Skip to main content

Talking Translation: Nicky Harman

Talking Translation

For the first of our blog series on translation and translators, we're delighted to be joined by Nicky Harman, who has kindly agreed to tell us a bit about her work. Nicky is one of the UK's foremost Chinese-English translators, working on poems and novels by writers such as Chen Xiwo, Han Dong, Dorothy Tse, and Yan Ge. Her translation of Chan Koonchung's The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is just out from Doubleday. And we're very happy that she's going to be joining us on October 9th for our launch event with author Chen Xiwo.

Here's what Nicky had to tell us:

From choosing a project to pitching it to a publisher, how does the initial process work?

Publishers often ask me to pitch interesting work to them. After all, they don’t read Chinese so they rely on people who do – translators and literary agents – to make the introductions, as it were. There are very specific things you have to provide before a publisher is going to evince any serious interest: a sample translation, a synopsis, a profile of the author…Paper Republic has a whole page on how to prepare a pitch to the publisher. It is pretty time-consuming, and requires a good knowledge of the publishing world in general, and of the publisher you are pitching to, in particular. To be honest, I have only rarely managed to make a successful match between author and publisher. In practice, I mostly get asked by publishers to translate work they have already bought the rights to. That’s fine by me. The fact that they have already chosen the work reassures me that they know how it fits within their lists, and will do a good job marketing it.

How closely do you work with authors during your translation?

I have worked with some very good authors over the last few years, ranging from those who speak no English at all, to those whose English is very good. I’m always aware that I’m being paid to do a professional job, so if I come across a term or concept I’m unfamiliar with, I do a lot of research before I bat the problem back to the author. Then I write and ask a limited number of questions – and am almost always humbled by the trouble they take to answer me. Working with authors in this way is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

How much do you get involved after the translation is completed?

That’s a very interesting question. There are two main stages at which I will, or might, be involved. One is part of the translation contract, the other goes beyond it. First, there’s the editing process. Some editors have a very light hand, and the editing is scarcely more than copy-editing. Others want to make positive changes, usually involving tightening up the language and perhaps toning down florid metaphors – and that leads to a process of negotiation between editor, translator and the author too.
When the book is published, there is the marketing. Increasingly, authors are expected to take an active part in promoting their books, in person or using social media. A spin-off effect is that translators are getting involved in promoting their books too. It’s not something you get paid for, but both publishers and authors really appreciate it if you can persuade bloggers and reviewers to review and publicise your book. Of course, large publishers have dedicated departments for this. Even so, an individual translator can make a difference: I managed to get four of my favourite translations from Chinese discussed on a books-and-readers radio programme recently just by contacting them and offering to participate.

Finally, what's the most rewarding part of your job?

Definitely the translating. It’s incredibly hard work, but I’ve always felt immensely privileged to be able to make good Chinese writing available to western readers. It’s a window on a different world. And, with my language and translation skills, I can open that window for other readers too.

Thank you so much to Nicky for taking the time to answer our questions!