Redressing the translation imbalance

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Redressing the translation imbalance

I’m not going to do an ultra long post, because if you’re a reader of this blog you already know how I feel about the imbalance between Anglophone authors, who get massively translated into other languages, and non-Anglophone authors, who have a much harder time making it into English print…

However, Benjamin Rosenbaum rightfully reminded me that I could do my part to redress this imbalance , and I would like to make the same offer he does (except in different languages). Cribbing from his blog post:

The offer:

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 French, you can pretty much turn it over to me. If it’s Spanish, I can probably read it, but I’m going to need a bunch of help with understanding nuance. (if it’s Vietnamese, I’ll recognise some words but that’s about it :) ) I’m willing to tackle other languages, too; but really, for anything other than French and possibly Spanish, 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. (I would waive my cut only for a noncommercial project) Or we blog it, go indie, whatever you like.

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 Ben revised his offer to remove that; I’m doing the same.

I’m not a professional translator; even in French, 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 French/Spanish).

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.

A FAIR WARNING HOWEVER: I’m completely underwater for the coming year, so while I’m quite willing to translate for you, I can’t guarantee a fair turn of speed–you’ll have to put up with a bit of… slow answers from me, I’m afraid (novel plus snakelet plus work plus other commitments add up to a busy busy bee on this end).

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?

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 French or Spanish, you can just send it to me as is (if it’s in Spanish I will need quite a bit of help from you for nuance, and I might possibly get back to you and ask for a rough translation). Otherwise I will need a rough literal translation into English for starters, and we will be working together closely.

If you’re Anglophone and would like to join in:
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.

Any signal boosting much appreciated, thanks in advance!
ETA: corrected the payment terms as I don’t want to suggest translation is invisible work that’s hardly worth the money :( Translators do a vital (and often unrecognised and under-appreciated) job; while I’m quite happy to donate some of my time here, I don’t want people to get the idea no payment is a standard thing (see Edward Gauvin’s comments below, at my original blog post).

13 comments

  1. I have been doing this very thing for Russian language stories.

    Just last week, I had a story I translated by the Belorussian author Siarhey Bulyha accepted for publication in Spark: A Creative Anthology. I have previously translated and published other stuff, including a story by Russia’s most popular living SF author, Sergei Lukyanenko.

    I’m very selective about what I translate, but any Russian-speaking authors are welcome to contact me through my site and send me a sample.

  2. I’m a Spanish->English translator. I co-translated TERRA NOVA: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY SPANISH-LANGUAGE SCIENCE FICTION (Sportula). I’ve also translated individual SF stories and poems by various writers and have published them in STRANGE HORIZONS, WEIRD FICTION REVIEW, SPACE & TIME, STAR*LINE, PHANTOM DRIFT, etc.

  3. I love this! But here’s a shortened version of my original reaction to Ben’s post:
    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, so I am all too aware of the imbalance, and I’m working from French, one of the more represented languages in the world.
    I’ve always done short fiction as a supplement to actually making a living. Short stories are passion projects. Fiction alone, I’ve brought 36 French authors into English in 58 different publications, from periodicals (SFF and non) to anthologies, not to mention my regular column on Francophone writers for the VanderMeers’ Weird Fiction Review.
    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.
    In the case of this offer, 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 a great .
    People 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.

  4. Thanks, guys–much appreciated!

  5. @Edward: thank you for chiming in! I agree it’s a tricky problem. The issue isn’t, per se, the prohibitive cost of professional translation, it’s the fact that there is no translation infrastructure in place from other languages into English. In any other country, translation is a significant cost in publishing a foreign-language book or stories, it’s only English-language countries that have few or no translation departments. I don’t really know to remedy this one, though–it would require a gigantic shift in mindset and I certainly can’t influence that :(
    At the moment, as you point out, there really is little to no market for translating short stories into English on spec, and no smart solution that I can see for creating one…

  6. I know, right? The French gov’t has grants for people translating other languages into French, and simultaneously funds most translation of French books into English!
    My strategy in the past has been to get a certain number of stories from a given author published, then try to shop the idea of a collection around. It worked for Châteaureynaud with Small Beer, and Ferry with Wakefield, but only with auxiliary funding in both cases.
    I do want to make it clear that what you and Ben are suggesting is great: authors who’ve already been translated wanting to pay it forward, or rather back; I wish there were more like you. In some ideal republic of world letters everyone would be both writer and translator, and the only currency would be reciprocal fiction (Châteaureynaud translated me into French, and it was really cool). I posted your post on an Emerging Translators forum, so fingers crossed.
    But thinking translation isn’t worth payment http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/10/duolingo_buzzfeed_partnership_the_translation_project_is_terrible_for_foreign.html
    is wrapped up in a general attitude toward translation, historically and culturally, which is why I think contemporary translators are pushing for a redefinition of what it is they do.
    Also, messed up those links above:
    http://www.mhpbooks.com/arabic-translator-jonathan-wright-settles-with-alaa-al-aswany-and-why-im-glad-wright-spoke-up/
    http://www.sft.fr/index.php

