French Literary translation

How to Translate Your Literary Work – The Ultimate Guide

Reading can inspire, captivate, and offer many other benefits. You can find many different types of reading content. However, the world being what it is today, lots of reading content are translations from a source language (SL) to a target language (TL). A good translation communicates the exactitude of information from the source language to the target language. Each language has its particularities. Each one with its own structure and lexicon [1] . They are entirely different systems from each other, such that a literal translation from one language to another won’t quite kick it.

Conveying the context of a written content into another language depends by and large on the type of translation required (technical, commercial, literary, etc.). There are many different areas of translation each necessitating a certain expertise. One of the most demanding is the area of literary translation, the translation of literary works (novels, short stories, plays, poems, etc.). From the perspective of the translator, the translation of a French literary work to English and vice-versa, require many other aptitudes besides a very good knowledge of the source and target language.

French just like Spanish, Chinese, Russian or any other language have several colloquialisms specific to each language. It takes a highly experienced translator to convey such colloquial terms and colourful language into the target language without losing the ambiance in the text.

A good translation is one that renders faithfully from the source language to the target language the correct information, the meaning, as well as the feeling and style of the written content. [2] The nut to crack in a literary translation project is

  • how to best capture the essence of the literature in the manner intended by the author. The tone, the style in which a text is written is as important as what is written.

So What makes a good literary translator?

When reading a poem, a work of fiction, or any other literature, a good literary translation will immerse the reader in the same sensation of the drama as would the original in the source language.  As Patricia Klobusiczky [3]says, a good literary translator not only needs to have a good command of the source language allowing a comprehensive artistic-rhetorical analysis, but should also be able to see, hear, and understand form and perception that is behind a text. A literary translator must be able to command tone, style, inventiveness, and culture. Apart from these, he/she also should have the ability to re-conceptualize or re-verbalize the understanding of the source language into the target language linguistic framework and cognitive environment.

To gain such level of expertise requires years of exposure to the specific culture of the source and target language to translate with accuracy and confidence.  A good literary translator does not necessarily need to be native of the source or target language. Though it is possible to follow courses leading to degrees or diplomas in translation, very few successful literary translators learned their skills through formal training.

The translation of literature needs to sound natural almost like the original work. To some extent there is a certain level of subjectivity on behalf of the translator. Literary translation requires the translator to use their best judgement when interpreting passages of the text. The issue of subjectivity is discussed a little more later in this article.

The aim is not to translate literally what is written in the source language, but what the author meant in each passage, sentence, or paragraph. There might be instances where word-by-word translation needs to be applied, but it remains to the judgement of the translator or when there are key terms or text-critical issues that cannot be unequivocally determined, etc.  In most cases, the success of a translation is judged by the extent to which it doesn’t sound like a translation.

In literary translation an aspect not to be overlooked by a translator is the notion of registers, the socially defined variety of languages within a culture, for example formal or informal, technical or non-technical, urban or rural, jargon or non-jargon, vulgarity or proprietary. Among the different elements in a translation, registers matter. From the viewpoint of the reader, it’s what they perceive to be the correct way of saying something; the choice of words either denotatively or connotatively. The utterance of words in a language conveys an association that exceeds their literal denotation.  What is considered by the notion of registers is not the words or sentences, but the speaker’s idiolect. The manner of speech and its cultural setting in a text dictate the type of pronouns, verbs, etc. most appropriate to use. Failure to take into consideration such idiomatic markers when translating speech can brand the translation as foreign or the translator as inexperienced.

A translator should not neglect the element of tone. The tone indicates the general feeling being conveyed in a passage, a sentence, an utterance, or the entire project. It can involve any sentiment (humour, sincerity, naivety, irony, etc.) Tone violation can distort the author’s intent.

Some techniques used by literary translators for the success of a project

At Sunderland, we specialise in French-English and English-French translation services. Our experts follow a set of procedures that allow us to provide excellent translation services. In the field of literary translation, the mastery of both the source and the target language are the cornerstone for the start of any project. Apart from knowledge of the target and source languages, five other techniques are employed for the success of a translation project: adaptation, linguistic amplification, compensation, elision, and borrowing. Prior to starting any literary translation, it’s important to do your research about the author or contact the author directly to obtain more insight about their perspective of the book or literary work. It is not always possible to read the entire project prior to commencing the translation itself, especially when it’s several hundreds of pages. However, doing so does facilitate the understanding of the tone and style underlying the literature.

