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An interview with Jack Benjamin, translator of Polish and Russian. #ITD2021

Wed 29 Sep, 2021

Happy International Translation Day 2021!

International Translation Day (ITD) celebrates translation, translators, and translated literature every 30 September. To celebrate, Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature has met with a series of translators local to Nottingham as well as to two of our sister Creative Cities, Lviv and Ljubliana.

Here, Nidaa from the NUCoL Youth Advisory Board meets with Jack Benjamin, a translator of Polish and Russian based in Nottingham. His interests include mixed languages, work by national minorities, and creating an inclusive space in sustainability. In addition to his translation work, he is a musician, whose practice seeks to express identity through creative action.

Please can you briefly introduce yourself and telling us what languages you translate into.

I translate from Russian and Polish into English, never the other way around.

Is there any particular reason you chose those languages?

I had actually, I’m not multilingual by birth, I have actually learnt these languages later in in life and basically a few years ago I met my girlfriend in Nottingham, who is from Poland and I had the opportunity to go and live in — which is in the south of Poland, for a year. When I was there I had learnt no Polish, I knew nothing at all and I was just a monolingual speaker but I wanted to be able to communicate with people obviously, so I started going to online classes and I picked it up, and I really enjoyed it! When I came back to the UK I wanted to carry on so I did, because I hadn’t gone to uni at that point it seemed like something I just wanted to do, professionally as well. Russian came into it because I had to choose a major language and I had the choice of Russian, French, German, Spanish and I was always kind of interested in Russia and the former Soviet Union and history anyway, and just thought why not, it might be fun.

So what was the first job that you had in translation and the first piece you worked on?

It’s actually an ongoing project I’m still working on now which is a really fun one which is always developing. It’s technically a commercial translation, so that’s not literature or prose, however the things I’m translating are pieces of original writing that’s more like creative writing. So basically some people I know in Poland started up a speciality tea company and they’re really interested in the ethics of that and the journey, and I don’t know if you know but in traditional Chinese Japanese tea culture there’s a lot of myths and legends, like ‘oh this dragon…’. So there’s a cool backstory to it and I’m not just doing, ‘oh this tea tastes like X, Y and Z’ I’m also having to do legends and stories that have come into Chinese and now into Polish into English.

What is your favourite part of your job?

I like that no one task is the same, because everybody writes and communicates differently so there’s always going to be a little thing that changes and it just means that it’s not very repetitive. I mean some things are of course, like with anything but generally it’s always new.

Is there anything that you don’t enjoy about your job or anything that you wish you could change?

All the really boring admin stuff you have to do for yourself like invoicing, if someone else could do that that’d be great.

“It’s not an easy thing to get into by any means, you know I’m still learning the ropes”

Is there any particular type of text that you regularly translate into or have you got a big variety that you translate into?

From a commercial point of view it can really vary, but from the literature side I guess I’d be called an emerging translator because I’m not published in any kind of way, so I’ve worked on things but they’ve been for specific projects so for like seminars or these kinds of things, or doing things with other translators. I think that’s something that is quite open and I guess not exactly saying what I’ve worked with, but the things I’d like to work on in the future would be things that fit in with my ethics and understanding of how I view the world, so for example I’m really into environmentalism so something like a graphic novel around that would be really really cool. So I can’t really say on the literature side too much. Yet!

What advice would you give to somebody who wanted a career in translation?

You need to kind of be committed to like running a little bit, in the sense that it won’t just be you in either worlds. In both commercial and literature you have to really look for opportunities and be open and get to know people and your peers. People in the translation industry are super helpful and I thought it would be super competitive, which it is, but you know when some things are like competitive and you’re like ‘oh I’m not gonna share my secrets with you’ but instead they’re more like oh you’ve got to do this and that…’.

So it’s just about getting to know people and letting them know what you’re about. It’s not an easy thing to get into by any means, you know I’m still learning the ropes.

Are there any languages that you want to still learn or are currently learning?

So I try learning Chinese, Mandarin and that was a mistake. It was really cool to learn and I was just doing it for a but of fun and had the opportunity and its just so radically different. I thought that I’d done Russian and had learnt another alphabet, I could probably you know have a crack at doing a language that uses signs as well. It was really full on so I had to put it aside because it kind of clashed with my schedule. I think I’d really like to learn a non-European language because I just don’t think there’s enough opportunities in schools and unis to do that. That would be really really cool, and it’s doesn’t have to be for professional purposes it would just be really amazing to go to another part of the world and not have to rely on English. I’ve seen first hand what difference that can make.

Where did you learn the languages you have learnt?

So I started learning in Poland for a bit at a school with other people who were just interested, and Russian in university and did that for my BA and did a fifth year to do my MA in translation, in both those languages.

