In this column of the SLD Blog, we feature members of ATA’s Slavic Languages Division: translators and interpreters working in Slavic languages. Their stories, experience, and career highlights will inspire both beginners and experienced professionals. Today’s post is an interview with a long-time SLD member, ATA-certified Russian to English translator, Shelley Fairweather-Vega.
- What is your story of getting started as a translator?
Like a lot of our colleagues, I became a translator accidentally. My first translation job was for School No. 26 for Blind and Weak-Sighted Children in Ryazan, Russia, where I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching English, from 2000 to 2002. The principal wanted a grant from an American organization. So every day for a week, I’d finish up teaching my adorable second- through seventh- graders and then spend an hour or two on the school’s computer, translating handwritten Russian bureaucratese into non-profit-sector English. We won the grant.
After Peace Corps, I had a series of jobs in government and libraries that required the use of Russian and sometimes translation. By the time I started my graduate school program, I was on ProZ and freelancing occasionally. In graduate school, I studied Uzbek as well as more Russian, and began translating from that language, too. A few years later, I quit my day job and became a full-time freelance translator.
- What fields do you specialize in, and how did you build up your expertise in those areas?
I first specialized in legal Russian, especially concerning politics and current events. I had plenty of legal vocabulary at my fingertips from working with lawyers, but I enjoyed translating journalism more because, unlike court rulings and contracts, journalistic writing requires (and allows for!) a dash of creativity. As part of my job buying Russian-language books for the Multnomah County Library system in Portland, Oregon, I wanted to research new Russian fiction to identify the most interesting contemporary authors. I discovered Lizok’s Bookshelf, the blog by Lisa Hayden, a prolific translator of Russian fiction. I began wondering if I could do what Lisa does someday. Years later, when I had started translating books, I met Lisa at a translation conference, and I feel so lucky to consider her a colleague now. Reading Lisa’s translations and work by other literary translators has given me insight into how that sort of translation works (and sometimes doesn’t work), and networking through conferences and social media has taught me a lot about the field.
Literary translation projects aren’t constant, so I continue to take legal jobs and creative translation jobs that aren’t exactly high literature. I really enjoy working on computer games and scripts for Russian animated shows for kids, for instance. The task is not just to translate the plot and dialogue and camera directions well, but also to develop an end product that has a good chance of selling to English-speaking producers and entertaining English-language audiences. My training for that consisted solely of watching lots of cartoons on YouTube with my kids when they were little.
- Can you share an example of the most rewarding project you have ever worked on and why it felt this way?
Probably the most rewarding translation I’ve published is a short essay by an Uzbek author, Mamadali Mahmudov, which he wrote while in prison on trumped-up political charges. It was a pro bono job through Translators Without Borders. Bringing attention to his plight felt like working for a good cause, and anyway, the translation married my two interests – literature and politics. As an extra bonus for me, my translation was noticed by another Uzbek writer, Hamid Ismailov. He contacted me, and since then, I’ve published translations of two novels, one essay, and three short stories of his.
- In your opinion, what are the most important skills of a literary translator?
Literary translation is a specialization like any other, in some respects – you need to master the vocabulary and style of your source material and its equivalents in your target language. That means having a real eye and ear for dialogue in fiction and rhythm, rhyme, and meter in poetry, for example. None of those things works exactly the same in Russian, Uzbek, and English. Having a good background in different styles and genres in your languages helps a lot. And when you translate literature, you almost always work for direct clients, whether publishing houses or authors. That requires the business skills to constantly negotiate terms, seek out new work, answer your clients’ questions, and help them through the process of translation and publishing.
Literary translators also need to be fearless. In this field, your name will be on everything you translate, so you have to be ready for the scrutiny of editors, readers, and critics; and that means you need to be humble, because nothing you translate will ever be perfect, and everyone will know it.
- At ATA’s 61st Annual Conference, you presented a session called “Getting Edited and Getting Ahead in Literary Translation”. What have you learned from the experience of getting your work edited and editing other people’s work?
