Book Translation in Tandem

傅珮琳, Translation Track

  Last summer, I was given an opportunity to work on a book translation with Mandy, a senior who had just graduated from GPTI. We collaborated to translate an academic work titled Opportunity in Crisis, where the author dove into the complex and fascinating history of Cantonese migration during the late Qing dynasty.

  To say I was intimidated is the understatement of the century—up until that point in time, the longest piece of English-to-Chinese translation I had done was a four-thousand-word text for a class project, and I was certainly no expert in Qing dynasty history. Me, a newbie with serious imposter syndrome, is now responsible for a twenty-thousand-word part of an actual paid manuscript? The stakes could not have been any higher. It felt like I was unceremoniously thrown into the deep end to take on the final boss of a video game, just moments after I had finished stumbling through the step-by-step tutorial.

  Well, okay then.

  I decided to take on the task the only way I knew how—by breaking it up into less scary chunks and to set a schedule for myself. The two most important lessons that I had learned through this approach were consistency and discipline. As someone with chronic end-stage procrastination disease, I had never been great at pacing myself, spreading the workload out, and sticking to a reasonable schedule; my usual preferred method was to rush through a whole lot of work right ahead of the deadline. By forcing myself to sit down and translate a set amount of words every single day, I could slowly build up my ability to focus and exercise my translation muscles for extended periods of time.

  I’m proud to report that—by the end of summer—my efficiency was at an all-time high, and if I avoided going down the rabbit hole of funny pet videos on YouTube, I could translate about 1500 words in a day. This may not sound particularly impressive, but given that I started out struggling with eight hundred words a day, I think I deserve a small pat on the shoulder. The sheer volume of Chinese words I was processing on a consistent, daily basis had also sharpened my awareness of using the language more efficiently and elegantly. I would not have gained these skills just by working on class assignments and other ad-hoc translation jobs that were much shorter.

  Translating a book is an incredibly rewarding, yet also incredibly isolating experience. There were stretches of days at a time when I was behind schedule, and had to make up for lost time by limiting my days to just working on the manuscript. Eat, caffeinate, sleep, repeat. It was like some perverse form of self-imposed exile.

  “But you had Mandy!” you say.

  Yes, I did have Mandy, and I would not be here writing this piece of reflection if not for the fact that she had hard-carried us through this project, by singlehandedly tackling the first seventy thousand words of Opportunity in Crisis.

  But, translating a book with another person is also like moving in together with a housemate that you met on Facebook marketplace—the only thing you know about this literal stranger is that they are cuddling a cute cat in their profile picture (which means they are nice, right? All cat-people are nice) but you know absolutely nothing about their living habits; do they leave their dirty dishes in the sink overnight (gross), do they diligently separate their recycling, are they night owls or early birds?

  Just like how every person has unique lifestyle habits, every translator has their own preferences and style, and it is no mean feat to reach a perfectly balanced state whereby two translators could function like two halves of a coherent whole. Just like how non-dysfunctional housemates would set ground rules and boundaries before moving in together, the most important thing that we did before starting translation proper was to translate the book’s index together, to build a common glossary of terms. This was particularly important, as the author of Opportunity in Crisis had referenced specific historical events, notable people and places, as well as important conceptual frameworks and terms throughout the different chapters.

  To streamline the process a little, we opted to not use other collaborative translation tools like Termsoup and simply referred to the index as and when necessary. I imagine using collaborative tools would be much more essential when more translators are involved.

  Compared to other genres of texts, it was also much easier to achieve a somewhat consistent tone in our translation, as Opportunity in Crisis was academic in nature and as long as we consciously used more formal language throughout, our individual segments would not sound too jarringly different. It helped that Mandy had already translated the introduction chapter of the book by the time I started, which meant that I could read her translation to get a feel of the register that was appropriate for the text. Unfortunately, there were still instances whereby we neglected to ensure that our formatting of the texts and footnotes were consistent, and the editors had to step in to correct these issues.

  Apart from the occasional consistency check-in, however, we were exactly like the best kind of housemates who knew how to respect the other person’s space. Yes, the translation process was isolating, but I also knew that I could ask for help if I needed it, which in itself was a very comforting and reassuring thought when the going got tough. That, to me, was the most prominent benefit of working in tandem with a fellow translator.

  Having said that—yes, all that—I do think I might need a longer break before I ever attempt a book translation again in the future, just so that my liver does not hate me so much for all the all-nighters that I had pulled.