Harry Potter or Foucault’s Pendulum: Who translates the world's literature for us?

Umberto Eco, Paulo Coelho, J. K. Rowling. World-famous names of novelists, each representing a different country, literary genre and writing style. Still, they all have something in common. They wrote books which became bestsellers and fascinate readers around the world. We can read these famous works in Slovak thanks to our translators, Comenius University alumni - Stanislav Vallo, Jana Benková Marcelli or Oľga Kralovičová. They have been translating literary works for many years and have crafted dozens of translations. What is it like to translate world-famous titles from Italian, Portuguese or English?

03. 03. 2021 09.46 hod.
By: External Relations Office CU

There is less time to translate a bestseller

Paulo Coelho likes to publish his books at the same time world-wide and strict translation deadlines have to be met to prevent delaying the release. There is usually more time to translate books which are not on the best-selling list. Bestsellers, or books expected to sell exceptionally well, have to be translated quickly. The Brazilian writer prides himself on writing simply and refrains from experimenting with language or style. He focuses on telling the story in an intelligible way because he wants his books to be accessible to a wide range of readers around the world. "His works are not very difficult to translate. There are many other lusophone authors who are a much tougher nut to crack for the translator. That said, even the translation of Coelho's text puts the translator in a pinch sometimes: his novels are generally based on the spiritual traditions of various nations and religions, and one needs to study their specific vocabulary when translating," explains Jana Benková Marcelliová. No matter how hard the translator tries, he or she can never perfectly convey what the author expressed in the original text. "As for Portuguese, it poses a challenge for the translator because it is spoken in such culturally and historically diverse countries. The language is interesting both in terms of linguistics, as well as the topics of the books," she says.

Jana Benková Marcelliová went to study Portuguese by chance and since then she has translated a number of works, including nine novels by the world-famous novelist Paulo Coelho. One of them, The Zahir, was translated into 44 languages. "This book is one of my favourites by this author and so translating it was a pleasure. It was released in 2008, so I don't remember exactly how long it took me to translate it, but it must have been about three to four months. Then came a month or two of editing and proofreading of laid-out text," she describes the work of a translator. However, she says, it is really challenging to make a living in Slovakia exclusively by translating books. The translator is usually paid by the number of pages. "The situation has improved since the establishment of the Slovak Fund for the Support of the Arts, which provides grants for the translation of quality literature. However, these grants definitely should not replace translation fees," thinks Jana Benková Marcelliová.

Contact with the author is crucial

He has translated about 25 books from Italian, including 4 novels by the renowned author Umberto Eco. One of his novels, Foucault's Pendulum published in 1988, caused quite a stir in Europe's literary circles. The translation of the bestselling novel was a pure adventure for Stanislav Vallo - the story, the twists, the atmosphere. As a reader, he really liked all of it. However, the language was complex and difficult. It took him a long time to translate the 600-page tome. On a regular day he might manage to translate 4 pages during the evening but the work went much faster once he withdrew to the quiet solitude of his summer cabin.

In the book, the novelist works with speculations and conspiracy theories surrounding, for example, the Knights Templar. Consequently, the translator had to deal with intricate terminology. "I don't think any of the problems I come across were insurmountable, but there were many that had me digging through heaps of books, and reams of contexts. I think the topic of the Templars still captivates today," says Stanislav Vallo. Before he sits down at the computer with the book and begins translating, he reads it twice. The first time as a regular reader, skipping long descriptive passages, the second time as a translator. That means paying attention to individual letters rather than words.

Translating is not easy from any language and he thinks the pure pleasure of reading is the most important thing to strive for. He also believes that contact with the author is particularly important. "Umberto Eco ’cultivated’ his translators by sending them written guidance where necessary, explaining or adding thoughts if needed. I remember he once wrote in a group e-mail: 'I forbid the French translator to write: En français dans le texte (equivalent to ‘sic’)’,” he reveals. He later became acquainted with Umberto Eco and even met him on a few occasions. The novelist made a lasting impression on him. “There I met and had the opportunity to talk to a literary giant, an extremely wise, even visionary person, and I like to think I did not waste those rare moments," adds Stanislav Vallo.

It’s impossible work without imagination

When the British novelist Joanne Kathleen Rowling published the first book about the wizard Harry Potter more than 20 years ago, "Pottermania" was unleashed on the world. Slovakia was not spared. The first two books were translated by Jana Petrikovičová. Oľga Kralovičová then "inherited" Harry from her and began translating the wizard stories in the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. She then went to translate all of the other books in the series.

Her first literary translations were in fact from Russian and Armenian, but she then refocussed exclusively on English. Her tally so far includes about two hundred titles, five of them books about the most famous wizard - Harry Potter. Every translator works at their own pace and it is difficult to say how long a book translation will take. "Sometimes you do ten pages and then get stuck on one for a day.

It all depends on the text, on the author's style, on your mood...," she explains. "There was very little time, the publishing house wanted to get the book out to readers as soon as possible, so the translation was a little unconventional - a part of the book was nearly in print, the next bit was with the editor and I was still translating the ending. This is very far from ideal for literary translation," Oľga Kralovičová explains how a bestseller is translated.

Then there is the wizarding terminology which continued to pour in after the first two instalments and it was necessary to invent suitable Slovak equivalents. "When translating books like Harry Potter or, more recently, Ickabog, and other children's books, I always try to find out how the author arrived at the names of persons or objects - maybe they started from Latin or from a description of what the creature does, what makes it special or what its properties are. It’s impossible work without imagination," she adds. She translated Harry Potter more than twenty years ago, but to this day she remembers the most interesting wizarding expressions which were not easy to translate into Slovak, like the fictional Blast-Ended Skrewts (tryskochvosté škroty). She also successfully dealt with the names of people or places, stretching her translating skills to the limit. At least she didn't have to deal with the titles of the books themselves because those are usually determined or definitively approved by the publisher. Although the Harry Potter films are often on TV, Oľga Kralovičová has not seen any of them. In this way she wants to retain her own image of Harry.