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