View Full Version : Literary translation is work
A clear distinction should be made between translating a few stories or poems for a few magazines as a hobby, and working professionally as a literary translator.
No one would wish to deprive struggling and kitchen-table-produced magazines of material by insisting that every tiny piece of work in translation that is published should be paid for. I've done plenty of free review articles and small translations for such enterprises.
But it should not be forgotten that 250-page novels exist, and readers should think how long it actually takes to translate them. A normal, non-manic, non-lazy, literary translator can perhaps manage about 2,500 to 3,000 words per working day. (Have a look at an average novel and see how many pages that makes.) The idea of "working day" implies interruptions at weekends, during days off, holidays. No one who reads books in translation should imagine that literary translators are some kind of super-freaks who don't need a pause or break, now and again.
Yes, it is work, especially if quality comes before quantity. It's interesting how some people who come to me with requests for translations rudely undermine the job, saying anyone who knows the target language could do it, in the hopes of lowering the price or speeding up the work. I still have a 'day job', and translate at my own speed, only taking on translations that suit me.
This is only tangentially connected to the topic, but not completely unrelated. Have any of you ever noticed how often novels will pop up translated by someone you've never heard of before? Everyone has to start with some book as their first, of course. However, I recently read such a first-time translator referred to by a publisher as being "well-known", and it rather got under my skin. In my 10-year career I can only think of one instance in which a client really and truly vetted me, directly comparing me to others they could have hired for the job. I despise the idea that I've often gotten work based on thin recommendations or just being the first person they happened across. At this point I think I have enough of a track record that many of my clients can sensibly recommend me to others or that clients can look at my past work, but in the beginning it was all a bit dodgy, since I know there were other more qualified people who the people hiring me weren't talking to first. It wasn't as if they were asking me and others who were more experienced to provide samples and then choosing the cheapest one who could still deliver quality work. They just went with the first person they found.
I guess I don't really have much of a point to this rant, except the feeling that I've expressed before that many of the failures of translated literature don't surprise me one bit after having seen how the sausage is often made.
(On the other hand, success and failure in selling books these days may be about other things entirely that the quality of the texts involved... Maybe there are rational reasons for ignoring the translator. Not a pleasant thought.)
The problem is, to address Owen's point, that literary translation isn't as angelic as people would like to think. A publisher will often try an unknown and young translator because they are gullible and cheap, not because of any prowess built up over time. Then, when this first translator proves to be found wanting, they move on to a second, a third, a fourth. So you quite often see, when a novelist has had perhaps five novels translated into one particular language, that the five books are translated by five different translators - and I mean into that same language. This does suggest that the publisher has been shopping around, rather than sticking to one faithful translator who can build up proficiency over the years.
Jumping in on an old thread here, but I'm visiting the forum for the first time in a while.
I think that authors themselves are often unaware that their publishers are hiring novices at low pay rather than experienced professionals to translate their work, which is unfair to them. They're often simply pleased to be translated into English and don't have the expertise, or the leverage to recognize and demand a good translator. It sometimes pays to make them aware of the problem.
I shut up in this section, because most of the end replies on the threads were mine, and only loonies talk to themselves.
But having been in this lark, on and off, for about 25 years, I quite agree with Lola that cheeky, ignorant and money-grabbing buggers at publishing houses prefer to employ cheap slave labour from amongst the out-of-work language students leaving university, rather than using someone with experience. It's not only the language you have to learn, like some na´ve dictionary-addicts think, but the whole hinterland of cultural knowledge, which many of these young people have not yet acquired.
Authors' vanity no doubt plays a big part. But also the fact that they are sometimes simply duped by publishers. However, many European writers can get some idea of whether their books are being translated accurately into world language English, but the conmverse is rarely true. Monolingual British and American authors can also be conned into thinking that their books are being translated by professionals, when in reality they are being rushed to the presses after being hastily translated for a pittance by youngsters.
Eric, you and I have crossed swords on this subject before. What evidence do you have that "money-grubbing" publishers are choosing "out-of-work language students" instead of experienced translators? I also have 25 years' experience in the field, and I haven't come across the practice, at least as far as UK and US publishers are concerned. On the contrary, I have generally found that publishers want the best translators they can get. Even with all my experience, I'm occasionally asked to do a sample chapter of a proposed translation, knowing that other translators have also been asked to do the same, and that out of these the publisher will try to choose the most appropriate (not the cheapest) person for the job. Of course I can't prove that the practice you describe never happens (in the UK and USA, I repeat), but do you have any proof that it does?
I have a generally negative view of how British and American publishing houses, with some fine exceptions, treat the translator as someone to be hired and fired, rather than someone to consult about what to publish. I try to pick my publishers carefully, but even picking a publisher is something of a luxury, that you can only do after many years, when you've built up a bit of a reputation.
