Several months ago I heard a famous literary translator give a talk about the difference between translating and being a translator. The former is the process of taking a text in one language and putting it into another. The latter is everything that comes with doing translation as a profession: building relationships with writers, researching book markets, selling to publishers, promoting books you've published, the list goes on. For a new literary translator like me, the message was clear: there’s a lot more to being a translator than you think.
For someone starting out in this field, the outlook is daunting. Translations only make up about three percent of the books published every year in the United States. Even a translation that does relatively well is unlikely to be a big seller in real terms. For a translator, this can make your chosen career appear at once arduous and thankless, both in terms of recognition and, at least as importantly, money.
At the London Book Fair this year, an English-to-French translator described the array of organizations and funds supporting literary translators in France. She claimed this was an illustration of translators being "more respected" in France, with the government making sure translators could actually make their living translating.
But sadly, not every country is so happy to shovel money at unprofitable enterprises (and translation is certainly unprofitable). The governments of Anglophone countries are notoriously stingy when it comes to supporting culture, and when the money does come, translation is far down on the list.
Moreover, the three percent figure means there is both low demand for work translated into English and an over-supply of translators. Competition is ferocious, especially for those working from the "big three" languages (French, German, and Spanish), driving down prices and making it even harder for translators to make a living.
Another translator at the LBF expressed her strong opinion that, as a translator, it was not her job to act as a “cultural ambassador” for the country whose literature she translated. I asked my mentor, the prolific and accomplished Polish translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones, what she thought, and she strongly disagreed:
I believe it is part of the role of a translator to act as a cultural ambassador for the literature he or she translates. That involves helping the writers and literary agents in the country of origin to find publishers in the translator's country, and then helping to promote the published translation. Of course it's very much in the translator's own interests to do that, as any effort to promote his or her work gives it a wider audience. Promoting the published books is also an extremely enjoyable and rewarding part of a translator's work, as it exposes him or her to the actual readers, and gives him or her the chance to be properly involved in the publication as a co-author.
Given the headwinds facing us, I agree it is in translators' interest to act as cultural ambassadors, and to promote translation per se, not just their own translations. Rather than fighting over a tiny share of a small market, we need the market to grow. As readers' cultural and literary horizons expand, demand for translations of all kinds will increase. And by increasing the visibility of translation, publishers become happier to deal with it, readers happier to read it, and business is created for yourself and your fellow-translators. In this sense, while advocacy is not translating, it is an important part of being a translator.
Luckily for a new translator, there are some positive trends. In an increasingly globalized world, readers are less content with an inward-facing literary culture. They want books to take them new places and teach them about new countries—they want to feel more in touch with the rest of the world. There is a small surge in translation going on thanks to the proliferation of small, independent publishers supporting translated books, and e-books changing the economics of publishing. It's hard to shake the feeling that something big is happening.
We translators need to work together to keep this momentum going. If we want more people to not just translate, but to be translators, advocacy is something we can’t do without.
Follow Sean on Twitter @sgbye