I think getting edited has helped to teach me that blend of fearlessness and humility that I mentioned above. I’ve learned so much from being edited, from the simplest things to the most complex psycho-literary tricks imaginable. On the simple side, it took an editor to finally tell me that в частности doesn’t mean “in part” – I hadn’t specifically learned the expression, my solution felt sort of obvious, and it always seemed to fit the context, so I’d never questioned it. I will never make that mistake again. But most editing doesn’t deal with simple translation errors – it’s about writing that could be improved. Most suggested edits I see simply tell me that something I’ve written isn’t clear or is triggering some unintended response in the reader. Then I get to do the hard mental work of figuring out where the fault lies and how to fix it, while still guided by what the original text is trying to say and do. The more often you go through this process, the more confidence you develop in your translation choices. You start to be able to predict what will trip up an editor and what their objections will be, so you self-edit as you translate. You build a store of arguments you can deploy when you need to convince the editor to see things your way. You also develop the insight and confidence you need to propose third solutions that solve the problem the editor identified and convey the meaning and style your translation needs to preserve.
- When we have our work edited by others, it may be easy to perceive it negatively, get discouraged, or get defensive. Do you have any tips, especially for beginner translators, on how to see the positive sides of getting feedback and when to defend their translation choices?
Seeing that sea of red on the screen when you open up a document with tracked changes is always terribly alarming. I’m not sure that initial shock ever gets less painful. When you receive edits, try looking through them once without responding. Scan the whole text, read the comments, and try to just absorb an understanding of what is bothering the editor, what they like and don’t like. Then give yourself a break and do something else. After your heart rate returns to normal, go back to the text and start responding methodically. That will give you the time you need to let your natural defensiveness subside a little and to consider the suggested edits more objectively.
You will always find at least one edit that you’re thankful for. Respond to that one first and let that feeling of gratitude to the editor carry over as you continue. Even when you disagree with an edit, respond respectfully, either defending your choices or proposing new options politely and rationally. You’ll feel much healthier and more professional, more as if you’re in a productive conversation with the editor and less like you’re in a boxing ring, warding off blows.
Always pick your battles. Sometimes edits are purely preferential changes, doing nothing to improve the translation. But as long as the edit also does no harm, try to let the editor have their own way sometimes. The translation won’t suffer, and it will save you the grief of arguing over one more thing.
- What is important to remember when we edit other people’s work?
Remember how the translator will feel when they see all those tracked changes and try not to traumatize them! Less is usually more; try only to suggest changes that objectively improve the translation in terms of accuracy or style or clearly improve the target-language writing. Often, it’s better to ask questions: rather than changing X to Y, ask, “Do you think Y would work here?” And be sure you know exactly what your role is, as editor, in this project. Does the final responsibility rest with you or with the translator? Are you expected to check the translation for accuracy or just polish the target-language text? If you find yourself making extensive edits, offer an explanation: “I’m changing most of the passive voice to active voice,” or “These terms are covered in the glossary,” for instance, so the translator knows what is guiding your editing decisions.
Finally, take the time to offer a compliment or two when the translator has come up with something especially good. Especially if you’re going to be editing this person’s work again, it’s smart – and kind – to establish some rapport.
- What advice would you give to colleagues who are just getting started in translation?
The single most important thing you can do is read. Read the kinds of things you might translate in your source language and read all kinds of writing in your target language. Additionally, to thrive in this business, as solitary as it can be, you need to know people. Attend trainings and conferences, hang out on social media, join those listservs. Your colleagues will be your single best source of knowledge, referrals, advice, and inspiration.
Shelley Fairweather-Vega is an ATA-certified translator from Russian to English and an enthusiastic translator of Uzbek. Her translations of poetry and prose have been published by presses ranging from Routledge to Tilted Axis, and in Translation Review, Words Without Borders, story and poetry anthologies, and more. Shelley is currently President of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (an ATA chapter) and serves on the advisory board of the Translation Studies Hub at the University of Washington.
Shelley’s Amazon author page
We would love to feature other translators and interpreters working with Slavic languages in future SLD Blog posts! If you have recommendations or would like to share your own story and expertise, please email the SLD Blog co-editors: Veronika Demichelis and Marisa Irwin.