inspiration in translating worldwide bestsellers, especially in translating children’s literature, because it really helps me not to lose touch with my own inner child.

But I really don’t know if I will be of any help to you, as my approach to translation and my methods of finding, for example, publishers differ from some widely recognised rules. In a sense I've had to reinvent these rules, and I’m not sure that following them would do any other translators much good.

But nevertheless I’ll try to explain to you my personal rules and approach to translating literary works.

Rule #1: Don’t read a story before translating it.
Generally, scholars claim that before beginning a work the translator has to research the peculiarities of the author’s language and decide upon the ways of recreating it in the target text. But this approach doesn’t work with me, because I’m a pretty lazy person and nothing in the world could convince me to sit at my computer for a month and a half each and every day for almost 20 hours struggling to meet a deadline (as it was with Harry Potter) if I already knew the final outcome of the story. But due to my “new” method of translating while reading a book for the first time, I was always eager to find out what was written on the next page and my wish as a reader to know how the book ends motivated me as a translator. Of course this method is not perfect, and some corrections needed to be made in previously translated chapters, but honestly speaking all translators of Harry Potter had the same problem, because nobody knew how the whole series will end, so some corrections needed to be introduced even to previously translated and published books. But we all are human, and as we know, humanun errare est, so even Joan Rowling, the one and only person who supposedly should know the great final secret and everything concerning the subject matter of the books, made some mistakes in the process of writing, so time after time her publishers sent us the lists of these mistakes made in previous books so that we could correct them as well.

Rule #2: Translate the first two pages and then get up and go for a beer.
Literary translation is very creative work, you are in some way a co-author, you’re almost writing a new book, a new story, and so in order for this new story to be real, full of life, of energy, of colors, smells and sounds, you must connect with the original writer, you must understand and feel the author’s thoughts, impulses, temptations, inspirations, conscious and subconscious stimuli. In short, you have to be on the same creative level with the author, you have to feel the same sublime vibrations, otherwise your translation will be hollow, shallow and dull. That’s why, when starting a new book, I usually translate only the first two pages and stop for a while to think it over and make the final decision as to whether this is "my kind of author" or not. If I feel him or her, my translation of these two pages will flow easily and smoothly, like a river, but when I’m struggling with it from the very first sentences, when there are too many obstacles, too much blood, sweat and tears in my work, then this work turns into hard labor instead of being a bird’s song. So I just stop right there, because nothing good would come of it, especially in translating children’s literature. You just can't cheat children, you can’t convince them to read dull, uninteresting and amorphous stories, they will never read a book full of heavy and sweaty phrases and sentences, a book devoid of dynamic, rhythm and inner music.

Which brings us to
Rule #3: A literary translator must be a musician.
And it doesn’t necessarily means that he has to play any kind of instrument or sing in a church choir, but he or she must feel the inner rhythm of each phrase, sentence, chapter and the book as a whole, he must connect different letters and words in such a manner that they flow naturally and smoothly like words of a good folk song. The translator must feel all the subtle nuances and invisible changes of tempo, dynamic, crescendo, diminuendo and so on, and so on. Any literary translation must be perceived by readers easily as a natural creation, as “a beautiful song”.

But then we come to
Rule #4, which somewhat contradicts my previous rule: A literary translator must not be a musician.
By this rule I mean that literary translator should not be a real musician, at least he or she must not be well known as a musician before embarking on a career as a literary translator. That’s what happened to me when I started translating literary works and began looking for publishers. Unfortunately the publishers I knew also knew me as a musician and all of them at first were extremely skeptical as to my literary gifts (What? A musician is trying to be a translator? Ha-ha-ha… You can’t be serious).
And honestly speaking I understood these publishers perfectly well because I would also have laughed at them if they, for example, told me that they were going to start writing love songs and become rock-stars. I must admit that it took me a very long time to persuade these publishers that I really can translate and that my musical ability to feel the inner music in literary works is rather useful in translating. And only after I convinced them did I run into another big problem in translation - negotiating a literary translation contract.

