Interview with ITIA member Maire Nic Mhaolain
Maire Nic Mhaolain, former ITIA Chairperson and Honorary Member, tells us about her accidental path to literary translation
When and why did you decide on a career in translating/interpreting?
I didn’t decide at all. To some extent I was involved in translation when an editor, as most textbooks in the various subjects for the Irish-language educational sector were translated from English by external translators, and then edited by an Gúm staff like myself. At one period in the 1970s we published co-editions of children’s books originally written in continental languages. Usually a version in English was supplied and a translation based on that adapted for the particular age-group, etc. Sometimes, however, a French text (always a French text!) arrived without an English outline, and if no French-Irish translator was available at short notice I translated, and an adapter did the rest. The translator was not mentioned in such cases. I was a public service editor who sometimes translated a little. The career was accidental and – at first anyway – incidental.
Name the most important thing you did that helped you launch your career.
That would be my meeting in 2000 with a publisher’s editor who asked me to translate Marita Conlon-McKenna’s teenage novel Under the Hawthorn Tree into Irish, as part of a commemoration of the Great Famine. She was so determined that I agreed, though previously I hadn’t translated literature from English. The Irish title was/is Faoin Sceach Gheal, and it subsequently won an IBBY (International Board on Books for Young people) award. I suspect that may have had something to do with my later receiving an invitation from Bloomsbury of London to translate the first Harry Potter book into Irish. Again, I didn’t consider myself a translator, though I had translated several Italian literary works to Irish, as well as a clutch of Welsh books for teenagers and adult learners (some of the latter for an Gúm). When my young family heard I was thinking of declining the Bloomsbury offer their howls of horror could be heard in the Isle of Man (i.e. far enough away). That translation turned out to be something of a coup, publicity-wise. Soon I had also translated the first book in the Artemis Fowl series. And – something regrettably rare for literary translators anywhere – most of my translations have my name on the cover. Bloomsbury started that, I believe. I rarely translate official or other documentary texts.
How important are training and qualifications for a career in translating/interpreting?
There aren’t an enormous number of formal training programmes or qualifications for literary translators, though a language degree or other qualification is a good starting point. I’d say a love of language and literature are the essentials.
There aren’t an enormous number of formal training programmes or qualifications for literary translators, though a language degree or other qualification is a good starting point. I’d say a love of language and literature are the essentials. One needs to keep up one’s language skills, however. In Irish, though not so important for literary translators, a good grasp of the fast-changing Irish Official Standard (an Caighdeán) is advisable and, happily, many academic centres and other groups now provide training and qualifications in that area.
I’ve never done interpreting, but it appears the rigorous standards that ought to apply are not always forthcoming.
How do you find clients?
They find/found me, mostly. Because I had a public service post, I didn’t actively seek translation work much, but my membership of ITIA (which I have represented at CEATL, the European Council for Literary Translators’ Associations ) and some chance breaks meant people could contact me, as many did, though mostly for non-literary work.
Do you think it is necessary to specialise?
For Irish literary translation, the market is not large, nor competition strong. So, not really. Formerly translation was widely considered an inferior art, and translation from English to Irish almost a betrayal of our native writers (but Irish writers do like to say how many languages their work has been translated into). However, the old attitude is going, if not gone, and a number of older and contemporary English favourites are now popular in Irish translation, especially for younger audiences. One thinks of authors like R.L. Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and of course Eoin Colfer and J.K. Rowling. Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ even appear in Irish as the An Cúigear Cróga, for example. I myself didn’t translate from English before Faoin Sceach Gheal, preferring to translate works not available in English. But Harry Potter may have changed minds.
What is your favourite type of text/assignment?
A literary novel in Italian, not too long, into Irish. Reasonable timescale. Or a modern edition of an earlier Irish text. To English? Hmm…
What is the best/worst thing about being a translator/ interpreter?
Worst thing? Unreasonable deadlines. And reviewers who wonder why you used one particular word instead of another.
The best thing would be getting to translate a work/author one admires, finding it not so difficult, and being reasonably compensated. Worst thing? Unreasonable deadlines. And reviewers who wonder why you used one particular word instead of another.
Is it possible to have a good standard of living?
No, not for translating into Irish anyway, unless you have other sources of income.
What advice would you give someone thinking of embarking on a career as a translator/interpreter?
Keep up with your own language, particularly if you live abroad, and your target language(s). Get any relevant qualifications. Do research. Value yourself and your work.
I don’t presume to advise interpreters.