  • Adaptation – implies adapting the source language in a manner to be understandable by the target audience. Adaptation may mean non-literal translation of the content. The important thing here is the meaning of the sentence, paragraph instead of the words comprising it. Translators acquire adaptation skills mostly with practice and experience and a good knowledge of both the target and the source language.
  • Linguistic amplification – the use of this technique is applied when there are words in the source language for which there is no equivalent in the target language. In French we call this les intraduisibles (the untranslatables) The technique requires a bit of creativity and problem-solving on the part of the translator. The sentence, paragraph in the target language should retain the same meaning and convey the same message as the source language. It’s essential to read carefully in order to understand the author’s intent.
  • Compensation – a good translator needs to know how to compensate. When there is a piece of information that does not fit well in its original place, the translator can compensate by moving such information into another location. The technique is intended to compensate for the loss the source language may suffer if the text is left out entirely or kept in its original place. The main purpose is to maintain a stylistic quality of the content. Under no circumstances does compensation, eliminate what is essential.
  • Elision – this technique is the opposite of the linguistic amplification technique. It involves removing text from the source language so that it does not appear in the target language. This often is the case when the translator feels the necessity to condense information from a certain passage. To realize this, items considered not essential are taken off with the aim of improving the stylistic quality of the translation.
  • Borrowing – another technique often employed by translators is that of borrowing. It involves using a word from the source language and placing it on the target language without any modification. This often happens when the expression is very popular in common spoken language, even in the target language. It may also be the case that the expression derives from a third language, or simply an untranslated expression that does not need any explanation.
  • Footnotes – the use of footnotes is often useful when translating non-fiction work. It allows the translator to pinpoint problem words, sentences, or explain cultural context. However, for fiction work, footnotes may seem somewhat disturbing, taking the attention of the reader away from the text to some piece of information below. Despite being useful, in this context it is often avoided.

It is indeed a challenging task being able to present a translation that captures the essence of the original document while at the same time sound natural. Something that French ↔ English experts at Sunderland Translations have thoroughly mastered through knowledge and years of experience.

The issue of the translator’s subjectivity

One complexity of literary translation is the subjectivity of the translator when interpreting the original text. In his book “The Trial of the Translator” Knox provide an explanation regarding the translator’s interpretation of the original text as such – the translator needs to find out what the author meant. They must not just express in the target language what the author is trying to say, but also why the author is saying it. The translator must reproduce not just the sense, but also the emphasis of the words. In this context, the task is easier when the translator is in contact with the author, but that is not always possible or practicable for various reasons. Often, the most qualified translator might not be in geographically close to the author, or the author may have moved on mentally from his work so consulting him may not necessarily yield the best results. The original author might also be long dead and therefore unconsultable. So in many cases the only way to interpret the text, is from the text.

The translator’s interpretation of the original text remains a domain still open to debate. Scholars have expressed various viewpoints with regards to the issue. For example, James Delisle in the article, Synthesis Writing in a Foreign Language [5], maintains that the translator’s interpretation of the original text can give rise to two different interpretations both just as well valuable one against the other.  Jerry Levy [6] stresses that the translator’s interpretation of what constitutes invariant information is in itself a creative act. But in the name of creativity, should a translator feel like they are rewriting, or creating something new? One acclaimed translator says she doesn’t feel like that’s her job, and that she prefers to stay as close to the source text as much as possible.

While the risk of subjectivity on the part of the translator is always there, a few safeguards can be taken to ensure that the interpretation of the author’s thoughts is as objective as possible.

To obtain an objective interpretation, the translator needs to carefully consider the author’s personal experience or concepts. [7] Often the author’s life and his work are inextricably linked, and an understanding the author’s life experiences that gave rise to the work is the beginning of an excellent literary translation.

