The Symbiotic Relationship between Editor and Translator

In June 2019, SELTA member Tom Ellett attended a workshop run by the Association of Danish-English Literary Translators (DELT).

DELT, the recently formed association for Danish to English literary translators, organised a very successful (and welcome) event in Scotland in late June. Sponsored by the Danish Arts Foundation, the event took place at the University of Edinburgh and was hosted by the Scandinavian Studies section of the Department of European Languages and Cultures.

As professional development opportunities for Scandinavian translators are a rare occurrence north of the Border, I was sorry that a prior engagement prevented me from attending the first part of the event, a hands-on translation and editing workshop. By all accounts, this seems to have been a fascinating and productive experience, even for translators working mainly from Swedish and Norwegian rather than Danish.

I made it to Edinburgh in time for the second part of the event, a panel discussion on the symbiotic relationship between editors and translators. The proceedings were ably chaired by Kari Dickson, a prolific Norwegian to English translator based in Edinburgh, and there were three panel members: James Robertson, a Scots author, translator and publisher; Carolina Orloff, founder and editor of Charco Press, an Edinburgh publisher specialising in translations of Latin American literature; and Daniel Hahn, a writer, editor, translator from Portuguese, Spanish and French, and former chair of the Society of Authors and the Translators Association.

Kari Dickson got the discussion under way by noting that she loves both editing and being edited. The panel members agreed that they had learned from being on both sides of the editing process – both from having a fresh pair of eyes review their own work, and from editing the work of other translators and seeing how they had tackled various challenges.

Editor as beta tester

The consensus was that good editors do not try to impose their own style on the translation, by rewriting every sentence as they would have translated it, but make only those changes that are strictly necessary to eliminate errors and infelicities. Daniel Hahn drew a memorable analogy with the software development business, describing the editor as a ‘beta reader’. One of the best editors he had worked with had once told him (and I paraphrase): ‘All I’m saying is that I noticed this, and this, and this … and if I noticed these things, the chances are that other readers will too.’

A regular collaboration arrangement where two translators working in the same language pair review and edit each other’s work is perhaps the gold standard. James Robertson cited the example of his partnership with Matthew Fitt, his co-founder at Itchy Coo, an imprint publishing books in Scots for children and young adults. James considered himself prone to taking excessive liberties with the source text, which would be reined in by Matthew at the editing stage. Conversely, when Matthew as translator had taken an overly conservative approach, James as editor would encourage him to think outside the box.


Carolina Orloff remarked that editors were the invisible, unsung heroes of the publishing business. While translators as a profession had managed to win greater recognition for their work in recent years, it was still rare for editors to be credited. Daniel Hahn said this was why the TA First Translation Prize, which he had established in 2017, was to be shared between the translator and their editor.

On the perennial question of whether the editor needs to know the source language, the panellists’ opinions and experiences varied. Bilingual editors were naturally more likely to pick up on any misunderstandings of the source text, but might be more inclined to unnecessary rewriting to make the translation more ‘faithful’. Monolingual editors, focused wholly on the reader’s experience in the target language, might be more alert to infelicities resulting from source language interference.

In an amusing digression on the subject of editors’ foreign language skills, James Robertson mentioned that commissioning editors and rights agents from other European countries tended to be more receptive than their English colleagues to the idea of publishing translations into Scots – perhaps because they had encountered other examples of closely related but distinct languages in regions such as Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula.

Pre-empt questions

Although the panel’s experiences of editing and being edited were generally positive, they also shared a few horror stories. Daniel Hahn said that, when he delivers a translation, he also sends a covering letter or email in which he explains his choice of voice, register and vocabulary, and his approach to any particular challenges the translation has thrown up. This helps to pre-empt some questions and overzealous editing, and may reduce the risk of being paired with an incompatible editor.

After an hour and a half of free-flowing discussion, it was time to vacate the room. The panellists and most of the 35 audience members adjourned to the adjacent hallway for refreshments, networking and more lively conversations about translation and editing.

DELT’s own blog post about the event can be read here.

A Meeting of Scandinavian Literary Translators’ Networks: Chairs on Chairs

SELTA Chair Ian Giles reports from an event in Vancouver featuring three Scandinavian literary translators’ networks.

In early June, something very exciting happened on the lush 420 acre University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver. Three Scandinavian literary translators’ networks met in one place to consider the vital role they play in the field, to discuss the trajectory of the literary translation field, and to network with fellow translators, academics and other interested stakeholders. Playing host to this was the annual Association for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies in Canada conference, which has long been a draw for translators and scholars in North America and further afield.

