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Can you earn a living as a literary translator?
Thread poster: Susan Welsh

Susan Welsh  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:12
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
Aug 25, 2009

I'm not sure which topic suits this question best, but here goes:

It is notorious that literary translation pays poorly. I recently did a job of this nature, which I really enjoyed, and the pay was indeed lousy. I was "outsourced" to help a quite distinguished literary translator who was having trouble meeting her deadline for health reasons. She was getting paid a lump sum for a book, with no royalties, and could only pay me a low rate (I believe her, by the way). This seems so odd, because with literature, you could spend half a day thinking how to translate just one phrase in the best possible way. It's not like translating a business contract or marketing copy.

I would really like to do more of this, since it is fun and challenging. But is it a losing proposition, from the financial standpoint?

Thanks for your input,
Susan


 

Joanna Wachowiak-Finlaison
United States
Local time: 22:12
English to Polish
+ ...
Short answer Aug 25, 2009

No. It's a hobby.

[Edited at 2009-08-25 17:17 GMT]


 

Victor Zagria
English to Ukrainian
+ ...
Earning living as a literary translator Aug 25, 2009

Susan Welsh wrote:


I would really like to do more of this, since it is fun and challenging. But is it a losing proposition, from the financial standpoint?

Thanks for your input,
Susan



Hi all,
So would l, Susan. As a matter of fact, it used to be the best of my 'fond hopes' for a couple of years.. And I believe, still is. I fancied that whatever the fee could be for such type of job I would have stuck my own self to some neck of the woods with extremely cheap living and enjoyed life, big time. I had the fits of that wish in some particularly bad moments of my biz carrear of late. And the evantual written artefact with your name as translator mentioned in it ... It's worth it, afterall. Life's short and we can't earn all moneys of the world, anyway.
Thanks for posting this topic.

V. Zagria


[Edited at 2009-08-25 18:40 GMT]

[Edited at 2009-08-25 19:34 GMT]


 

Andrea Shah  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:12
Portuguese to English
+ ...
I wish! Aug 25, 2009

I hold a degree in literary translation, and I have to say that in my experience, people who make their living exclusively off of literary translation are few and far between.

Most of the people I can think of who are tremendously successful are still affiliated with a college or university: Gregory Rabassa (Garcia Marquez, and about one book by every other famous Spanish or Portuguese writer you can think of) Margaret Sayers Peden, Richard Pevear (who works with his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky), Clifford Landers, Susan Bernofsky, Esther Allen, etc.

There are also a couple who aren't: Natasha Wimmer, who does Roberto Bolano's books, does them full-time. Margaret Jull Costa, who translates Jose Saramago, among others, does not seem to work at a university, nor does Edith Grossman. (Jull Costa, however, also has translated a number of books by Paulo Coelho, which sell well enough that she probably makes a nice amount of money.)

I think there is a more viable living to be made translating books out of English and into other languages. I know the market for books by English-language authors is huge in some other countries (we Americans, at least, are not known for our readiness to read translations from other languages), and so I'd imagine that you might be able to make a decent living if you were Stephen King's Spanish translator, or Dean Koontz's French translator, or J.K. Rowling / Stephenie Meyer's translator into any language, ever. More "literary" fiction might also earn you a living.

The long and the short of it, though, is that it's hard to make a living as a literary translator exclusively, but I think eventually you can make it a part of your living.


 

Montefiore  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 20:12
English to Russian
+ ...
It's a Labor of Love, Primarily Aug 25, 2009

Susan Welsh wrote:

I'm not sure which topic suits this question best, but here goes:

It is notorious that literary translation pays poorly. I recently did a job of this nature, which I really enjoyed, and the pay was indeed lousy. I was "outsourced" to help a quite distinguished literary translator who was having trouble meeting her deadline for health reasons. She was getting paid a lump sum for a book, with no royalties, and could only pay me a low rate (I believe her, by the way). This seems so odd, because with literature, you could spend half a day thinking how to translate just one phrase in the best possible way. It's not like translating a business contract or marketing copy.

I would really like to do more of this, since it is fun and challenging. But is it a losing proposition, from the financial standpoint?

Thanks for your input,
Susan


Dear Susan,

Literary translations are not profitable ventures, and one is lucky to get paid anything at all at times:) However, there are grants, and I still need to research their sources, as I am thinking of doing another literary translation. Unless, of course, you can get a contract with a big publishing house on translating Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or someone of similar stature - and even then I am not sure what the compensation would be, but you'll be getting the percentage of royalties if it's a big, widely read author (this is to the best of my knowledge).


 

KSL Berlin  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 04:12
Member (2003)
German to English
+ ...
I could ask... Aug 25, 2009

... why anyone would want to make a living as a literary translator, but if I did my other half would do terrible things to me, so I won't. I think one of my ex-brothers-in-law actually does make a living at this or something similar, but I don't think it's ever been more than a very modest one. Most of the literary translators I have encountered (admittedly few or at least few who would admit it) seem to pay their bills by other means. Another sad individual I encountered some months ago fancies himself a translator of poetry but seems to try to make his living by suing large companies who inadvertently quote one of his awful translations into English of well-known German poetic works. All in all I'd rather do something more socially useful than that.

