Eight Complaints of a Literary Translator

One: A couple of weeks ago, my mother’s doctor said he charged £25 to write a (short) letter about the state of her health. I commented that it was more than people would often pay me, as a literary translator.  His response: “Yes, but I studied and I have a qualification.”

I am used to the self-importance of doctors.  Moreover, this kind of rudeness requires only one kind of response: ignoring it.

Or else posting it on Twitter in the original English and other languages, then mentioning it in a blog.

Two: An author is haggling over the price I’ve quoted for a translation. She tries the usual tactics: “But I could get someone else to do it for half that!” (What’s stopping you?) and “But I’m a freelancer, I don’t have a regular salary!” (Newsflash – I’m a literary translator, so I’m a freelancer, too).  I don’t budge.  She then says, “But I’m a single parent with two children to raise on my own!”

Paying to have your book translated off your own bat is the Vanity Project par excellence. It is not a necessity, like food or healthcare.  Would you go into Tiffany’s, Fifth Avenue, and haggle over the price of a bracelet because you’re a single mother?

Three: A publisher offers me a job, and asks how soon I can do it.  Always a potentially explosive situation.  I can, of course, put aside what I’m doing at the moment, burn the midnight oil, work fourteen hours a day, but why do that if I don’t have to?  The publisher gives me no hint as to their schedule, and appears to throw the ball in my court.  So I give my time estimate.  The publisher gives the job to somebody else, telling me the translation was really urgent.

Four: As above, but the publisher’s question is, “How much would you charge?” then the job is given to someone else because my estimate is “beyond their budget”.

In the name of Saint Jerome*! If it was that urgent or if you had a fixed budget, why didn’t you just say, “I need it for such or such a date/This is my budget for this – can you do it for then/for this much?” in the first place, instead of playing power games?!

Five: I give an author, who assures me he is perfectly fluent in English, a translation of his novel and encourage him to make comments and/or corrections.  None of his suggested changes are grammatical.  We spend a total of sixteen hours on Skype, while I teach him basic English grammar, and wish I had charged him double.

Six: An author queries the stylistic choices I have made in my translation and, no, her English is not very good.  She wants it to be closer to the original in idioms, syntax, word order.  I try and explain that a good literary translation cannot always be literal. That a reader mustn’t, even for one second, feel it’s a translation, but a book in its own right.  “Oh, but I’m very protective of my work,” she says.  “It’s like my baby.”

When your baby eventually goes to primary school, will you sit in the classroom and tell the teachers how to do their jobs?

Seven: I receive a copy edit with track changes in red on every single line of my work.  It’s not just corrections.  The copy editor has re-written my entire translation.  It will take me longer to go through the “suggestions” than I did translating the whole book.  I ring the eager beaver and get, “I haven’t changed that much, it just looks worse than it is because of Track Changes.”

Yes, dear, I’m familiar with Track Changes.  I’ve been using it since before you left school.  There’s so much red in my text, it looks like it’s positively bleeding.

There are the writers, the translators, and the copy editors.  The boundaries should be clearly defined.

Eight: A newly set-up, enthusiastic literary agent wants to meet me to offer me a “unique opportunity”.

I visualise: the opportunity of translating a beautifully-written, meaningful novel that has won the Strega or the Goncourt prize, getting paid at least 11 pence per word, and the prompt payment of an advance, as well as of the outstanding balance at the end of my work.

I get: “We feel you’re the right person to look at our list, choose a book you really believe in and are passionate about, find a publisher interested in buying the translation rights, then put them in touch with us.

I blink.  “And what would you be paying me for, effectively, doing your job?”

“Well, we’re new you see… but we’re looking for someone who really believes in us and our books, so that we can grow together.  And if you find us a British publisher, then we’ll definitely put in a good word for you as a translator.”

I walk away, smiling, with Anglo-Saxon expletives mentally directed at the “enthusiastic” agent.

* Patron saint of translators

Scribe Doll

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16 Responses to Eight Complaints of a Literary Translator

  1. Ah, yes, St. Jerome! Is he the one who once told a copyist “if you copy well, the work is mine; if you copy badly, the work begins to be yours”? Anyway, it was some medieval or Renaissance being or other with a sharp wit. And what in bl–dy h-ll are “track changes,” when they’re at home? I mean, what would a non-professional call them? I have a feeling I wouldn’t like them at all. I sympathize entirely with your complaints, as they all sound like they come from a bunch of jumped-up twits, to merge the semi-abusive language of two countries (mine and yours). Better days ahead for you, I hope, Katia; no one can ever say you haven’t paid your dues.

    • scribedoll says:

      Track Changes is an editing system (you find it under ‘Edit’ on an Apple Mac but is also available on PC) which allows you to cross out/add in a different colour, so that your recipient then sees the original and the corrections.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Vicki.

      • Dear Katia, By the by, it took some doing, but I found the source of that quote. It was popular in the Middle Ages with some writers talking to their copyists, but the actual source was antique, meaning Martial writing epigrams to people who bugged him. This one was written to Fidentinus, who had apparently read aloud from Martial, but read him badly. He also had purloined some things from Martial as his own, evidently. Not exactly the same as the aggravation you’re undergoing, but similar. It was the best I could think of to suit the circumstances. I do believe that someone as cultivated and intelligent as you have shown yourself to be even in just posting deserves better treatment.

      • scribedoll says:

        Oh, my dear! We ALL deserve better treatment! Having said that, I’ve written about the drawbacks to my profession because criticism lends itself to humour. But there are some wonderful experiences too!

        Thank you for the quotation.

  2. klh048 says:

    I hope most of your projects are better than these examples. You’ve made me look at translations differently since I began following your work and adventures.

  3. sammee44 says:

    Sometimes common sense falls by the wayside when there’s a powerful ego in play. I really admire your restraint, Katia even though your “silent comments” were bang on! You really got to laugh as humour shows what silly asses they are!

  4. evanatiello says:

    I would have preferred to click a “don’t like” button, but you don’t have one of those! I know too well, the life of a freelancer… oy! Hang in there, Katia!

  5. Entertaining at least! I learned about the track changes (which would have come in handy this morning editing an article for my son, and who knew that the translations were such a sticky business. The things we do to earn our daily bread! Thanks for sharing your stories.

  6. Christine Hartelt says:

    Having worked as a freelancer, I can completely sympathize with all of your frustrations. They are all valid points, and I’m sure you could add many more examples. Re: Point #6. When I lived in Germany, I chanced upon a department store greeting card section devoted to German to English translations. One card, for example, translated the slang phrase “Sau stark!” meaning “hip” or “cool” as “Pig strong!” I stood quietly laughing to myself as I read card after card. I’m glad you’ve been able to keep a sense of humor, Katia, although some of the idiocy you’ve encountered must make your blood boil. (I wouldn’t translate the latter expression literally either!) 🙂 Literary translation is much more difficult than people, especially people not fluent in another language or languages, can ever imagine. It’s not like a mathematical formula. Yes, we have tools like “Google translate,” but I don’t trust them. Google translated the line of a German poem “In der Stille,” which means “In the quietness,” to “in the breastfeeding.” I can assure you, there was no breastfeeding in the 19th century poem! Hang in there!

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for making me laugh with your translation aberration examples. Yes, there are some real howlers out there.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. rammiegirl says:

    I totally feel your pain. It’s so similar to what I go through with my mentor for my manuscript publications. A lot of the time you can hear “For the Love of God…” coming from my apartment apparently. I loved reading this article, it was one of my favorites of all time. I hope you do not have too many of these run-ins but it is the nature of the game no? Cheers!

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