Which leads me directly to
Rule #5: A literary translator should marry a lawyer.
A good lawyer is absolutely indispensable during negotiations of such contracts, but good lawyers, unfortunately, are extremely expensive, so I’m more than glad that some time ago, before I even thought about becoming a translator, my intuition and my hidden third eye helped me to see, find and choose the woman that not only gave me a lot of love and two sweet twin-daughters, but also became my personal and very inexpensive lawyer - as she even refuses to take any money from me! What a lucky guy I am! But of course I have to satisfy her in any other possible way…
So what are the challenges of such a contract?
No publisher in the world would like to pay you good money for your translation. They always try to somehow rip you off in one way or other. Many publishers in Ukraine try to rip you off completely. They say that books sell very poorly, that nobody nowadays reads any books at all, that paper is expensive, that their publishing house is on the verge of bankruptcy, that pirates are printing illegal copies of the books and selling them at some markets and bazaars, and so on, and so on. Even if they agree to pay you some money, they want to grab and forever take away from you your translation rights, and they never want to hear anything about such a thing as translator royalties – they just pretend that they've never even heard of such a word (“royalties”) and don’t know what it means.
So after negotiating an advance and overall base translation fee (depending on the size of the translated book) the first thing you should try to put into your contract is a clause about the percentage of royalties you will receive depending on future sales of the given book, especially if you feel or know already that it will be or is a worldwide bestseller, so that you will still be earning some money even after you’ve finished your job and received your initial payment.
The next thing is to make sure that your contract is signed for a specified period of time (usually 4-5 years) and your rights as a translator of the certain novel or book remain with you and not the publisher. In other words, you are granting the publisher a license to use your translation for a limited time. And after that period of time you can either change some of the terms of your contract, or sign it again for another several years or don’t sign it at all and negotiate new contract terms with another publisher (this is especially useful if the publisher loses the rights to publish the translation). It is also necessary to agree with the publisher in advance (and specify in the contract) the final deadline for publishing your translation, so if this deadline passes and the book is still not published for some reason, the contract terminates and you then have the right to give a license to your translation to some other publisher who is willing to print it.
And then it’s quite important to set the deadline for your own work, because in the cases of worldwide bestsellers, such as Harry Potter, the pressure from the publishers, the public and your own feeling of responsibility before young readers, anxiously awaiting the book, is so unbearable that it leads us to

Rule #6: A translator of worldwide bestsellers must be physically strong and be able to survive on almost no sleep for weeks or months in a row.
As I mentioned already, translating Harry Potter was not very easy, because I had to meet extremely harsh deadlines imposed on me by my publisher and by myself. That meant that I became deprived not only of proper sleep, but of many other things and pleasures of my normal life. No browsing the internet (except for different online dictionaries and the Harry Potter lexicon site), no telephone calls, no sex, drugs, or rock’n’roll - not much of anything. It was like voluntarily putting myself into a cage or prison cell. I only knew that each and every day I must translate no less than 15 pages in order to meet the deadline and this was not an easy task. To make it even less easy my wife got pregnant with two twins some 7 or 8 months before I started translation of last Harry Potter book. So during the days when I translated final chapters my twin daughters were so eager to see the light of the real world and they so actively pushed and kicked inside my wife’s belly, that I just kept begging them: “Please, don’t be in such a hurry, there’s no need to get out so early, please, don’t leave mummy’s paradise so soon, please, one more week, one more day, one more hour!” And fortunately for me they were good girls, so they decided to be born literally in a few days after I’ve finished my translation. But I also knew that all these sacrifices were justified, because we had to finish our work as soon as possible in order to beat the Russian translators and publishers. Why? Because the problem with the Ukrainian market is that a lot of Ukrainians (in fact more or less half of them) primarily speak not Ukrainian but Russian and they read Russian-language books. So if “Harry Potter” in Russian was first on the market, we’d lose a lot of potential readers and buyers of our product, (and I would lose my royalties) because many Ukrainians would read the book in Russian and wouldn’t want to buy it again in Ukrainian. But, on the flip-side, every time the Ukrainian version of Harry Potter was published before the Russian translation, more and more Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who didn’t know English well enough to read the book in the original, but were eager to find out what happened to their hero, started to read it in Ukrainian. We got a lot of letters from these new readers, who told us how they discovered that the Ukrainian translation is much better than Russian and that now they will be reading only Ukrainian-language books. So for us it was not only a commercial victory but also a moral one. But in order to gain this victory and to really increase the numbers of our new potential readers and buyers, we had to ensure that the Ukrainian translation of Harry Potter would not only be the first on the market, but also the best as to quality.

