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Journal Entry

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Translation, Asymmetry, An Offer

My stories have, at last count, been translated into 25 languages. Even if you exclude Ethan's wacky translation experiment, they've been translated into 17 languages: Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish,and Swedish.

That's really awesome, it's really fun. I love being translated.

It's also manifestly unfair, symptom of a staggeringly -- ridiculously -- English-dominated world translation scene.

The Problem

About 3% of books published in English are translations; compared to 46% in Poland and 24% in Spain. Of all translations worldwide, perhaps about half are from English -- within Europe, it's about two thirds.

Native English speakers are 5.3% of the world's population. That means under six percent of the world gets to write maybe a third of the books read by everyone else. 94% of the world gets to share the three percent of the English market open to them.

Authors writing in English swamp small-language markets; authors writing in those languages have essentially no access to the world's most lucrative market for literature.

Writer friends in non-English-speaking countries tell me that the up-front cost of having your work professionally translated into English, to try to break into international markets, is prohibitive.

I hope it goes without saying that this impoverishes everyone concerned (English-speakers culturally, non-English-speakers financially!)

So, as much as I would like to think I've been translated so much entirely because of the merits of my prose... it has a lot to do with my having been raised in the language of Empire.

Admittedly, compared to the many kinds of privilege I've had handed to me at birth, this might be a relatively small one. But it's one that rankles, and one I feel like I should do something about. I don't feel like I should just continue to profit from this one-way tide.

The Offer

So here's my proposal.

Do you like my stuff? Have you read (or written) a short story in your own (or another) language which you think is a) totally awesome and b) very much of my sensibility? Does it have a snowball's chance in hell of getting translated into English, and you don't quite have the chops to get it right yourself? Is it under 7000 words, and previously published in a paying, prestigious, or otherwise gate-kept market in the source market (i.e., not slush)?

How about we collaborate?

If the source language is German, you can pretty much turn it over to me. If it's Italian, I can probably read it, but I'm going to need a bunch of help with understanding nuance. If it's Spanish or French I'll be able to get an idea, but will need a LOT of help. If it's Hebrew, I will recognize some words. :-) I'm willing to tackle other languages, too; but really, for anything other than German, you'll need to prepare a basic, literal, raw translation into English. It doesn't have to sing, it can be full of question marks and notes; or it can be almost done -- really, your version -- and all you need is a hand with English nuance and euphony.

I have to like the story, which means you might send me it and I might say "sorry, I can't get into this one."

You handle the rights on your end -- contacting the author and making sure they're cool with the idea. I'll try and sell the translation in an English market. The original author gets half and we split the other half -- or whatever else seems reasonable. Or if you already know a publisher, that's cool too. Or we blog it, go indie, whatever you like. (I'm not really primarily interested in making money on this, and would waive my cut if that's a thing it's a wholly noncommerical project.)

Edited to Add: One interesting thing about trying to fight an injustice in a complex oppressive society is that complex oppressive societies are good at pitting groups against one another, so that by allying yourself with one you always have to be careful not to squash another (hello intersectionality!)

Another group that the 3% thing sucks for are professional translators into English, and it's been pointed out in the comments that it's not the right symbolic gesture to imply that translation should be done for free. So I've revised the above to remove that.

I'm not a professional translator; even in German, I'm no more than a dilettante translator, and in any other language, I'm not even that! I'm willing to translate on spec, for a portion of the profits of any eventual sale, because I see this as an opportunity to collaborate rather than a service for which I'm charging a fee. But in solidarity with professional translators, I will expect us to divide up any profits in a way that makes sense given the labor done (my general assumption would be that my cut would be 25% of sales of the translation, maybe 33% for German).

I'm not an editor, and this is not a market: I cannot promise a sale. This is an offer of collaboration.

I'm committing to do one of these, in the next 12 months. And I'll probably continue after that.

So What?