  7. As Edward and Lawrence have said, there are professional literary translators out there doing this work already, with great enthusiasm and for fairly low rates. Many of us know about possible sources of funding for translations and have professional relationships with publishers. I’d say that there definitely is an infrastructure in place for professional literary translations into English. I’d recommend the Society of Authors as a good place to start. They have a link on their homepage to their register of literary translators, with details of language combinations and special interests. Their current observed rate for translation is £88.50 per thousand words.

  8. Hi all!

    Edward and Laura, these are great points, I hadn’t considered the issue from the perspective of professional translators. I agree that it’s sending the wrong signal to offer to waive my cut of any eventual sales, so I’ve removed that part of the offer, and added some explanation, on my site. I don’t want to do anything to suggest that translation is not an important art form in and of itself. Quite the opposite! Translators deserve to be paid for their work.

    Laura, £88.50 per thousand words is fifteen cents USD a word. I don’t know how familiar you are with science fiction short story markets, but the official “professional” pay rate for short stories, as established by SFWA, is five cents a word. Only the top market in SF, Tor.com, buys short stories for more than fifteen cents a word.

    Fifteen cents a word is an excellent and entirely correct rate for a UK or US publisher to pay a translator for publishing a book. Professional translators should not be getting less than this. At the same time, a non-Anglophone writer who has written an SF short story can hardly be expected to pay fifteen cents a word out of pocket in the hopes of selling it to the one market in the world that would cover the cost (or eventually recouping the cost from enough reprints in theme anthologies). That would require an almost absurd degree of optimism, right?

    In the SF world there is a strong tradition of paying forward and of collaboration between authors. Professional proofreaders and professional editors also charge (and deserve) professional rates that are outside of the reach of authors hoping to make a seven-cents-a-word sale to Asimov’s. So what do those authors do? They critique and edit each others’ stuff. This isn’t money out of the pockets of professional proofreaders and editors. Instead, it’s part of the ecosystem that supports neophyte authors to the point where they can afford (or have publishers who can afford) professional editing and proofreading. With few exceptions, the same thing doesn’t seem to exist in the Anglophone world with regards to translation.

    I’m doing this as a dilettante; I will have a tiny pipeline. I’m not interested in replacing professional translators; on the contrary. The best result of this would be that a bunch of established Anglophone authors translate a few short stories by quality non-Anglophone authors, those stories catch the eyes of publishers, who decide to hire professional translators to translate their books at £88.50 per thousand words.

  9. @Edward and Laura: what Ben said. I wish I was paid 15 cents a word for a short story!

  10. p.s. Edward and Laura — do you feel like the revisions and clarifications I have made to my offer address your concerns? Is there more I could say about the role of professional translators, beyond pointing to the Society of Authors website? I was thinking of listing other authors writing in English (like Aliette) willing to collaboratively translate short stories on spec, for a cut; would it make sense to list some professional translators as well, who are willing to make a similar deal, or is it better to make the distinction between amateurs such as myself, and pros who will generally charge a fee for service?

    It’s worth noting that what I’m proposing has me offering considerably less flexibility and labor than a pro translator. I’m not seeking out the stories; I’m expecting people to have read my work and to tell me why the story is a match; except for German, I’m really expecting them to do the bulk of the translation and me just to polish it. I’m not promising any kind of reasonable turnaround time, and I’m going to reject stories I don’t personally like. So it seems to me that rather than competing with pro translators, I’m really offering a different kind of authorial collaboration.

  11. I’ve done some professional translation work in the past as well, and I don’t feel that an offer to translate a short story or two is comparable to this, devalues professional translation, or takes bread from the pros’ mouths.

    Consider this: Do lawyers occasionally taking on a pro bono case devalue what they are able to charge for their services otherwise?