And that leads to
Rule #7: A literary translator needs a team of very good editors.
I was very happy to find the best children’s publisher in Ukraine, a well-known and respected Ukrainian poet and my good friend Ivan Malkovych, who founded his private publishing house with a funny name “A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA”. The quality of texts is the highest priority for him, and being a brilliant poet and stylist himself, he will never publish poorly translated and stylistically unpolished material. It was he who hired one of Ukraine’s best editors and proofreaders, so each time that I finished a chapter of the book, I send it to one editor, who then sent the edited chapter to another editor, and then Malkovych himself would edit the text once more, and then it went back to me for final checking and rechecking. But even that was not enough for getting the best possible product, which brings me to

Rule #8: A literary translator needs a network of fellow-translators:
I must admit that I never heard about before Ann invited me to take part in your 10th anniversary conference, but it was very interesting for me to learn that such a translator’s network exists, because I am the member of another translator’s network, the so-called “HP translators group”, founded 5 years ago by Gili Bar-Hillel, the translator of Harry Potter into Hebrew from Israel. This group is comprised of many HP translators from all over the world, who can exchange information, thoughts and for the first time ever discuss different aspects of an ongoing translation with others translating the same work at the same time. The only major difference between and HP translators group is that is very open network and HP translators – very closed. Maybe that’s because not all HP translators want that outside world would know about their doubts and uncertainties, and maybe because some their emails are full of very sarcastic remarks concerning greedy and arrogant publishers and literary agents. This network was of great help for all of us including me during translation of Harry Potter books. By the way the International UNESCO Conference of Harry Potter translators will be held in Paris on 8 of September, the International Literacy Day. So you see that it’s very helpful to have fellow-translators, it’s great to have good friends and that brings us to

Rule #9: Your publisher must be your good friend.
That’s exactly what happened to me most of the time. All my publishers happened to be my friends and that helped me a lot to create playful, not too serious, not too official atmosphere, to turn my often pretty hard and exhausting work into fun: we could play tennis together, drink beer together, exchange dirty jokes and laugh together, so that is the bright side of such friendly relationships with your publishers. But unfortunately there is also a dark side and that brings me to

Rule #10, which completely contradicts my previous rule: Don’t ever be a friend of your publisher.
Because in that case you can’t really quarrel with him or her, you can’t be serious and official enough to negotiate some serious problems; you can’t even cheat him or her, you can’t bluff with them, and that was my favorite rule #1, which now dropped as low as

Rule #11: A literary translator should perfectly master the art of cheating and bluffing with publishers.
Because that was exactly how I started my translator career. It so happened some 10 years ago that a friend of mine gave me to read the book of Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho “The Alchemist” translated into English. I liked this simple but wise story, though I’ve never heard before the name of this writer. I’ve asked my literary friends about him, but nobody at that time in Ukraine ever heard of Paulo Coelho or his novels. That intrigued me a little and so, as I went at that time through the cycle of hating music, I decided to translate “The Alchemist” just for fun, out of boredom. Actually it was the first and the last time when I broke my golden rule #1: Don’t read a story before translating it.
So I’ve translated some 10 or 15 pages of the book and it so happened, that one journalist had an interview with me as a musician. We spoke about my music career but somewhere in the middle of interview she asked me about fulfilling my (childish) dreams, so I told her Coelho’s words about following one’s dream and also mentioned that I’m translating his novel “The Alchemist”. The interview was published in a local newspaper, it so happened, that one publisher, who didn’t know me personally, but who wanted to publish “The Alchemist” and even began talks with some respected translator about translating this book, read this interview. He knew me only as a musician, so he thought that there was some mistake in the newspaper about me translating Paulo Coelho. So he wrote me an email and asked if it’s true that I am translating “The Alchemist”. I answered: Yes, it’s true. So then he asked me where I have learned Portuguese and how many pages of the book I’ve already translated.
As you might know, “The Alchemist” is the book not only about following one’s dreams but also about ability to read the signs. So I thought that this email from unknown publisher is my sign, and it tells me that only I and nobody else must translate “The Alchemist” into Ukrainian. So I wrote the publisher that I perfectly know Portuguese, because I’ve been touring Portugal with concerts and because my grandmother was of Portuguese origin and she sang me Portuguese lullabies when I was a child. I also told him that I’m almost finished the book, though, as I told you already, was really finishing just the 10-th or 15-th page, so I told him a lot of little lies and so it happened that he signed a contract with me instead of the well-known and respected translator, and the first book of Paulo Coelho in Ukrainian was published with my translation.
And you know it still helps me. Just a few weeks ago I’ve decided to change the old windows in my Lviv apartment for new ones. I’ve found one of the best window-making companies in Lviv, and when a woman, who represented this company, came to my flat to look at the windows, she was shocked to find out, that I was the translator of “The Alchemist” into Ukrainian. She told me that she was Russian-speaking for whole of her life and then some times ago she happened to read “The Alchemist”. It was the first Ukrainian language book that she had read, and she was so excited by the inner music of translation (and that were her words, not mine), that now I’m absolutely sure that my new windows would be the best in the whole city or even country.
So I came to conclusion that good translations are very helpful in life. And on that bright note I’d like to conclude my somewhat unprepared speech and tell you all: Благодарам! Thank you! And До видуванjя! See you later! Chao!

Victor Morozov