One problem is that some of the national literary promotional organisations are not always open to new translators and try to maintain a kind of guild that is hard to get into. Publishers in the source language country will tell you that the target language publisher has to choose the translator, but how can that happen objectively in Britain, when no one in that country has a clue about the specifics of foreign languages? British publishers therefore rely on the national promotional organisations, or hearsay at book fairs. There seem to be few objective ways of getting into translation without being pushy.
The ideal is, of course, for the target language publisher to do a test with several translators, as you mention, and a friend of mine told me this happened in his case - though it was the author that himself ran the test. But the problem once again is who is going to mark these test translations, because these people may be the very same people who wouldn't mind doing the translation themselves?
This is all a structural problem. With very small languages, the countries are glad they've got anyone at all. With very big languages, there are plenty of people to consult to maintain quality. But with medium-sized languages problems can arise as I have described above.
Somewhere or other (on the North American Pen site, maybe) I read that the Amazon Crossing imprint was paying its translators $750 a book. Whether that money is an advance on royalties or a one-time fee I don't know. I'm no knee-jerk Amazon basher, and I don't think the people who run that imprint are necessarily money grubbers, but $750 for a book-length translation is a measly sum. (And lest someone think that I'm singling Amazon out for criticism, let me hasten to add that I'm certain that other publishers, usually very small ones, and not all of them, pay their translators similarly.)
What will Amazon Crossing get for its money? Out-of-work language students? Perhaps. But most translators are so desperate to see their work in print that even an experienced translator might be tempted by an offer from this imprint (I would be). And let me say, too, that I don't think the people offering these laughable sums are necessarily money grubbers because I'm pretty sure most of these books wouldn't sell enough copies to keep the publisher from losing money if it paid the translators (and the authors) more generously. A publisher shouldn't be obliged to throw money away (though many seem to do just that: the cool million bucks for the English-language rights to the Jonathan Littell thing, which predictably flopped, and now serves as exhibit A in the case against translations) to get shed of the taint of money grubbing.
I've said it before, and so has Eric, but it bears repeating: in choosing books to translate, English-language publishers would do better for themselves if they paid attention to us, the translators, rather than to literary agents or book-fair hype.
I'd add, finally, that in my experience some (not all) American publishers don't want to bother with the hassle of dealing with the source-country literary promotion agencies. An odd thing, it seems to me, since these agencies will apparently subsidize a good deal of the cost of the translation (of course, it would be the height of absurdity if Amazon asked, say, the Romanian literature agency for such a subsidy to help pay its $750 translation bill).
I find that figure of 750 for a book extremely unlikely, and I'd like to see some corroboration of it. Even when I first worked for an American publisher, some seven years ago, the going rate was a hundred dollars per thousand words. At that rate, 750 wouldn't even get you a chapter of most books. I don't know any self-respecting translator who would translate a whole book for that absurd sum, nor should they (even one of Eric's famous "out-of-work language students"). I'd be very surprised if the figure turned out to be correct.
Let's find out what this $750 represents. The fact that we who are in the business of translating don't actually know speaks volumes about the market we are in.
I too am by no means a Google-basher (though they are buying up the rights of dead books) or Amazon-basher (as they give you access to small second-hand booksellers), but we who actually know languages and actually translate literature from them are not skivvies. We should be paid properly and under transparent circumstances, rather than envelopes under the table to friends and lackeys. Translation is a skilled job, like watchmaking or plumbing, and should not be a buyer's market where things are done on the cheap.
I too have noticed that certain American publishers don't want to have to listen eternally to the edicts of the national promotional agencies.
I looked around but couldn't find the pages where I'd seen the info about the AmazonCrossing contracts. The amount was perhaps not exactly $750, but I am certain that it was shockingly low; it was so low, in fact, that it immediately dissuaded me from ever sending that imprint a proposal--and I send proposals to about anybody with a pulse. Besides, if you keep in mind that many of this imprint's titles probably won't sell more than 500 copies over three or four years (and at less than $10 a copy), that measly $750 isn't actually an unreasonable share of the likely revenue generated by any one title.
I don't know what a skivvy is.
Amazon solicits samples from translators and asks them to bid and negotiate a fee. So the fees vary. It's possible that some translators have accepted very low fees, but not all contracts feature low fees.
Thank you for this info, Lola. It's actually kind of heartening to know I was wrong.
I couldn't find the $750 dollar stuff on the internet either. Lola, could you explain in a little more detail how this works?
A skivvy is a derogatory British expression for a female servant doing menial tasks and drudgery. (In the American Webster's dictionary the word is only given as meaning a garment of some sort, derived from a Gaelic word). A translator needs a wide vocabulary when dealing with nuance, though I may never have used the word skivvy in a translation, or maybe once.
I do not like the idea of soliciting, bidding, and bargaining in this context. The translation marketplace is not a souk, and translations are not oranges. Human instinct will make people do things for next to nothing if they think that is the way of getting into the profession in the first place. This is where publishers can exploit young translators just out of university, leaving us oldies with a several decades of experience high and dry.
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