When I first moved to France 11 years ago, intending to make my career as a novelist, I spoke barely a word of French. And, though my wife was French, I never made any particular effort to remedy that. Apart from attending one five-week intensive course, understanding and fluency came to me through a process of osmosis: family mealtimes or post-football conversations as important as reading Proust and Camus. So it was not until I discovered, as many authors had before me, that novels alone are rarely a sufficient source of income, that I began to consider translation as an option.

There is no set way to become a literary translator. I was lucky: I contacted my publishers Faber to say I would be interested in providing readers’ reports on French novels, and was given a “rush job” to do – Laurent Binet’s HHhH had won a Prix Goncourt and my editor needed a report within 48 hours because various publishers were about to bid for it. I read the book in a frenzy and loved it – more than I had loved any novel for years. I wrote an ecstatic report and, though the rights were bought not by Faber but by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US and by Harvill Secker in the UK, I emailed those editors to say I was interested in translating the book. I was told that more than a dozen translators had said the same thing, and was asked to send in a sample translation of about 30 pages. I did so, and was thrilled to be given the job. My trans­lation, the result of six months’ labour, was published last week.

I am now a full-time translator. Not only literary translation but the more banal, short-deadline work given out by agencies: everything from technical manuals to corporate catalogues to art gallery audio guides. The work can be dull and stressful but it is rarely unpleasant: you can do it in bed, for a start, and it often has the same sort of compulsive fascination as a crossword puzzle. And, unlike writing novels, you get paid every month. Literary translation is, however, by far the most fascinating and prestigious form of translation.

Though I am fairly unusual as a literary translator in having a non-academic background, I am not alone. Tim Mohr, the American translator of Charlotte Roche’s sexually explicit bestselling German novel Wetlands (2008), picked up the language while working as a club DJ in Berlin.

“I didn’t speak a word when I arrived,” says Mohr. “I was a typical American who thought Germany was Oktoberfest: I expected to get off the plane in Berlin and find everyone running around in Lederhosen. But I fell in love with the city, and particularly the nightlife, immediately. And I slowly learnt German.

“By the time I left, seven years later, I had gotten OK at it, though my vocabulary was obviously a bit skewed toward things that made me the perfect translator for Wetlands. Which is how I got that job, actually. I read the book for the eventual US publisher when they were considering buying the rights. And I said to the editor, ‘You know, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an academic translator who is as familiar with terminology related to anal sex as a former Berlin club DJ is.’”

Wetlands is not only extremely graphic but highly inventive, with Roche coining nicknames, for example, for female genitalia. “I kept trying out different solutions and vacillating on which to use,” says Mohr. “The words for the inner and outer labia went right down to the wire.”

I am facing similar dilemmas with the book I am currently translating, Le système Victoria by Eric Reinhardt. The word “sexe”, meaning genitalia, male or female, is used repeatedly through the novel, which focuses on an adulterous and sexually obsessive affair. Although the English word “sex” can be used in the same way, I think it would sound too odd in this context. And while I suspect that it will come down to a series of choices between the blunt, the bawdy and the medical, each word will have very different cultural connotations to the French original.

What you are translating is never simply a series of signs or letters on a page but a set of unspoken assumptions and values. If sex is tricky, humour can be even more so. Anthea Bell, who in a 50-year career of translating from French and German into English has translated a vast range of books, says, “I think humour is perhaps the hardest thing of all to translate. People say the Germans have no sense of humour but I’ve spent much of my career trying to prove the contrary.” Bell is particularly acclaimed for her treatment of the puns in Astérix, Goscinny and Uderzo’s classic bande dessinée series – even though, as she admits, “You can’t translate a pun ... You have to think laterally.” Which is how the British leader Zebigbos becomes Mykingdomforanos.

Each language has its own tics. The French are so fond of long, rambling sentences that when you use a French keyboard, you have to press the shift key to get a full stop – yet the semi-colon is right there. French writers also love ellipses and exclamation marks to a degree that, were you to reproduce these punctuation elements faithfully in an English translation, it would risk looking like the work of a 14-year-old. The rhythms of other languages are also obviously, fundamentally different from English.

All of this makes the idea of a “faithful” translation much knottier than it might first seem. The British novelist Tim Parks lives in Italy, where he is an accomplished trans­lator and also teaches the subject. He says, “The greater your understanding of the original language, its culture and nuances, the more you are able to free yourself from its immediate forms and write convincingly in your own language. Faithfulness is not just a faithfulness to the semantics of a text but to its readability and register.”

This is what Julian Barnes referred to, in his review of Lydia Davis’s recent trans­lation of Madame Bovary, as “the paradox and bind of translation. If to be ‘faithful’ is to be ‘clunky’, then it is also to be unfaithful, because Flaubert was not a ‘clunky’ writer.” And that is, I think, the crux of the matter: sometimes only a “free” translation is capable of being true to the soul of the original book. It was something I learned while translating HHhH, thanks to two very good editors, both of whom had read the book in French, and who were able to point out to me where I was attempting to mirror too closely the syntax of the original.

The translator’s country of residence has its effects, too. While it is undoubtedly an advantage to spend time in the country of your “source” language (France, in my case), living there full-time can have a deleterious effect on your “target” language (English), because French expressions and ways of phrasing can come to sound natural when they are, in fact, slightly strange in English. Mohr, now living in New York, agrees with this: “Keeping the melody of the language in your head makes a huge difference. I’m working on Charlotte Roche’s second book right now, and I saw a noticeable difference in how fast and fluidly [the translation] came after my most recent trip to Germany. I ‘hear’ the German better after being there, and that makes everything easier. But if you don’t refresh your English, you may start to sound ‘too German’.”