    In case of short stories and because of very low pay rates associated with them, no one could afford to pay the translator a fair wage anyway. The way I’ve structured my short story translation deals is that I do all the work — translate the story from Russian, polish it, and submit it to magazines in the same way as I submit my own work. If the translation sells, I split the proceeds with the author 50/50 — which is a token amount for me, but it does somewhat address Edward’s point of not placing a zero value on the work being put in.

  12. Hi,

    Very interesting initiative.

    My name is Ronald Delgado and I am a venezuelan science fiction writer. I’ve published four books of short stories and I think you might like one or two of my stories, both of them published in my 2013 e-book called “Anómala”, by the Alfa Eridiani Editorial from Spain.

    The first story is called “Ningyö”, its 2865 words long, and it is a story about a millionaire (and a little sadistic) young man that travels to Japan to know about the advanced sex robots called “Karakuri Ningyö” that are the state of the art in sexual toys. Once he is in there, he finds out that the robots are not exactly what he was expecting, so he uses his own hands to “get” what he wants from the robots (cannot be more specific without giving up the ending). This story has a lot of erotic elements in it, kinda erotic-science-fiction.

    The second story is the one that gives the book its title, “Anómala”. Its 5643 words long, and the story is a critic to the social networks and the evils they could bring in the future. In the story, I imagined a society where everyone uses social networks and computer and mobile devices, and, in fact, it is against the law of such state to be “disconnected” from the internet. There are police agents who are always making sure everyone is connected, and when someone tries to get away from the net (called digital suicide), the police acts to get those “Anomalies” and to put them to prison. The short story is the story of a young woman that feels she needs to get disconnected, and about the police officer that detects her attempt to commit digital suicide.

    I think you will like these short stories because they deal with very actual issues and because they are very universal, since I don’t set them in a very specific place or time in the future. I also think you will like them because I think they are cool stories, and I am confident of my writing :)

    If you are interested, you can contact through ronald.delgado@gmail.com or @rdelgadoCF

    Good luck with this project and thanks for the oportunity.

    Ronald Delgado.

    P.S.: Excuse my English.

  13. Ben, your response is gracious in the extreme, and Alex, I did not mean to imply anyone was stealing work or money from translators. I think Ben’s assessment of the spec tradition/community is indeed a very good one, and that’s something I see younger translators trying to build. Nor do I want to clutter comments for a post about one thing by torquing it into a discussion about another. It was really the “waiving” I was referring to, and that’s gone.
    However, I think there is a distinction to be made: just because the current conditions do not or cannot support X practice, and some people are content working in current conditions, does not mean current conditions cannot someday be something else. Just because “no one can do it anyway” doesn’t mean some of us aren’t striving to change that. (Alex, the lawyer analogy is, I’m sorry, completely inapplicable in this case, because the professions and their historical statures are just too different.)
    Basically, working both in spec and translation as I do, I want to be more of a bridge between these worlds, which don’t really get that much contact. For instance, the statistics Ben quoted in his post are mostly new news to the spec community, I feel, but they are the sort of founding charter of the translation/global lit/world lit folks.
    I can’t speak for Laura, and I’m American, not British, so I can’t speak to the Society either. My impression is that on the whole, word rates are lower in the UK than the US, but the work is steadier. However, that’s also an impression from mainstream and not SFF publishing, whereas my work is largely in the latter.
    Here are my facts from 8 years of freelancing:
    * $0.15 is a high-end word rate for fiction, even book-length (perhaps not legal/medical/technical nonfiction, I wouldn’t know), though I try to get at least $0.12. Pro-translator organizations in the English-speaking world, like PEN America or the Society, may recommend certain rates or contract terms but lack the ability to enforce them, which is what translators really need.
    * I have basically done the exact same deal (translating on spec, subbing on the author’s behalf, splitting the proceeds) on my 60+ story translation publications. I am obviously not averse to this “system”, if a system it is, and realize that it’s currently the only way to do things. That is why, as I said, I regard short stories as love projects and not a source of a living. If translators can’t live off short stories, neither can writers these days. My main regret is that often, with French things at least, the publishers and not the author hold the rights, and thus the author sees nothing of an already minuscule amount. Also, publishers sometimes turn down offers because of said minuscule amount, not understanding the short story market. It’s possible that by working with younger authors, you could subvert this.
    * The collaborative translation thing is interesting, and could use more exploration everywhere. I’m also interested in experimental and alternative translation practices, which might help people understand what translation really is. I think of the ideal translation showcase anthology as something like a tribute album to a single artist of covers by different ones: one author, different stories, different translators.
    * So sure, list me! Full steam ahead with this project.

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