Translation, asymmetry, intrusismo, a forthcoming offer.

What follows is a somewhat lengthy blow-by-blow account of a discussion across blogposts by several different authors regarding the idea of translating short fiction (genre fiction, mainly) in English ‘on spec’.

The ‘TL;DR’ version: “An imbalance exists between English-fiction-translated-into-other-languages vs. Fiction-in-other-languages-translated-into-English; the idea of established Anglophone authors (i.e., non-professional translators) offering to help redress that imbalance raises interesting questions re threats to the livelihood of literary translators”

The long version:

This morning, as I was leisurely scrolling back through my Twitter feed with cup of coffee #2, I ran across a tweet from the highly prolific and entertaining Alex Shvartsman (@AShvartsman), in which he and award-winning author Aliette de Bodard were offering their services to non-Anglophone authors interested in having their work translated to English.

Clicking along the Internet trail, I was led to a post by the great Benjamin Rosenbaum entitled “Translation, Asymmetry, An Offer”. In it, he begins by pointing out that his stories have been translated into 17 languages: “a symptom,” he says, “of a staggeringly — ridiculously — English-dominated world translation scene.”

He goes on to point out that, “Of all translations worldwide, perhaps about half are from English — within Europe, it’s about two thirds“, while native English speakers are only 5.3% of the world’s population.

“That means,” writes Rosenbaum, “under six percent of the world gets to write maybe a third of the books read by everyone else.”

To redress this, Mr Rosenbaum offered his services as an ‘on spec’ translator (paraphrasing very roughly here): if readers or writers had a non-English-language story they’d read or written that they thought matched his sensibility and was awesome enough to demand the English translation it would most likely never have access to, he would attempt to translate it or pass it on to someone who could. In the first version of this post (later amended), he added, “I’m not really interested in making money on this, and would waive my cut if that’s a thing.”

In the comments section, however, translator Edward Gauvin (whom you may know from his translation work for Weird Fiction Review) pointed out that the “symbolic gesture” on Rosenbaum’s part of translating on spec and waiving his fee could contribute to a disturbing trend:

“In the case of your offer above,” he writes, “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.”

As a result, Rosenbaum gladly edited his post to stipulate his proposed cut of any commercial work that might be done, as well as clarifying several other points in hopes of removing any implication that translation work is somehow undeserving of remuneration.

“My ideal scenario,” he said, “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.”

A similar exchange took place on de Bodard’s blog, where she had wholesale cut-and-pasted Rosenbaum’s original post and Gauvin subsequently cut-and-pasted the concerns he’d voiced earlier at Rosenbaum’s blog. Bodard pointed out in response that “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 […] 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…”

To which another professional translator Laura Watkinson replied: “there are professional literary translators out there doing this work already […] 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.

The discussion in the comments went on (including interesting comments re the going rates for translation vs the going rates for SF short stories, and the fannish tradition of paying-it-forward and so on which I recommend anyone interested in this topic to pay special attention to), but for our purposes here, suffice it to say that this whole thing is a sticky wicket indeed.

Coincidentally I had already in recent months been pondering the possibility of just such a thing, inspired by the example of author Ken Liu’s success in publishing translations of Chinese SF authors in some of the field’s major English language publications.

And I think that the imbalance that Rosenbaum et al point out is something worth addressing. However, the comments coming from the other end of the equation, by translators like Mr. Gauvin and Ms. Watkinson, raise interesting questions about the impact of such an endeavour on the industry of translation itself as a whole.

Indeed, in a country like Spain, the spectre of intrusismo laboral looms large over the translation business–basically anyone with a minimum grasp of basic English grammar can, if they so desire, fancy themselves a translator, whether it’s your stereotypical backpacker native-speaker TEFL teacher with no formal training in translation whatsoever or a Spanish speaker with the First Certificate doing inverse translations(!) for a little extra pocket money.

In the near future, I fully intend to post a similar offer to the one made by Rosenbaum, de Bodard, and Shvartman (though, credential-wise I’m don Nadie by comparison), but not without first giving the whole thing a nice long think.

Meanwhile, writers and translators are welcome to post their take on things in the comments below.