Where should a literary translator live?
Thread poster: Melanie Wittwer

Melanie Wittwer  Identity Verified
New Zealand
Local time: 13:00
English to German
+ ...
Oct 13, 2011

I live in New Zealand and am finding my feet in literary translation. NZ will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2012. NZ has a large and vibrant immigrant community, many of them first generation immigrants, and a number of those highly qualified translators with a keen interest in literary translation. Now, it seems to be the case that, if you live at the far end of the world, far from the action that is the international publishing market, you'll find it hard to get your voice heard.
Overseas publishers seem to prefer translators living in the target culture to those native speakers of the target culture who have, often after reaching adulthood, left their native shores to live and breaths the culture of their country of choice, the literature of which they would so much like to translate.
I would like your opinions on whether a literary text might benefit more (translator capability aside, of course) from a translator who is permanently situated in the target culture and intimately knows and is very much part of the target readership, but might have never lived in the source culture, or from a translator who has his/her roots in the target culture, but is now fully immersed in the source culture and familiar with all or most of its idiosyncrasies.
New Zealand and a few other countries might be in special position as immigrant countries here.
Excuse the polemics, but this is a matter close to my heart.


Hege Jakobsen Lepri  Identity Verified
Local time: 19:00
Member (2002)
English to Norwegian
+ ...
In Norwegian publishing Oct 13, 2011

...all, or close to all literary translators live in the target culture. I believe there are two reasons for this: A belief that first language attrition does happen and that living for longer periods abroad will leave you with a less sharp linguistic tool kit - in the language you translate in to.

The other issue is the fact that distance from the publishers is always a disadvantage.


Local time: 19:00
Chinese to English
+ ...
affordable living matters Oct 13, 2011

I'd want to live close to or in the target culture, but frankly financial concerns dictate people's decisions more than they'd like. I say do it wherever you may be, and translate your heart out.


Lothar Beyer  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:00
English to German
+ ...
If you are good, it doesen't matter Oct 13, 2011

While in exile in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the US Berthold Brecht wrote some of his finest pieces like : Life of Galileo, Mother Courage and Her Children, The Good Person of Szechwan, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich.
Are Joseph Brodsky Russian poems of lower quality because he produced them living in New York. If you are good, you are good - no matter where you live.
Lothar Beyer


S P Willcock (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 02:00
German to English
+ ...
Not where but how Oct 14, 2011

Melanie's original question simplifies the situation down to two languages, one source and one target, but since I translate from four languages into English I suppose I am an exceptional case. To cite another example, the much-awarded British translator Anthea Bell works from at least three languages, and is happy to confess that she has only ever learnt Danish from reading and has no spoken knowledge.

For myself, I live in Romania for family and then financial reasons, and the fact that Czech and German are spoken here as minority languages is lower down my list. I think it's more important that I spend time reading novels and poetry in English as well as in my source languages, listening to UK radio online, doing the occasional crossword even, than that I live back in the UK or in another Anglophone country where I could also speak English at the grocer's and the filling station.

Certainly any time I wanted to speak English in a pub or kaffeeklatsch context, Bucharest is full of such opportunities, but I don't feel that these are absolutely necessary for my skillset.


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Where should a literary translator live?

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