Getting lost in translation
June 4, 2012 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Can I be a good friend AND a good coauthor/cotranslater?

My friend and I have started translating a book together. We both loved this book growing up, and decided it would be great to translate it into another language. It was my friend's idea in fact. She had wanted to get started on it for years but never had the time or the real impetus to get started. But it was in the back of her mind that this was a project she would one day do.

Well a few months ago, I proposed that we work on it together. She agreed. I love the book too, and throughout the spring, I managed to translate a little more than a third of it. I want to keep going.

But every time I speak to my friend about working on the project, she always says the same thing:

"I'll start if I can see what you've written and if I want to commit to put my name to it."

This is all right; my friend is a journalist, so she has a sort of profile to maintain. I've never written or published a thing in my life, but I've written some stories that my friend has read. It's all right if she feels she has more to lose, but the way I pictured it, we would be translating together and editing together. It feels weird that even though I've done half the book and she's done none, I'm the under co-author. I'd hoped it would be more equal.

And the thing is, I don't want to subject my writing to that kind of scrutiny yet. I'm sure my stuff isn't that good, and am planning to float the translation by a few other people, but my friend isn't my first choice; she's actually very picky and critical about writing, and I've seen her tear other novice writers to bits. Yet she agreed to work on the book together, in part because I think she thought it would be enjoyable, and in part because I think it's been so hard for her to get started that she's curious what I've done.

I'm in a bind here because I like working on the book, but it's placing pressure on my friendship with my co-translator, who has some issues about getting started.

We really are good, good friends, and our friendship has already survived multiple mini-squabbles about this issue. I'd just like to be able to communicate with her in a way that doesn't end up with her insisting the book is "definitely hers" and I "can't do it without her" and me feeling inadvertently insulted she doesn't trust my translation skills. How do I resolve this issue?
posted by kettleoffish to Human Relations (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
At this point I would say, flat-out, "It doesn't look like this collaboration is going to work. Good luck with it!" and then go on to finish your translation or not. If you do finish, and get friendly feedback and get to the point where you want to seek a publisher, that would be the point where you say "Hey did you ever do your translation of that thing?" It sounds like she definitely will not have, and then it's totally her problem if she gets in a snit because you actually did it.

I am assuming that you don't have a contract or anything (with her or anyone else.) If you do, that changes the picture significantly. But if you don't, you basically are not collaborating and there's no point in continuing to pretend you are.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:43 PM on June 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think if you aren't under contract, want to keep this friendship, and genuinely feel you could do better work than you've done so far, perhaps the most reliable plan that meets those criteria is just let this project wither, call it a learning experience on multiple levels, and start translating a different text--never explaining why you 'lost interest' in the first and never involving yourself in a writing project with this friend again.

OTOH, you know your friend. Maybe you could get away with flattering her and sort of begging off ("I know you want to see it, but I'm just so intimidated by how smart you are! And I'm afraid you might be right to put your name on more practiced and polished stuff. Would you mind terribly if I just finished it myself as practice? Maybe I'll work up the nerve to share it with someone some day.").
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:06 PM on June 4, 2012

This sounds like your project to me. Your friend seems to be reluctant to commit, for reasons either personal or professional. I think you need to take her at her word, and let her off the hook. Just say, "Yeah I see where you're coming from, and I'm not very confident in what I've done so far. Maybe I should just work this one out on my own. Then we don't have to worry about arguing about it anymore."
posted by hermitosis at 10:10 PM on June 4, 2012

I'm a bit confused about two things here. The first is that you say you are the "under co-author", but from what you say your friend has said, that doesn't seem to be the case to me. Your friend isn't sure whether she wants to be co-author or not, but if not, then presumably you are the ONLY author, and if so, then you don't say whether you have discussed authorship credit.

The second thing that confuses me is what your ideal situation for going forward would be. You translated 1/3 already, but don't want to show it to your friend (yet). Would you want her to start translating the next third independently, without having seen your translation? That seems like a terrible idea, because you won't get a natural flow of style. Do you want to work together, sitting around a table on the next third? Again, I think she'll need to see what you have done already to get a sense of where to continue. Do you want her to agree in a binding contract to do this project with you, WITHOUT having seen your translation so far? I can't imagine she would agree to that, and I don't see what you gain from it either.

