Monday, February 20, 2012

Literary translator: a sad profession


The world of translation has changed more in the last 15 years than in the previous five centuries.

When I had my first notions about what the profession of translation entailed, the first image that came to my mind was that of a writer working extremely carefully in a quiet room, striving to find the perfect phrase in the target language. I am obviously talking about literary translation and other kinds of translations just didn't exist for me.

Of course, linguistic mastery was a prerequisite for the profession, but nowadays, when a publisher wants to publish a foreign novel, they do not look most for quality text, but for the cheapest available price on the market.

Literary translation, which has always been perceived and practiced in various manners and literary traditions, is now a victim of the Internet, which allows translators to deal directly with clients without the need of an agent, but makes *really talented* translation more and more difficult. A good literary translator will need to read the whole novel before starting to translate a single word; he will need to read the author's biography and other previously edited translations, and after that he will need a very large chunk to translate. And this, obviously, costs money.

On the other hand, a translation agency based in New Delhi or Hong Kong will contact a publisher and offer the same service in half time and for half the price. The same service? Well, obviously the quality will suffer, but who cares about that in the market's current state?

I have some insight on this: Here at Active Gaming Media, we receive hundreds of resumes from literary translators who are willing to do any sort of text translation possible, simply because they have no work. One of our partner translators did two outstanding translations from Yukio Mishima's Japanese novels, and in the last two years he has not been offered more than 0.035USD per target word, and for translating NOVELS at that. So, if this happens with such a difficult combination as Japanese-Spanish, what will happen with English-related translations? 

Literary translation will continue to survive as long as novels are printed, but dark days are on the horizon for literary translators.