Helping translate one story a year is obviously a tiny, symbolic gesture. But I expect it to be fun, and possibly to be useful. Maybe it can help someone break into the Anglophone market.

I'd like to see more authors do this. I'd like to see us in the English speaking world make translation a regular part of our literary practice, the way it is for authors most other places. It's interesting, it's invigorating, and it's only right. You don't have to be a specialized translator. You could just do one a year. Why not?

Edited to Add: The goal here is not for us to replace professional translators. The goal is to increase the visibility of translations, and to maybe give a few non-Anglophone authors the ability to break in to where they can afford professional translation. (The going rate for translations is £88.50 per thousand words, or 15 cents USD per word: the going rate for science fiction short stories published in SFWA professional markets is 5 cents a word. Professional translators who want to be paid fee-up-front for translating science fiction into English thus need more non-Anglophone authors to first break out of the neopro stage...)

Other authors writing in English (especially but not limited to those who speak other languages): are you interested in this issue too? Want to join me? Comment below!

To Review

If you are an author or potential collaborator from the non-Anglophone world:

  • Find a story you think we should translate.
  • The story must be under 7000 words and previously published in a significant market.
  • You should specifically think that it is a fit for me because of what I write, rather than just "hey I heard there's a guy who will translate stuff on spec".
  • If you didn't write it yourself, secure the rights: contact the author, see if they agree to us translating it on spec, on whatever terms.
  • Contact me in comments here, on facebook/twitter/email etc., and tell me:
    • about the story in brief
    • where it was previously published
    • why you think I'm specifically the right person to help translate it
    • why you're the right person to help (if you wrote the story, that's why)
    • what rights deal you've decided on
    • how to contact you.
  • If the story is in German, you can just send it to me as is. Otherwise I will need a rough literal translation into English for starters, and we will be working together closely.

Edited to Add: I also encourage you to check out the many wonderful professional translators listed at the Society of Authors website.

If you are an author writing in English and you're on board:

  • Comment below or chez toi.
  • Say what languages you can read in, and what lengths, terms, etc., you'd be willing to handle, and how to contact you.
  • Enjoy the richness of the world beyond the narrow confines of English.

Gentlepersons, start your literary engines.

Posted by benrosen at February 23, 2014 12:04 PM | Up to blog

I’m entirely and wholly for this in principle. It’s basically what I’ve done for the last eight years as a professional freelance translator, and always as a supplement to making a living. I mean, we’re talking short stories here: passion projects. Fiction alone, I’ve brought 36 authors into English in 58 different publications, from periodicals (SFF and non) to anthologies.
Which is why there’s one teensy thing that bothers me about this exceedingly well-intentioned proposal, whose specificity I otherwise admire. I applaud the wake-up call, especially from unexpected quarters, and in a community dear to my heart, the very one I work in. I applaud its being backed by actual initiative. I applaud the recent beginnings of a wave in name-authors translating, from David Mitchell to Jonathan Franzen (in however encumbered a version). I am not one of those translators who fears their work will run us out of jobs, or begrudges them the renown their translations win them relative to professional translators, or that such professionals would have done a better job. The more stuff being translated, the better, and in as broad a spectrum as possible; the more people translating, the better. There’s no shortage of quality foreign work or authors; translators need hardly compete in that regard (it’s the narrowness of the gate into English that makes them think they do).
However, in the case of your offer above, we are talking about a very invisible part of an already relatively invisible profession: translating on spec, often in contact directly with the author (and not his/her publisher, much less the minimal contractual protection of any English-language publisher). In this kind of situation, I have seen too many translators, hungry for work or just hoping to work on something they like, get treated really unscrupulously by foreign authors, themselves hungry to get into hegemonic English, to be comfortable seeing translation services offered FOR FREE. Authors who pit multiple translators against each other, who deny the translator ever did any work at all, who go on to defame said translator to authors and publishers… you name it. Not that having an English publisher lined up really guarantees much: editor Sal Robinson explains why in great
blog post

You are of course free to set the price of your own labor. In the end, all of us in literature do this at least partly for love, and in this day and age, there are few writers or translators who haven’t done quite a few things for free. But if I dream at all of a day when some professional organization remotely resembling a union guarantees baselines translation rates in the US (like the
in France), I have to start somewhere by making a stand about not ever waiving my fee. My fee for stories, like the act of one story per year that you offer, may be symbolic at this point, but these are both gestures toward a better future: one with more translations getting read, and more translators making a living wage.