I think if you want to go ahead with her, you need to show her your translation so far, and let her make up her mind freely. Then discuss how you will work (timeline, frequency of meetings, who does what) and how you will determine credit (both in terms of royalties/money and in terms of whose name goes where.)
posted by lollusc at 12:37 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yep, count me as confused too. It doesn't sound like a collaboration and I'm not sure why you are so resistant to showing her what you've done so far or why you've done so much on your own without her input. This is not how it works, in my experience. I'm not clear how your collaboration is supposed to work, but... Just because the idea was initally hers doesn't give her ownership of the project anymore than just because you aren't confident in your translation skills you need her help. "Multiple" mini-squabbles suggest that you should part ways on this or really sit down and hammer out how this is going to work.
posted by sm1tten at 7:30 AM on June 5, 2012

(Professional literary translator here)

Co-translators ideally read each other's parts of the book and *talk about each other's work*. They are ruthless but fair when discussing which translation they think should be used for which word and why. I don't think either of you have the right idea here. You shouldn't be holding back 'because it's not yet ready to be scrutinized' and she certainly shouldn't let you do a freaking third of the book without looking at it or committing to the project (wtf?).

Do one chapter. Both. The same chapter. See how you have solved the issues, discuss, refine your own translations, discuss again, refine again. See how that works out. If you can still be in the same room after that, decide on how to proceed, knowing at that point what your main strategy will be, how both of you tend to solve the problems encountered and what possible pitfalls you may run into.

The workflow you're describing is more like what experienced translator duo's do, but even they take on the project together and cancel or finish it together.
posted by Skyanth at 7:32 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Skyanth at 7:33 AM on June 5, 2012

There's a saying, that "ideas are easy, implementation is not." Sure, it's great that your friend came up with the original idea for the translation, but who is actually doing it? You.

She hasn't even signed onto the project yet, so she's not your co-author yet. She isn't automatically your coauthor because years ago she came up with the idea. Sounds like she's been resistant to signing on to the commitment.

Count me as confused as to the contractual state of this, and why you say you have been relegated to the "under co-author" status?
posted by bookdragoness at 8:02 AM on June 5, 2012

Just translate the book on your own, give your friend big props in the acknowledgments for having the idea (if she agrees to it), and be done with the fiction that she's going to be part of the project.

Do the work yourself. If, when you're done, she agrees to be part of the project by editing or revising or whatever, decide whether or not you want to do it.

Have either of you formally obtained the rights to translate and publish your translation of this work, presuming it's still under copyright? Because it would be a shame to spend the time doing a full translation of something that you couldn't publish. If she holds the translation rights and you're doing all the work, that is a difficult situation that probably needs a different set of sortings-out.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:38 AM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

It was my friend's idea in fact. She had wanted to get started on it for years but never had the time or the real impetus to get started. But it was in the back of her mind that this was a project she would one day do.

I think this is a part to look at really strongly. Your friend had the idea to do this. In her mind, it was a cherished project, that eventually she would get to. Yes, she never got around to it, yes, she never might have, but in her head, this was her project.

Well a few months ago, I proposed that we work on it together. She agreed.

When you suggested to work on it together, was she enthusiastic? Did she say that sounded fantastic, and start talking about all the things you could do together? Or was she more begrudging? It sounds like it's possible that she only "agreed" to spare your friendship, but isn't very enthusiastic about the partnership.

But every time I speak to my friend about working on the project, she always says the same thing:
"I'll start if I can see what you've written and if I want to commit to put my name to it."

This sounds like maybe one of the reasons she's not super excited about it is that she doesn't think you'll do a good job, but doesn't want to tell you about it. Have you tried talking to her about the differences in quality of work?

I would absolutely not do this project under these circumstances, personally, but I think some of these questions are important data.
posted by corb at 3:40 PM on June 5, 2012

No contract, and no translation rights (it's a public domain book). I just want to honor the original agreement.

I would be happy to let her see the book if her reason were to get a sense of the style, but it's explicitly to judge the quality of my writing, which I don't think is the right sort of aim for a collaboration.

Honestly, I think I'm worried she will react like someone watching a movie version of their favorite book.

The book involves an antihero, and one of the challenges is translating the character sympathetically. So far, I have had to make stylistic choices between, say, the language of violence and anger associated with the character, a gentler vocabulary of "mischief" and "roughhousing" that might make the character's actions more relateable. It doesn't help the book is over 100 years old and the language has 1/2 of the vocabulary of English, so the English translation literally seems more information-rich and specific than the original without necessarily trying.

I would love to run this by my fellow translator but she refuses to even consider there are choices involved in translation. To her, the book is a simple childhood classic and if she got started, everything would fall into place...

I think with time we will work this out. Thanks for the suggestions and keep them coming if there are any more.
posted by kettleoffish at 3:41 PM on June 5, 2012

Corb, she has been talking about translating this book for more than 10 years. She regularly talks about how awesome it will be and how much it will help her career when it's published. The idea of collaboration had come from her (with another book). So it's not a matter of her not wanting to do the book. She's just much more comfortable in the role of critic than translator (which takes a lot of time... I spend a lot of time after work and usually 1 weekend day working on the book). I'm eager to get her to jump in and stop focusing on the quality of my translation as an excuse not to start working.
posted by kettleoffish at 4:01 PM on June 5, 2012

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