Interview with a translator

Good morning! 

Today I'm delighted to welcome one of my fantastic translators, Janet Limonard, to A Book from the Beginning. Janet has translated both The Bone Season and The Mime Order into Dutch, and she's been kind enough to answer some of your questions from social media about translation, language, and her experience of translating my work. Thank you, Janet!


Janet Limonard translates books under that name or under the name of her late husband: Janet van der Lee. She has been a translator for more than twenty-five years. She started by translating all kinds of commercial text, and after a few years and a study at Maastricht University she started doing legal translations. After an intensive course at Utrecht University, she did some subtitling, but in the end, she decided she preferred written texts. Janet has been translating books from US English into Dutch since 2006. Some of the authors she has translated are Cathy Glass, Peter, Conradi, Alison Pearson, Monica Ali, Nick Hornby, Steven Johnson, Rory Stewart, William Sutcliffe, John Cleese and, of course, me!


What made you want to be a translator? 

I love books and languages. I had a fantastic English teacher in grammar school, and after that an intensive training course that lasted a year in languages, where French was taught by a French madame, German by a German Fräulein, Spanish by a Spanish señora and English by an English lady. This encouraged me even more to do something with languages.

How do you get into this line of work? 

I studied English for five years. After I graduated, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to extend my knowledge of the language, not my ability to teach young children something the most of them weren’t really interested in. During my English study, I had to make a translation of an English text into Dutch and vice versa every week. It really was a challenge to make a good translation in Dutch or English, but I loved it. There is where it all started.

Do you need any particular qualifications to become a translator? 

You don’t have to have an education to translate commercial texts or books. It’s a liberal profession, so everyone is free to say that he or she is a translator. But the people I work with have a college or university degree in the language in which they get the source text, since everyone translates in his/her mother tongue. And a lot of my colleagues also have a degree in some special field, like psychology, law, medicine, geology, mathematics… it could be anything.

What was the first book you translated? 

That was Million Dollar Baby by the American author F.X. O’Toole, a series of short stories about boxing. It was terribly difficult to translate, with a lot of American slang in it.

What’s your translation process? 

I read the hard copy of the book. In the meantime I’ve received a PDF from the publisher, which I use to translate from. I have two screens to work with: one small one for emails and a big screen on which the source text is displayed next to the target text, that comes into being when I’m writing.

When I’ve translated the entire book (I translate around 30,000 words a month), I start again at the beginning with correction, rewriting, revision, etc. After that, I send the manuscript to the publishing house, where an editor is going through the translation, with the source text next to it. The editor makes suggestions to improve the Dutch text. Then the manuscript comes back to me, I decide what suggestions from the editor I’m going to accept and then I’ll revise the text again. The next step is to send it back to the publishing house, where a corrector will have a final look at it, before it comes back to me again, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Finally it will go the a printing office to become a real book.

What is the hardest thing about translating from English to Dutch? Are there any recurring challenges?

I think the main difficulty is that the English is a very compact language. In Dutch you need more words to express the same things. And the English have ‘the gerund’, a grammatical form which is rarely used in Dutch.

What do you most enjoy about it? 

The great books I get to read and translate; the freedom to work on them whenever I like (within reason and with the deadline in mind); the independency; and the office next to my house, which gave me the opportunity to combine work and to raise my three kids.

Do you get worried about losing the essence or meaning of the words, and what can you do to prevent it?

I think I usually succeed in translating the essence of the line or paragraph or story. It hardly ever boils down to one word, as we, translators, try to convey the meaning of what the author wants to say.

How rough are you on language when it's untranslatable? Is it better to keep intent or language?

Sentences are hardly ever untranslatable. Very, very difficult at times, but not untranslatable. The language has to be correct, but intent is far more important, in my opinion. Jokes is a different story, especially jokes based on language. They sometimes are untranslatable, indeed, which means that the joke is lost.

How long does it take to translate a book, on average?

As I said, I translate about 30,000 words a month, including the first correction work on the translation. An average book amounts to approximately 110,000 words, though the latest book by Samantha Shannon I translated, had 155,000 words. In general, it takes about four months, from beginning to end.

Any advice for aspiring translators?

It’s a fantastic job, but it’s not easy to start as a literary translator. The publishing houses often have a select group of translators they like to work with, so it’s difficult to get started. You can contact them and ask if you can make a test translation, so that they can see that you’re really good at it. I know it’s easier to earn a living as a ‘commercial’ translator.


The Bone Season questions

What challenges did you face when translating The Bone Season and The Mime Order?

The very special, imaginative world Samantha is writing about was very difficult to imagine in the beginning. And, of course, the slang of 18th century London she uses in her books. Sometimes I really did everything to find the meaning of a word, but then it turned out she had made it up… though it was always based on some historical event or figure.

Why did you decide not to translate “Warden”, as some other translators did? 

As a rule, we try not to change names. In Samantha’s books, though, you have to change them sometimes, because they always have a meaning. The Dutch translation of ‘Warden’ (wachter) cannot be used as a name, so I had to keep the ‘Warden’, which doesn’t sound strange to us, although the meaning might not immediately be clear for everyone. But it will become clear when they read the book.

How did you tackle the slang used in the books?

Fortunately, translators have a lot of dictionaries. Apart from that, I found a few great sites on the Internet with English slang. A terminology list named British Slang – Lower Class and Underworld and the Dictionary of Victorian Slang, first published in 1909.

The Bone Season is a title with a double meaning. How did you convey this in Dutch? 

The publisher and I didn’t agree about the title at first. In the end, it’s the publisher who decides what it is going to be, so I had to make some adjustments in the text to make clear what was meant. I preferred to interpret ‘season’ as the verb ‘to harvest’. The Dutch publisher preferred ‘seizoen’, a noun to denote a specific period.


  1. I'm a Dutchie and I've studied English for a while with the idea of becoming a translator. Eventually I dropped out. Still, I find the subject really interesting, and this blog post was a really good read for me. It's interesting to get a look at the thoughts of the translator behind some of the processes -- there's a lot more going on than we initially expect! Translating is tough.


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