The translator obtains a reference to use in his interpretation of the literary text when it is conditioned with the author’s personal experiences or vision of life. In such circumstances, the translator studies the source language, then through the process of decoding establishes a relationship between the meaning and the author’s thoughts. Approaching the source text in that manner allows the translator to avoid speculative interpretation of the author’s intent and helps him or her achieve an objective rendition of the source language. Thus, the translator is able to provide an objective rendition of the author’s intent if he/she takes into account completely the author’s experiences and concerns that surround the work.

Conclusion concerns

French and English have many similarities but also differences. Dating back to the 11th century during the period of the Norman conquest of England, there have been many French words that have entered the English vocabulary and vice versa. But, there are also many major differences, particularly when it comes to assigning masculine and feminine forms of words. At times the same word can have different meanings depending on the gender of the article used. Contractions are more frequent in the French language than in English. Some cultural expressions are typically French or English.

At Sunderland, we have a thorough mastery of both languages, and we understand the complexities of translating a literary project from French to English and vice-versa. The translation of any language has its particularities. It’s not sufficient to just have a good command of the source and target languages.  John Dodds [8] is among the few scholars to discuss how language choices influence a translation.  In his book, Dodds makes allusion to five areas of the source language that the translator needs to focus on:

  • The phonological features (it involves rhythm and alliteration; sense in sound)
  • The figure of speech (either metaphor or analogy)
  • Semantic features (synonyms, antonyms, leitmotifs, keywords, etc.)
  • Syntactic features ( prefix and suffixes, word construction, verb tense)
  • Positional features (parallelism, paragraph structure, foregrounding, etc.)

These are often the highlights of a literary work. They also strengthen sub-themes or the leitmotif running through a text. Critical to this is the notion of equivalence. It should not be confused with the reader-oriented theory of equivalence. Here, equivalence gives allusion to the relationship between strings or pairs of words.

What Dodds is trying to emphasize is that a literary translator when analysing a text should start by looking for non-casual language in the original text. Then, either account for it or recreate it in the target language. The translator should seek to solve all the semantic and stylistic features. Dodds goes on further to emphasize the fact that, although the author’s suggestion gives sufficient insight to fulfil adequacy in a translation, it doesn’t mean that only the author’s design and intention should be taken as a starting point for the success of a literary work. It remains in the responsibility of the translator to seek language choices that create increased cognitive effects.

The success of a literary work depends on the extent to which a translator can recreate the author’s intention and feeling encapsulated inside the work. There are other methods that a translator can implement to analyse a literary work, for instance the rolling translation approach which involves gradually moulding the language into a required shape.

A good translator has to be alert in capturing cultural expressions by listening to how people talk, reading books. [9] Using the internets to find and understand cultural linguistic expressions in various languages. Often they might read an entire piece of work prior to starting the translation. At times they might be in direct contact with the author. To obtain the natural flow in a translation, they might allow various people to beta-read their translation and provide feedback. They might also read several times what they translated. The reader of the finished work should not get the feeling that they are reading a translated text. The flow should be natural yet provide the same flow of information as the original content. At Sunderland, we have thoroughly mastered the art of translating literary projects to the extent of providing results that are considered true masterpieces in their own right.


[1]  Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, The Subtle Art of Translation  – June 24, 2016

[2] Ernst R. Wendland, Academia Edu,  Literary Translation—A Practical Guide: Some lessons to be learned, with special reference to Bible Translation – pdf, Nd

[3] Frankfurther  Buchmesse, Medium,  Literary Translation – Somewhere Between manic precision and unbridled playfulness – January 17,2018

[4] Centre européen de traduction littéraire, Formation à la traduction littéraire – Nd

[5] ScienceDirect, Synthesis Writing in a Foreign Language – March 11,204

[6]Susan Bassnett,Translation Studies – pdf, Nd

[7] Jeremy Munday, Introduction to Translation Studies – 2001

[8] Research Gate, Translating the “literary” in literary translation in practice – Dec, 2015

[9] Frankfurther  Buchmesse, Medium,  Literary Translation – Somewhere Between manic precision and unbridled playfulness – January 17,2018