Devil’s in the Details

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Ladies and gentleman, I’d like you to give a big warm welcome to our very first guest blogger. RM is an old friend of mine and, I’m happy to say, just as mental. She comes at writing from a completely alien perspective (in more ways than one, I suspect) and made enough interesting noises in my general direction that I invited her to say them publicly. She has, naturally, risen to the occasion.

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First, a confession: I’m a literary translator. Hence, I’m not really writing about writing; I’m writing about re-writing other people’s writing. Of course many translators are writers too, of one sort or another, and some are not only fabulous wordsmiths, they can spin a damn good yarn as well. Not me though: I’m living proof that not everyone has a novel inside them. So what am I doing here?

It’s a truism that translators are an author’s closest readers, and there’s nothing like a close reader examining your prose and asking questions about why your sentences are so long, or if that word there is supposed to have religious connotations, to make you really pay attention to the details. Some authors enjoy the process of being translated, and – if the language they are being translated into is one they speak themselves – like to get involved, and see it as a chance to revisit and re-edit their original text. Others find that kind of sentence-level attention… well, a bit stalker-ish. For the first book I translated, I asked over 100 questions. Yes, I know. Obsessive.

Anyway, as a translator I spend a lot of time getting under the skin of a text. When I’m rummaging through its bins or sitting outside its house in a parked car with my binoculars, it’s the little things I’m looking for. The precise tone of the writing, the vocabulary of each character, the things that, if I get them a tiny bit wrong, will make the whole thing sound crocked. And this, in essence, is why I’m here: because these are also things that a writer has to bear in mind, especially in sci-fi and fantasy. The world you are creating is a delicate thing, and it hangs by a thread: one jarring phrase or a single anachronism can bring it crashing down.

Sorry, that was rather melodramatic. But you know what I mean: the devil’s in the detail. So, how to get the detail right? Well, when I get to an editing stage, there are a few things I do. You might find them helpful too.

  • Go through the text, copying and pasting each character’s direct speech into a separate document. Then analyse them: do your characters speak with discernably different voices? How do they typically structure their sentences? What are the verbal quirks, tics or abuses of grammar that distinguish them from each other?
  • Pay attention to your swearing. Swearing is the bane of my life as a translator: it’s so culturally specific, and so easy to get wrong. If you’re unsure, f**k is pretty universal, so it’s usually a safe bet. Unless you’re writing Young Adult fiction. Publishers get a bit twitchy about saying the f-word to children, but sh*t is ok, apparently.
  • If a word or phrase you’ve used feels odd, but you can’t put your finger on why, look it up in a dictionary of etymology (there are free ones online). This should also tell you when the first recorded use was, so you know if you’re being era-appropriate. Google Images can be helpful in a number of ways. For example: do the scales on a merman ‘shimmer’ or ‘glisten’? Google Images returns about 50/50 pictures of stars and water for ‘shimmering’ and almost all water for ‘glistening’. So ‘glistening’ evidently sounds wetter. A dictionary will give you a range of meanings, but it won’t give you a consensus view of what a word conjures up for people.

I could go on, but I should be a good guest and not outstay my welcome. Besides, I have developed an unhealthy interest in a German crime novel, and it needs my attention. Now where did I put my binoculars?

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RM’s website is here.

If you would like to hear more from this guest in the future please comment with your opinion.

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