Starting Out as a Literary Translator

Let me tell you right from the start, I haven’t made it. I’m writing about what it’s like to start out as a literary translator because, well, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

I chose a profession that bears no promise of a 401k, a profession without healthcare benefits or a decent living wage, and really, if I hope to make it anytime soon, I best start looking for a sugar mama now who’ll take care of the minutiae of being an adult so I can spend eight hours a day translating and reading and networking with publishers and drinking three o’clock glasses of bourbon — neat — while hunting down synonyms and definitions of words I thought I knew but realized I didn’t.

To be fair, I didn’t just start out. I’ve been translating for a number of years, but mostly for journalistic publications. Not Simon & Schuster or Penguin or Harper Collins or the other two of the “big five” who dominate the publishing landscape and which I’m not going to look up in a new browser now, because let’s be honest, who cares? (Indie presses are way cooler anyway.)

But I haven’t been translating for the indie presses either, don’t have a single ISBN even remotely attached to my name. But I have a master’s degree in literary translation, and we live in America, right? Where education still means something? Right?

If you’re studying to become a doctor or an engineer or a software developer, then yeah, you’re set, but if you want to carry forth the torch of linguistic and cultural exchange that’s been handed down for time immemorial through literature, you’re really kinda fucked. I am fucked.

Here’s a text message I got from a publisher friend when I was hungover a few months back and questioning my life (at the time I was actually more upset about my candidate losing in the primary election, but whatever) and whether I’d ever succeed or whether I was doomed to mediocrity:

“Life is a series of meaningless disappointments ending with a moment before oblivion in which you realize you never accomplished anything and even if you did, it will be forgotten when the sun explodes and everyone dies.”

Okay, I’ll admit, that’s kind of a bleak view of life, but damn did I get a good laugh out of that while sitting down the street at the cafe, rubbing my temples, questioning why in the world I thought it was okay to drink a bottle and a half of Malbec the night before.

The problem with literary translation is that there are no secure jobs in the industry. You could hardly even say there is an industry. According to the Three Percent Blog, only 3% of books published in the United States annually are works in translation, to which university language textbooks are included. According to data released by UNESCO, that would be about 9,000 works in translation out of the roughly 300k works published each year. Divide the US population by that number, and that’s roughly 1 work in translation for every 35,000 people. Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll arrive at the same conclusion as me: Da fuq?

If those numbers aren’t shocking, you should take a look at my pocketbook.

A good friend of mine—who was in the same master’s program I was in just two years before—summed it up nicely:

“I chose a graduate program that was meant to train me for a career that isn’t a career — at best it’s a hobby for academics. No one makes any money translating books, and the skills that came along with the degree are skills that could have more easily been obtained by taking an internship at a publishing house (yes, they’re usually unpaid, but if you consider that I paid for 8 credit hours of an internship over the last year, then it evens out) and practicing the craft.”

Now, I’m not going to rag on literary translation. I love translation. Always will. But there’s no avoiding the cold, hard fact that translated literature and fiction are grossly underrepresented and under appreciated in most of the English-speaking world. And that makes it difficult for translators at the beginning of their careers like me or my friend to establish themselves.

Translated Literature in Other Countries

If you take look at these numbers, you’ll see that the rest of the world places much more value on translated works than we do here in the states. 21.5% of works published in Germany are translations. If you look at the Scandinavian countries—countries that are known for being highly literate in English—the number is even more staggering: 52% for Sweden, 60% for Denmark, and 66% for Finland.

Admittedly, the numbers I’m citing are from 2007/08, but it’s unlikely that the trends have changed significantly in the meantime.

Point is, for a literary translator in the United States, “life is a series of meaningless disappointments ending with a moment before oblivion in which you realize you never accomplished anything and even if you did, it will be forgotten when the sun explodes and everyone dies.”

Or is it?

Why the Benefits Outweigh the Cash

Both of my parents were classically trained and professional painters. When I was three, my dad gave me my very first easel. My mom provided the paints. I grew up thinking I’d become an artist. I was the golden child in the family and everyone doted on me for being able to color within the lines. Go figure.

When I was a little older, during my teens, I told my dad that I wanted to go to art school, just like he and my mom both had done, and that I wanted to get rich or die trying to make it big in cosmopolitan art galleries. Much to my chagrin, dad told me:

Mit dem Beruf wirst du weder ein Butterbrot noch ein Ei verdienen können*, or in English “you’re fucked, don’t even try.” So I gave up, threw away my brushes, and chose to pursue translation instead.

Now I wonder whether I’ll be saying the same to my future children about translation that my dad told me back then about art. In reality, I probably won’t.

Translation, like any art, takes dedication. Naturally it takes the gumption to network with publishers, writers, and other literary translators. It takes the willingness to put yourself out on the line and get uncomfortable and let your ego get shat on. But I imagine it’s the same in any profession, right?

If you look at most syllabi for English or philosophy courses at universities across the country, you’ll see at least one work of translated literature on the list. That’s because a majority of the works in the Western Canon are works written in different languages that were then translated into English for us to digest, reflect on, incorporate into our theories of life and society, etc. etc. etc. (Think Kafka, Voltaire, Kant, Proust, Flaubert, even Plato and Cicero for God’s sake).

But the works that make up the Western Canon are rarely packaged as “works in translation.” Even though they’re exactly that! How many people know who Charles Moncrieff was? Or John M. Cooper? Likely not many. But that’s okay. Who cares really, so long as we get to read the damn works?

Translation, to my mind, isn’t about fame or glory. Translation is a hobby (according to my friend, it’s a hobby for academics—and I totally agree). But it’s more than that. Translation is a vocation, it’s a ceaseless urge to figure out just the right words to use from one language to another to capture the meanings and narratives and plots expressed in different languages—languages that many people in the English-speaking world may not otherwise have access to.

Sure, I may be broke. Sure, I may be $21k+ in debt for a master’s degree that offers me little guarantee of job security. But at least I can find solace in the fact that even if it takes me a while to break into an industry with evidently bleak prospects, I’ll be able to one day contribute to society and the bridging of cultures in ways I may never see the direct effects of.

The sun will explode, yes. But until then, I have words to translate.

*You’ll barely be able to earn enough for bread and eggs with a career like that.