Thoughts of a translator, by Joan Tate:

“But what do you do?” he asked. I propped the book I was translating on to the plate-holder and rattled off a paragraph in English, demonstrating the magical removal of my endless misprints. There was a silence. The Manager pointed at the book and said: “That’s Swedish, is it?” “Yes,” I said. “Someone else has written it. I put it into English. Then it is published in this country or America. I get paid to do that.” Another silence. Then he pointed at the screen. “That’s English. I can see that.” There was another long pause, while the other two in my tiny room apparently held their breath. Then the Manager said: “But how does it work?”

You tell me. I don’t know either…

When you read a book, a whole mass of words, ideas, action, characters, turns of events, descriptions, dialogue, narrative, etc passes into your mind. You don’t think. You absorb it. When translating, all you have in front of you is the book. Something inside the mind transcribes it into the language that is sitting in the very marrow of your bones. I could no more translate into Swedish than fly.

Via wood s lot.


  1. I found languagehat via joshblog and liked the name so had a look, and the second post i see is abt joan tate, who was a close friend of my parents and the primary inspiration for me becoming a writer (i wanted a house like hers, every house full of books)
    anyway sadly she died suddenly two years ago, a fact i find it very hard to take in – she was always so vigorous and rigorous and full of fun

  2. (i mean every ROOM full of books)

  3. Tack så hemskt mycket!
    “The Swedish authorities will consider applications for grants to cover the fare to Sweden to meet authors person-to-person.”
    I came seeking only gravy, and yet they offered me also meatballs (“köttbullar”).

  4. How to translate words is one thing; how to translate thoughts is quite another, and in some cases it can’t be done without losing some of the intrinsic meaning. Fluency isn’t enough: the translator needs to have absorbed the mindset of the people and absorbed their culture – in the broadest meaning of the word. That’s why it’s always easier to translate into your native tongue than it is to translate from it.

  5. Eliza,
    “That’s why it’s always easier to translate into your native tongue than it is to translate from it.”
    I find translating FrenchEnglish to be a matter of going from one set of idea-thought containers to another. The containers from one language/culture usually don’t correspond perfectly. But even within the same language/culture, most people won’t use exactly the same words/ideas to convey the same meaning.
    Exposure to domain-appropriate usage in both languages is what matters, once basic language mechanics are mastered (still working on this in both of my native languages).

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