Anna Holmwood, who translates from Swedish (her mother’s language) and Chinese (which she learned at university), is part of a new generation of Chinese-to-English translators who have been able to spend time in their “source” country: “Not so long ago, there were quite a lot of trans­lators who were academics who’d never been to China, because it was a closed country,” she says. “I feel very lucky that I’m able to travel there and to experience the country in real life, rather than just in books.

“Chinese and English are very different in terms of structure, grammar, vocabulary and so on. You don’t really have tenses in Chinese, for instance. Every translation question gets ramped up times 10. In social, cultural and historical terms, I have to do a lot more research for Chinese than I do for Swedish. If I were doing this in the days before the internet, I think I would really struggle.”

Holmwood also has rather more responsibility (and freedom) than translators from the main European languages, because few editors at English-language publishers speak Chinese. “I don’t think any of them speak a word of it, in fact, and that poses quite a few problems,” she says. “One of the biggest differences is in the Chinese storytelling convention, which goes back centuries and has a loose, conversational style. If you translate this directly into English, it can feel like it needs editing. But at the same time, no editor wants to lose what is interesting and unique about it.”

Although translators often say they enjoy the inter­action with authors – as I enjoyed my email exchanges with Laurent Binet – I am ambivalent about the idea of authors being involved in the translation process. Perhaps this is because I have been on the other side of the equation. When I told my French editor I would like to read the translation of my second novel, The Amnesiac, at an early stage, she told me I ought simply to trust in her and the translator’s judgement. I think she was right. No matter how good their understanding of the target language, the author is generally too subjective – too focused on the idea of seeing their exact phrases reproduced in another language – to be able to judge the effect of the translation.

There is also something else slightly troubling about the relationship between authors and translators. It can, I suppose, be reduced almost to a hierarchical relationship: the author is primary, the translator secondary. We notice when a translation is bad, but when it is good we forget that what we are reading is a trans­lation at all. However, while there is little glory in translation, and although I began doing it only for financial reasons, I wouldn’t want to give it up now – even were I able to make a living from writing novels. I would rather do as Tim Parks does, and combine the two. As Parks himself says: “The main difference is that the translator has his work, however difficult, cut out for him. He doesn’t have to invent the story: there can be anesthetic pleasures in translation. One works at a high level intellectually but without putting oneself on the line.”

Similarly, when the book comes out, it is possible to look forward to reading reviews of it, which is not something I have ever felt when my own books were published. Obviously, though, if it gets any bad reviews ... well, don’t look at me. I’m only the translator.

Sam Taylor’s translation of Laurent Binet’s ‘HHhH’ has just been published

David Bellos on German, English and ‘Freudish’

Despite their worldwide fame, Sigmund Freud’s complete works have been translated in full only into English, Italian, Spanish and Japanese. James Strachey’s English version, based on the 1942 edition of the complete works published in German, is regarded by many as a masterwork of translation but by others as a betrayal of Freud.

The long-running controversy turns on the question of the genre to which Freud’s writing should be attached. Does it belong to social science? Or is it more properly thought of as literary work?

Strachey took it for granted that psychoanalysis was a science. Scientific terminology in English traditionally relies on Latin and Greek roots to forge new words for new concepts. But Freud himself wrote in German, which uses compounds of quite ordinary words in the natural and social sciences. Thus where in English we use bits of Greek for “hydrogen” and “oxygen”, German uses Wasserstoff (“water-stuff”) and Sauerstoff (“sour-stuff”). As a result, where Freud says Anlehnung (“leaning-on”), Strachey coins “anaclisis”, and for Schaulust (“see-pleasure”) he invents “scopophilia”.

Many now common words of English – “ego”, “id”, “superego”, “empathy” and “displacement”, for example – were first invented by Strachey to replace Freud’s equally technical but less recondite neologismsIch, Es, Überich, Einfühlung and Verschiebung.

Strachey’s approach is unexceptionable if Freud’s writings are seen as contributions to social or medical science. If, on the other hand, works such as The Interpretation of Dreams are assimilated not to science but to literary creation, then Strachey’s English, which gives a version that is tonally and stylistically distant from the original, could easily be seen as a misrepresentation.

In France, a large and co-ordinated team has been engaged since the 1980s in producing the first complete works in French. The aim is to restore the German specificity of Freud, treating him less as the inventor of a new science than as a writer of a particular kind of literary prose. Indeed, the team’s leaders have declared that Freud didn’t write German at all, but “Freudish ... a dialect of German that is not German but a language invented by Freud”. The result is widely regarded as incomprehensible in French – but then, if “Freudish” isn’t German, it wouldn’t have been easy to read in the original either ...

The dispute wouldn’t arise if it were clear that Freud belonged not to “science” but to “literature”. As long as the question stays open, however, there is no resolution to this squabble. You could say that literary translation is easy because, in the last analysis, you can do what you like. Or you could say literary translation is impossible, because whatever you do, serious objections can be raised. Literary translation is different from all other kinds. It serves readers in a quite special way. Modestly, often unwittingly, but inevitably, it teaches them on each occasion what translation is.

Extracted from ‘Is That a Fish in your Ear?’ (Penguin, 2011), by David Bellos

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