Interview With Translator Michelle Bailat-Jones - Uncharted

Interview With Translator Michelle Bailat-Jones

By Riv Begun

How did you become a translator?

Translation has always interested me, probably because my family is very language-focused. Both of my parents studied German, and then Japanese. My sister and I were born in Japan, so when we were little, languages and playing with language were a part of our daily lives. I ended up attending a high school in Portland, OR with a large and marvelous foreign language program, and by the time I was in university, I was focused on French and Japanese. But alongside a love of language, I love reading and writing and it seemed quite natural to combine those interests and see if I could use them professionally.

Like most translators, I began with short pieces in magazines and worked my way to a first novel… while also developing a commercial translation practice, which wasn’t just good for the financial aspect of my life but taught me to be precise and cultivate a broad working vocabulary.

Do you have advice for anyone else who wants to become a translator?

Aside from reading a ton in your different languages? That seems key to me, for cultural fluency but also to never stop thinking about how the different languages work and compare. In terms of practical advice, there are degree programs in both literary and non-literary translation, and it isn’t a bad idea to do your research and see if you might enjoy becoming a translator in what might be considered a traditional way. There are so many resources for you if you go this route.

What was one of your favorite books to work on in translation?

This is a difficult question in many ways. I’ve learned so many interesting things from my non-literary translations -I translate for a number of researchers in a variety of fields, from barn owls to particle physics, and I absolutely love getting to learn new ideas while I work. At the same time, my true love is literary fiction so in that area one of my favorite books was BEAUTY ON EARTH, by C.F. Ramuz, a Swiss writer -a really difficult text and I was still getting my feet wet in translation, so I agonized over so many of my choices. But Ramuz’s writing is unsettling and exciting, and I loved being able to play with it and try to make it feel both unsettling and exciting in English.

Do you have a process for translating? What does it look like?

Depending on the length of the work to be translated, I will read it all or parts of it before I start tackling it. Sometimes something at the end of a work will determine the decisions I make early on, and it can be good to have those already in mind. Otherwise, my process is quite simply to open the book and jump right in. I tend to work quickly and then edit later. Again, I think this is because I like being able to hold the entire book in my head at one point and then start polishing the English version of it.

What does your relationship with the author of the original work look like?

This varies depending on the project. There are advantages to working with living authors -being able to ask questions, for one -but also for working with classics. Maybe there’s a certain freedom to translating a classic, a sense that you are more in control. And yet I don’t know a single translator who isn’t afraid of making a mistake or translating a work and somehow missing the spirit of the original.

What was it like having your own work translated?

I’ve only had a small article translated into French, German, and Italian but it was great fun. And interesting, too. Both the French and German translators had questions for me, they had both essentially identified places in my original piece that were vague and required some interpretation. Sometimes this is on purpose (certain images or metaphors, or puns) and will create a fun challenge for the translator. But otherwise, it is well known amongst translators that a translation will often reveal the weaknesses in an original work. No one reads a text more thoroughly than the translator.

What are your favorite translated works?

There are far too many to list! I read heavily from the catalogs of a small group of translation-focused literary presses: Peirene Press, Deep Vellum, New Directions, Two Lines Press, Tilted Axis, Twisted Spoon, Dalkey Archive, Coffee House Press, and many more. There are certainly not enough books published in translation in English, but hopefully, maybe, this is slowly changing. It has been very exciting to see more and more translations from languages considered less common; Tilted Axis press does a particularly good job of this.

s5.Get a critique group and feedback.6.Think it’s done!7.Send it to agents.8.Rejections! Turns out it needs more revision.9.Do more revision. Then more.10.Get an agent finally, hallelujah!11.Revise (Still not published.)12.Sub-club, for what seems like a hundred years.13.Write another book.14.Maybe book one gets published, maybe it doesn’t!15.Maybe it does!16.Write another book.At least, that’s approximately how it went for me. But what I will say about the process is that it’s long and only for those who intend to spend their lives writing. The most important thing to remember is that it’s not about one book, or even two books, or three getting rejected or getting published. It’s about the writing. It’s about persistence in writing, about loving the reward of writing stories, and about not worrying about the publication process so much. It’s very hard notto worry sometimes, of course, but letting go of the worry to enjoy writing is really the whole point of writing.

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