Although I have been translating literature for over a decade, it was only just a few weeks ago that I was involved in my first ever developmental editing session. I’ve co-translated a riveting read by an Eritrean author that delves into identity politics; it will, God willing, be published in 2023.
What is it?
Developmental editing usually happens when writers submit a manuscript in English that is still quite malleable and open to change. Here, I’m talking at the level of ideas, character development, plot, etc., not language. However, with translated manuscripts, this usually isn’t the case, as the source language text is presumed to have already gone through edits for such things. (The quality of these edits can obviously vary from country to country.) Arabic language literature has a reputation for not having as stringent an editing regime as English language literature. This is a widespread belief which can be debated, but if you would like to hear more about the experience of an in-house Arabic literature editor, you can watch this panel here. What’s interesting is that I’ve spoken to translators working from a range of languages, and some haven’t encountered this practice at all, whereas others have gone through it a number of times. This is all to say that it’s not just Arabic literature in translation that is subjected to developmental edits!
With this particular novel I am working on, the developmental edits mainly focused on:
- Refining the build-up to a particular scene to ensure the impact resonates with the reader;
- Fleshing out the motivations of two recurring characters;
- Speeding up the narrative pace of a chapter;
- Anchoring the reader more temporally in a shifting-sands sort of narrative; and
- Clarifying certain moments which may not ‘land’ for the English language reader.
What was my role?
As is usually the case with any other stage of the literary translation process, whether it’s the pitching stage, the contract signing or promoting the book itself, I’m the interface between the author and publisher. As such, it was an extremely busy week, which saw me working at all hours to communicate the developmental editor’s queries and comments to the author via Whatsapp voicenotes to ensure that we had his approval on all changes, and could incorporate any input that he wanted to add at this stage of refining the novel. I would recommend that, if you are in the same position, ensure that you get paid for these additional hours, as it severely impacted the rest of my work schedule. I wasn’t anticipating this amount of work, let alone the developmental editing itself, as it wasn’t mentioned at any point in the contract process. So another lesson I learnt is to ask ahead of time when signing the contract what the editing process will entail (how many stages), and what sort of turnaround time will be expected for each stage. I was only expecting one round of edits! Thankfully my co-translator took charge of responding to the ensuing line edits, which turned out to be another couple of days of work.
Going through this type of editing spurred a conversation between my co-translator and me: we discussed the expectations of certain types of literature – what worked extremely well in the Arabic, so much so that it was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the equivalent to the English language world’s Booker Prize), surprisingly had to go through a number of changes to be ready for the English language market. A glossary was suggested which we voted against; however, we agreed to adding front matter such as a map of Eritrea and Ethiopia – where a lot of the story takes place. Literary traditions definitely do vary from country to country, and language to language, but it all boils down to this: How much (if anything at all) needs to change when birthing a work in English?
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic translator and litterateur who is currently co-chair (with Rebecca DeWald) of the Translator’s Association. She was co-editor of the Arabic-English portion of the award-winning Oxford Arabic Dictionary (2014). Her translations have been recognised by the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation, English PEN, the Anglo-Omani Society and the Palestine Book Awards, among others. She has run workshops introducing translation to students and adults under the auspices of Shadow Heroes, Africa Writes, the National Centre for Writing, the British Library, and Shubbak Festival. She has forthcoming translations from Fitzcarraldo Editions, Neem Tree Press, and Restless Books. She holds an MA in Modern Arabic Literature from SOAS. Her Twitter handle is @sawadhussain. Her website is https://sawadhussain.com
During her BCLT residency, Sawad will be translating a South Sudanese historical novel, Eddo’s Souls, and an Algerian YA crime novel, The Djinn’s Apple. With regards to research, she hopes to delve into translation mentorship structures, pick them apart and put them back together again. She will be running a workshop on translating YA literature at the end of her residency.