If I were comfortably situated in a tenured professorship somewhere I would probably allow myself the luxury of literary translation (though the world can probably rejoice that I am forced instead into a life of hard labor and penance doing wicked patents and boring insurance documents). And here in Germany there seems to be special privileges and subsidies with a special social insurance fund for "artists" and other things, though never having been involved with that I'm quite fuzzy on the details. The only attention I have devoted to it is to make sure that my work will not be classified as subject to the contributions to this fund and that I will will be considered an ordinary, contribution-exempt word drone, not an artiste.


 

urbom
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:12
German to English
+ ...
Some facts Aug 25, 2009

In December 2008 the European Council of Literary Translators' Associations (known by its French acronym, CEATL) published an in-depth survey of literary translators' incomes in EU countries and various factors affecting those translators' incomes.

http://www.ceatl.eu/docs/surveyuk.pdf (in English)
http://www.ceatl.eu/docs/surveyfr.pdf (in French)
http://www.ceatl.eu/docs/surveyit.pdf (in Italian)

The section with graphs analyzing literary translators' reported incomes is on pages 55-62 of the pdf. The graphs that plot literary translators' annual incomes against average incomes for each country are particularly startling.

CEATL's website ( http://www.ceatl.eu/ ) summarizes the findings as follows:

"The results of this initial survey, published in December 2008, confirm the worst suspicions: nowhere in Europe can literary translators make a living under the conditions imposed on them by the 'market'; in many countries (including some of the wealthiest) their situation can only be described as catastrophic."

In the US, the relevant organization is ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association.
http://www.utdallas.edu/alta/


 

Victor Zagria
English to Ukrainian
+ ...
calling vs bare necessities of life Aug 25, 2009

CEATL's website ( http://www.ceatl.eu/ ) summarizes the findings as follows:

"The results of this initial survey, published in December 2008, confirm the worst suspicions: nowhere in Europe can literary translators make a living under the conditions imposed on them by the 'market'; in many countries (including some of the wealthiest) their situation can only be described as catastrophic."

In the US, the relevant organization is ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association.
http://www.utdallas.edu/alta/
[/quote]

To those who have the sense of their vocation... such trifles as the ways of keeping oneself afloat just mean nothing, hey? Mendeleyev seemed to be doing his excavations just in the meantime. In "real life" he was keen on making suitcases... Apostle Paul, in between evangelizing Corynthians and preaching to Romans, used to "indulge in" sewing and selling (!) tents.
The time we're observing is "by hook or by crook" one and if you wanna make it ... some big goal of your life .. you just have to relax and enjoy the process of being a jack of many trades to succeed in the thing you treat as your calling. The stories of Jack London and S. Maugham ("The Moon and Sixpence") are really worth mentioning in this respect, right?
I personnally do not think it as "low deed" to construct realty and give it out on lease just to have means to comfortably sit the evenings through, writing to interesting forums and translatin, translating, transl....icon_smile.gif)
Victor


 

KSL Berlin  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 04:12
Member (2003)
German to English
+ ...
Good point, Victor Aug 25, 2009

Your comments remind me of a conversation long ago with the late Octavia Butler, whom I consider to be one of the finest writers in the broad SF genre whose work I once enjoyed very much. I recall that she struggled through some quite demeaning jobs to survive as she pursued her calling. Though she eventually acquired an international reputation, I'm not sure whether she ever made a real living off her work. No matter. The world is richer for her having been a writer rather than a dedicated corporate attorney.

In the same way I am grateful that some good writer/translators commit themselves to interpreting good works of literature, though much of what I see translated from English into German isn't worth the paper it's printed on (in either language to be honest....).


 

Andrea Shah  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:12
Portuguese to English
+ ...
Literary translation in academia Aug 25, 2009

If I were comfortably situated in a tenured professorship somewhere I would probably allow myself the luxury of literary translation


What's really sad is that even in academia, literary translation is often undervalued, and many of the translators I mentioned have other specialties beyond translation that qualify them for professorships.

One woman I know has translated a (very difficult) novel by a relatively well-known and influential author, and the book is forthcoming from a respected university-affiliated press. Yet when she asked her university if the book would count toward tenure, the answer was "Yes ... but not as much as one you wrote yourself." Other prolific translators - ones with many prestigious awards and publications to their credit - have been denied tenure.

To the OP, if you are interested in learning more about literary translation, I recommend Clifford Landers' book Literary Translation: a Practical Guide, as well as the blog Three Percent.


 

Susan Welsh  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 23:12
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Not very encouraging, but... Aug 26, 2009

Andrea, I will look up those references, although the results of this thread (notably urbom's links) are quite discouraging!
(Kevin, I have a feeling you are not as much of a curmudgeon as you claim to be. I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong.)
I guess it's back to bread-and-butter translations, maybe with an occasional literary fling to keep life interesting. Now if only I had a stack of PhDs and industry experience in technical/scientific subjects, like Kevin...

Susan


 

Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 05:12
German to Serbian
+ ...
Hardly Aug 26, 2009

It's very difficult to make a decent living as a literary translator.

