Breaking into Literary Translation: an Interview with Jenna Tang
by Writing Workshops Staff
2 weeks ago
WW: Could you share with us how your journey as a translator has influenced the structure and content of your Breaking into Literary Translation class?
JT: When I first approached the world of literary translation, I found it hard to orient myself until I found my first multi-week translation workshop. Translation resources can be a bit scattering no matter where we are, with a degree or not, so I hope by providing a workshop specifically for emerging translators will help make this process a little bit easier.
WW: Literary translation can be a deeply personal and interpretive process. Could you share how your personal identity and background influence your translation choices and style?
JT: Growing up in a multilingual family, it’s important for me to consider the dialects and languages (or their influences) included in the Mandarin Chinese texts to ensure they’re seen. There are many languages that exist without a proper written system, and therefore easily lost. In my translation, it’s about keeping traces of these less-seen languages, regional slangs, dialects, as bringing them to our pages also represents strength for bringing out my identity.
WW: In your workshop, students are not required to have a translation project at hand. How do you structure your lessons to accommodate both complete beginners and those who already have a project in mind?
JT: The course’s objective, ultimately, is to help all students find their projects to work on. So, for those who already have their projects in mind, that’s awesome, and for those who haven’t, let’s get it going! Breaking into translation also involves understanding what it’s like to become a translator, the major themes the translation world has been repeatedly talking about, etc. So besides workshopping projects, it’d be important to delve into other translators’ writing, comprehending what resources we can make use of, and what comes next as we advance our career.
WW: Your workshop covers a range of topics, from reading for translation to pitching book-length projects. What do you believe is the most challenging aspect for emerging translators, and how does your workshop address this?
JT: Starting a career in the literary industry is never easy, especially as translators. The most challenging part for me back then was having to build a network among translators, editors, publishers, and publishing contacts with the original language I work on. From getting to know people to getting things published, it takes quite a while, but persistence will take us a long way.
WW: The course outline mentions building relationships with authors, publishers, and the community. Could you elaborate on the importance of these relationships in the field of literary translation?
JT: Literary Translators’ world can be small, and everyone kind of knows each other. The process of building a community also meant learning from other translators, understanding the topics they value in books they translated, and exploring what means most to ourselves. I always encourage emerging translators to be active, go to events, apply for summer school, workshops, get involved in ways that’s fun and manageable for yourselves, and slowly build your paths to publications.
WW: Can you share a personal experience where a specific challenge in translation led to a significant learning moment for you, and does this experience shape the way you teach your workshop?
JT: There are many things I learnt along the way. But most important of all, it’s to never translate the whole book before you get a book deal. When I first approached my now upcoming book, I loved the story so much that I simply translated the entire novel within months, all without first landing a book contract. It’s great that things turned out ideal in the end, but please don’t do this!
WW: Your expertise spans multiple languages. How do you believe this multilingual skill influences your approach to teaching literary translation compared to someone who works with a single language pair?
JT: Every translator has their strengths––be they multilingual or not. However, as a language lover, I find different languages provide various perspectives for me to notice the subtle influence languages have on one another. Having access to more than two languages allows me to see that storytelling can structure very differently (even visually) in other languages, and sometimes, having understood the diversity of these narrating structures will inspire me to look at my translation differently, and therefore explore creative ways to tell a story in another language.
WW: Week 3 of your workshop is dedicated to "Getting into the Craft of Literary Translation." Could you give us a sneak peek into what this entails and why mastering the craft is crucial for success in this field?
JT: I would love for the translators in this class to take part in a few fun translation exercises and to workshop these exercises in class. The process is to understand choices and elements we’d consider during the process of translation. It would also be a good occasion for us to workshop short translations for one another, if some of us have new projects in mind, so as to have a taste of what it’s like to finish our early drafts.
WW: You have chosen a diverse range of course texts for your workshop. How do these texts contribute to a deeper understanding of literary translation for your students?
JT: Besides understanding what it’s like to become a translator and work on texts in translation, it’s also crucial for emerging translators to consider what could be “broken,” such as stereotypes, stigmatization, and more. It’s valuable to think about what we can do to make positive changes in the landscape of translation, especially in the languages we work with, and that part of thinking makes us all translators from the start.
WW: How do you approach the balance between remaining faithful to the original text and adapting it to resonate with an English-speaking audience, especially considering the diverse cultural contexts of the languages you work with?
JT: It all depends on the stories and contexts. The process of translation, for me it’s a lot about re-reading the original texts, sometimes consulting the intentionality of the authors (if we have access), and to understand if there’s more than one way to interpret different sections. It’s also learning different ways to express similar emotions or finding various metaphors rooted in these languages. Finally, it’s also about communicating these intentionalities and our understanding to the editors we work with.
WW: In your workshop, do you discuss the ethical considerations and responsibilities of a translator, especially when dealing with sensitive or controversial material?
JT: Of course! And I’d be more than happy to share my experiences, too.
WW: Technology is increasingly playing a role in translation. How do you incorporate discussions about translation technology in your workshop, and what is your stance on the use of these tools in literary translation?
JT: Machines and technologies are nothing without human brains. There are many cultural contexts that can only come from our personal linguistic experiences and instincts. As much as there’s a level of popularity with technological tools, I would love everyone to come back and examine how our own relationships and experiences with languages can inform our own translated works.
WW: Given the evolving landscape of the publishing industry, how does your workshop prepare aspiring translators to navigate the current trends and future opportunities in literary translation?
JT: I have a list of resources that will be shared over weeks of our classes. I have many other students who have made good use of this list and have started publishing their own translations, which is very encouraging. My workshop will also involve sharing literary translation news, so that we’ll be able to follow what’s been talked about most together.
WW: Finally, what is the one piece of advice you'd like to give to someone aspiring to break into the world of literary translation based on your own experiences and the ethos of this workshop?
JT: Persistence is always the key, and be proactive. If you’re not sure what’s the best next step, ask someone, if you feel strongly about a project, go and see if you could be the translator, use all the resources you can and make it a fun process. It’s easy for us to see things we have to do as chores, but it’s always good to remind ourselves that our processes and experiences can be fun!
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Instructor Jenna Tang is a Taiwanese writer, educator, and translator who translates between Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, and English. She is a board member and chair of the Equity Advocates Committee at the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Her translations and essays are published in McSweeney’s, Latin American Literature Today, World Literature Today, Catapult, AAWW, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere. Her forthcoming translations include prose from Lin Yi-Han (The Paris Review) and Lin Yi-Han’s novel, Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise (HarperVia, HarperCollins).