Benjamin Rosenbaum

Comments on "Translation, Asymmetry, An Offer"

Iím entirely and wholly for this in principle. Itís basically what Iíve done for the last eight years as a professional freelance translator, and always as a supplement to making a living. I mean, weíre talking short stories here: passion projects. Fiction alone, Iíve brought 36 authors into English in 58 different publications, from periodicals (SFF and non) to anthologies.
Which is why thereís 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. Thereís no shortage of quality foreign work or authors; translators need hardly compete in that regard (itís 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 publishersÖ 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 havenít 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."


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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