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.
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.
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.
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!
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.