What initially inspired you to get into translation?

It was funny because it wasn’t anything like because I was younger where I was in school, in GCSE I only really had French and German and didn’t really have to think about languages again, which I think is a common thing for people. I’ve always been quite a curious person and there’s this really cool thing and you’re reading something in translation or in original text and you’re gradually figuring it out. Like you’re finding this secret message or something, and then it naturally pulls you more and more then ultimately you get to this point when you get good enough at another language that you read a text in the originals and then the translation, and you’re like that’s not right’ and you have your own interpretation. You kind of get an insider perspective of another culture for example. So I really like that unfolding of something.

“It's like you’re finding this secret message or something, and then it naturally pulls you more and more ”

When you’re translating, is is quite common for you to get parts where you translate it but realise it doesn’t bring across the same message, and do you ever have to alter that?

Yeah actually, I’ve had that fairly recently where I was translating a mixed language text. So a mixed language text is where you mix two languages, and a famous example is in the US with something called Spanglish, spoken by a lot of the Latino community and it’s just like rapid co-switching. In the UK we have something called Ponglish which is a mix of Polish and English. So I translated a Ponglish rap song into English for monolingual English speakers, and it was so hard. So it would be like really specific terminology to like rap culture in London, but by a Pol and these words were just kind of made up for the song, and there’s no equivalent for this. So its cool that as a translator you get to be super creative, but you have to, I don’t know I was arguing my point with colleagues that it requires like a sensitivity in which I don’t think just anyone should be able to translate their piece. Especially with music it can often be a lived experience and I don’t think a person who is a lot older than me and say why couldn’t technically translate that text but its like should they translate the text if there’s someone else who could do it? It can be tricky sometimes.

When you translate work, do you have to get permission from the writer to do those alterations, and is it something that they widely understand, that it isn’t always going to translate the exact same way and bring across the exact same message?

Technically you don’t, you’re like out on your own but I know a lot of people for example who like collaborate on a translation and will send a lot of things back and forth. One I was doing recently with a writer, I sent her the text back (and it is quite an abstract text) and she was saying ‘I would never have…’ because she speaks English as well but writes in Polish ‘I would never have ever translated it that way’, but it was in a good way. To the point where she said ‘oh I think Polish sounds a bit corny’, which I was a bit flattered by because I was at the point here I was creatively recreating the text and she created the original text, so it can be really helpful in terms of if there’s a bit that you don’t get or a phrase inside of a sentence, and then you could just give it to them and be like, ‘could you just open this up for me and let me know what you’re thinking a little bit?’

But you don’t necessarily have to ask their permission to do that.

Is the translation industry quite difficult to get into, and if it is why is that?

I think it is yeah. I guess the short answer is for the commercial stuff because a lot of people work free lance and you do a lot of agency work, if you were going to work in and office in Nottingham you can apply for agencies any where in the world and they just send you jobs, and you can take that work or not, and they could be really big or small. So that is quite competitive and it can depend on your language combinations. I’m a native speaker of English but in the UK there’s not a huge Russian speaking population, so therefore there’s not as much Russian language translation work to do as polish, because there’s a higher polish population. Also the rates of translators in the UK can be a lot higher, so with the change rate of a country people might not be able to afford UK based translators and with literary translation it’s just a bit of a minefield really with waffling on. It’s kind of your responsibility as a translator to presents the work to a publisher, whether that be a book or online, like an e-book only. When you do that you have to pitch it so you have to pitch the book, talk about why it’s relevant, why it should be translated, you need to provide a sample. You need to also like contact the rights owner of the original book which might not be the author and basically present this huge package portfolio on why you should translate this book and they can just say no thank you. So its almost like you become a bit of a salesman on top of being a translator and it can be quite complicated to find funding, because that’s ultimately what you need to be able to live on whilst you are translating something that can take a very very long time. Commercial translation Igor take you a day, but a book could take you 3 years.

Have you ever worked for a company who has a group of translators for a particular project in an agency or do you seek you own work out yourself?

Yeah I seek it myself, I haven’t actually done any group stuff . I know this is quite common for really big projects like translating for computer games where it wouldn’t be possible for one person to translate a huge series of games, like that’s always evolving.

Is it quite common for you to use these languages whilst travelling?

Yeah all the time. I was in Poland last week so I was brushing up my skills and I was really fortunate in uni and had a year abroad section, so I spent half a year in Poland and half a year in Russia. As a result I kind of made contacts and friends over there in both those countries, so I’m still I’m touch with them on Instagram and I’m like ‘hows life?’. So with Russian at least its. Not just localised t that country so there’s people in Ukraine, Belarus etc., so it’s really cool because you can make friends all over the world really.

Follow Jack on Twitter @jbtranslates

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