The only way is to be an official member of your national academia, have connections, move in literary circles, establish your name, translate anthology pieces etc. And there is not enough place for many in that world. It's the top of the pyramid.

I also hear some quite unbecoming assumptions that translating literature is: enjoyment, fun, and such stuff. Very funny.

If you ask me, I find much more enjoyment in copy/pasting a machine manual than having to read and analyze a 500 page novel, tons of revision books and consult a couple of literary experts only to be able to translate one problematic sentence.

I've seen a lot of literary translators giving up the job because it requires so much effort and enthusiasm and people still don't appreciate it enough and view it as a " job for fun". That's sad indeed.


 

JoFP
Local time: 05:12
French to English
+ ...
Not really Sep 7, 2009

By asking if you can make a living as a literary translator, OP, you seem to be presupposing that there is work for literary translators or that there are outlets for a literary translator's production. But if my experience is any guide, in the English-speaking world at least, these are shaky presuppositions.

In the last ten years I have translated about one book a year (only one of these translations has been published, in addition to a handful of short stories). These translations have earned me a grand total of about $24,000, and $20,000 of that came from a grant from the US National Endowment for the Arts. $3,000 was for one story in a well known magazine, $500 for the one published novel, and the rest from assorted stories in quarterlies.

But what drives me mad is not my inability to make a living translating books (why, after all, should I presume to be able to make a living translating books by writers who themselves had other jobs, who made their livings selling scrap metal, working as journalists, diplomats, editors, translators, civil servants?). Instead, what frustrates me to no end is what in darker moments I see as a conspiracy, but is in fact probably just the result of the ignorance and cowardice of publishers, to silence me and people like me by providing no outlets for work that we do not for money or glory but simply because we think it's worth doing. How many translators would have just given up after not finding a publisher for two or three books? It would be the rational thing.

The books I translate are splendid books, beloved by readers in their authors' native countries, far better than most of the books brought out in any given year by US and UK publishers. In addition, the ministries of culture of the countries "my" authors come from will reimburse US or UK publishers for the cost of the translation; in other words, anything the US publisher pays me or any other translator it would get back from the ministry of culture of the writer's native land. And some of the translations I propose are of works in the public domain, so no rights to acquire. The publisher runs practically no risk. And still says no!

Book publishing, it seems to me, is one of those odd businesses that operates in a way counter to its own interests.

Now that I've vented, I feel a little better, so I'll make a few less embittered observations. There probably are, as another poster mentions, a handful of literary translators working in English who can make a living at it. But I suspect even they have to translate books that they probably don't like translating, that probably aren't even worth translating but are translated and published because the author is a minor celebrity or is available to promote the book. In that case, you might as well be translating, at a higher per-word rate, an application for a patent for a new-and-improved cotton gin or an academic article on new solvency rules for bank capital.

Someone also mentioned arts foundations and whatnot. They are indeed great resources for the literary translator. Grants and paid residencies are available (check the American Literary Translators Association website). The downside is that you may spend as much time applying for these grants and stipends as you do translating. And some people liken it to begging.

It's interesting to see too that literary translators in countries such as France, Italy, and Spain, though ill paid, at least have venues for their work. Go into any bookstore in one of these countries, and you'll see shelves and shelves full of translated books. See how active translators' associations in these countries are. Despair for your own country.


 

fallenangel
Turkey
Local time: 06:12
Turkish to English
+ ...
I agree with the idea that literary translation cannot provide a decent living, Sep 7, 2009

but,

it makes you feel unique no matter how many translators there are in the world. As unlike other types of translation, literary translation conquers the translator in a way that he/she pursuits the path of the story (hopefully well written) uncounciously and finds out that this brings about same but somehow different and more alive version of the story in the end. It is you who introduce the story to your own language, your senses and ability make it happen.. I think this is amazing.. My first translation has just been published and I am about to decide to go through the same process again or not as they have made another offer and this book is really exciting and appeals me a lot. And they pay 1 cent per word (just ridicilous).

so if you have the chance to choose the genre you really enjoy to translate, it rewards your spirit and money, well, you should find another way to earn it (:


 

Vedprakash Sharma
India
Local time: 08:42
English to Hindi
+ ...
Litrary Works Losing Shine Sep 24, 2009

Susan Welsh wrote:

I'm not sure which topic suits this question best, but here goes:

It is notorious that literary translation pays poorly. I recently did a job of this nature, which I really enjoyed, and the pay was indeed lousy. I was "outsourced" to help a quite distinguished literary translator who was having trouble meeting her deadline for health reasons. She was getting paid a lump sum for a book, with no royalties, and could only pay me a low rate (I believe her, by the way). This seems so odd, because with literature, you could spend half a day thinking how to translate just one phrase in the best possible way. It's not like translating a business contract or marketing copy.

I would really like to do more of this, since it is fun and challenging. But is it a losing proposition, from the financial standpoint?

Thanks for your input,
Susan
Now-a-days, the litrary works are not very popular. the habit of reading, as a hobby, is shrinking fast. We read books for a number of reasons except to sit and relax. that is why, the litrary translation is not a good career when it comes to business. it is more of a hobby than a career.


 
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