Posted by: Edward Gauvin at February 23, 2014 05:53 PM

Like Edward, I'm one of many professional literary translators who work hard to translate great stories for English-language audiences and often bring new authors to the attention of publishers. We're in the profession for the long haul and bring a wide range of experience to the job. We know people in the industry and may also have access to sources of funding. This is a job that we do, day in, day out, with plenty of enthusiasm - and we're not even that expensive! If you take a look at the Society of Authors website, you'll find a long list of literary translators, with language combinations and areas of interest.

Posted by: at February 24, 2014 12:05 AM

Hello Edward and Anonymous Translator! Welcome to the blog.

You bring up an angle I had not anticipated. I definitely don't want to devalue the work of translation. Translation is super hard and I expect that professional translators bring skills, experience, and contacts to the table that I do not; plus, obviously, as a dilettante, my pipeline is going to be tiny, so for more than a tiny sliver of access to the U.S. market, foreign authors are going to need to rely on professional translation at standard rates paid in advance.

My ideal scenario is that this would create more work for professional translators, along the lines of: 1) Anglophone author who benefits from translation translates non-Anglophone author's short story, 2) Anglophone publisher, intrigued, contacts non-Anglophone author with a book offer, 3) non-Anglophone author or Anglophone publisher pays for professional translation of book -- novel or collection -- which no one's going to do as a lark.

That said, I'm sensitive to the argument that I'm making the wrong symbolic gesture by endorsing translators not getting paid -- so let me alter the part about waiving my fee to restrict that to wholly noncommercial projects. Does that make sense for you folks?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at February 24, 2014 06:22 AM

I like the idea a lot,that's all I can really add. Books on electronics and data sheets are the only published works I've read lately.
I have two cousins who know Russian; one of them knows Ukrainian also, apparently. The former has had translations published but I don't know the guy. The other works in IT support; when the USSR ended his skills became less marketable, visiting Russia got dicey(?), he has kids now, etc. Good luck with it, Ben!

Posted by: Lawrence Frazier at February 25, 2014 04:00 AM

Hi Ben,

I like this idea. I don't see this as competing with professional translators because the goal would be to pull in new works that would not have been translated otherwise. You are taking a bite out of a larger pie.

It is tempting to explore online collaboration on the translation problem but I think that runs into some thorny copyright issues since the original text will need to be available. Stories released under one of the creative commons licenses would be much easier to work with (and maybe more desirable too).

There is still the problem of getting the English translation published. I wonder if some of the short story anthology editors might be willing to dedicate a spot specifically to a translated story that otherwise fits into the anthology?

I would like to help with German to English. I am not an literary author and I will miss many German idioms and much nuance. Actually, an ulterior motive I have is to use this work as a way to improve my German.

Given these limitations I would produce a basic "raw" translation into English. I think that would still be a valuable first step so that subsequent more skilled translators could focus on the more refined details.

Also I would recommend reading Le Ton beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter[1]. It is a lovely book that explores his "ruminations on the art of translation."

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Ton_beau_de_Marot

Posted by: Michael Musson at March 7, 2014 06:18 PM

Just a note for any translators reading this including you, Benjamin - Upper Rubber Boot Books is closed to submissions at the moment but whenever we are open to submissions (generally we're open n the autumn for an anthology, and irregularly through the year for other things), I'm always interested in seeing translated work that's already been published in the source language. Please keep us in mind.

Posted by: Joanne Merriam at April 23, 2015 01:30 AM
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