The Swedish-Eglish Literary Translators’ Association (SELTA) was founded in the UK in 1982 and has since served the interests of its members – practicing, professional literary translators – as well as promoting Swedish-language literature to the English-speaking world through its house journal Swedish Book Review. Swedish Translators in North America (STiNA) was established in 2004 to represent the interests of literary translators of Swedish working in the USA and Canada. The Association of Danish-English Literary Translators (DELT) is very much the new kid on the (Scandinavian literary translation) block, having been first established as a network in 2014 before forming a full association in 2018. The three organisations come from different backgrounds, but all fulfil important roles in representing Scandinavian literary culture abroad.

The three organisations were represented in Vancouver by Ian Giles (SELTA), Ellen Kythor (DELT), and Paul Norlen (STiNA), while Natalie van Deusen (Associate Professor in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Alberta), very kindly chaired the session, initially guiding conversation before managing questions from the audience.

Initially, the assembled panellists discussed the origins of their own organisations. While SELTA emerged through the initiative of a cultural attaché at the Swedish Embassy in London in the early 1980s working in partnership with a number of UK-based translators, it was noted that over the subsequent years it was frequently the journal Swedish Book Review that had acted as the glue of the association, while regular meetings in person and workshops also ensured regular contact and professional development. STiNA was founded in 2004 by a group of North American translators looking to replicate elements of the SELTA model and build their own network. In contrast to SELTA, STiNA does not have a house journal (although its members are also frequent contributors to SBR) and members rarely meet in person due to the large distances involved. Paul Norlen described how informal STiNA gatherings would typically take place on the fringes of bigger meetings such as ALTA (the American Literary Translators Association). DELT, meanwhile, so far sits somewhere between the two in practice, by seeking to represent translators globally, although its activities have focused primarily on the UK, Denmark and North America. In its early outings, DELT has been particularly keen to enable networking between translators and to offer hands-on workshops.

Unsurprisingly, it was clear from the discussion that the way in which members used their respective networks differed in some regards. SELTA has been making effective use of its private Google Group for members for a decade, while STiNA operates with a mailing list. Both organisations also pass on occasional work-related inquiries to the membership. DELT members communicate via its own Facebook group, encouraging most dissemination of information to take place there. All three panellists agreed that two of the most common things the networks were used for – and shared in common – were that members turned to them for assistance with particularly thorny terminological issues, and to pass on work to other members when busy. Another area where the emergence of online networks seemed to be helpful for all three organisations was in supporting emerging translators. The ability to offer advice to new members of the profession online was something all three agreed was a huge plus.

As conversation turned to the state of the industry more generally, it was noted that it is unusual to find networks like SELTA, STiNA or DELT in non-Scandinavian language combinations. This seems to be partly because of the generous support that is provided by the Nordic countries for the dissemination of their literature abroad and to assist translators from their languages, but also because there is (reputedly) a more collegial, less competitive atmosphere amongst translators of the Scandinavian languages. There was a sense as the subject was discussed that the situation for literary translation of Scandinavian languages to English remains strong, and all were hopeful it would continue to be so. It was observed that all three organisations have experienced an influx of younger and newer members of the profession in recent years and that this is promising sign that the industry is doing well.

The audience had a number of eager questions, including why books appear in British or American English (or sometimes something in between!) and who makes that decision, whether literary translators tended to solely work on literary texts or whether they also work on other ‘commercial’ texts, as well as what reading tips the panellists had. As so often happens, time had run out and the assembled audience moved on to a networking reception in the adjacent auditorium where they got the chance to discuss translation-related matters slightly more informally.

All in all, it was a very fruitful panel. Bridges were built between not only translators of Danish and Swedish, their readers, and scholars of Scandinavian Studies, but also between translators of Swedish across the Atlantic – this was the first time that SELTA and STiNA have ever met in an official capacity. There was a strong sense amongst all three participants that further collaboration in future can only be helpful to the aims of those working in the field of Scandinavian-English literary translation. Watch this space…

Many thanks to AASSC for hosting us, and to Natalie van Deusen and Christine Ekholst for their hard work in facilitating the roundtable as part of the conference programme. Further thanks go to Statens Kunstfond and Swedish Literature Exchange for their generous support of the event, as well as to the engaged and enthusiastic audience of conference delegates and guests.