November 1, 2011

Tougher times than usual for translators?


Every now and then translation becomes a hot topic. More often than not the new interest is prompted by some landmark new book; at the moment, of course, it’s Murakami‘s 1Q84, translated into English by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Yesterday Salon ran a long article about the penury endured by most literary translators, and it’s true that it’s virtually impossible to make a living this way these days. Many translators combine their work with teaching, reviewing, writing fiction or journalism, or more lucrative but less fun fields within translation. (And I say ‘less fun’ from experience: I once spent several months translating engineering trade publications and corporate contracts.) In defence of publishing houses, I can honestly say that — at least in the vast majority of cases — translators aren’t being conned. It’s difficult for anyone but the biggest of houses to balance the costs of these works, adding the price of a translation to a rights purchase and all the usual production costs and overheads. When it works it’s fabulous: just this last weekend we discovered that Banana Yoshimoto‘s The Lake, translated by Michael Emmerich, had been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and we’re proud to know that we’re responsible for bringing that important book to Anglophone readers. More about that in the coming days. But it is tough and the Salon article is quite right that translators do not lead the lives of rock stars. Then again, nor do publishers or most authors — but I’m sure that’s not what David Bellos was suggesting.

And lest we forget why this is all important, let’s return to this Publishing Perspectives article of earlier this year. It says:

Between the 12th and the 14th centuries, translations from Arabic into Hebrew and vice versa were frequent. Jewish poets and philosophers in Arab countries such as Maimonides, wrote first in Arabic; then translated their books into Hebrew. The 16th century North African diplomat and author known as Leo Africanus wrote a dictionary of medical terms in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin.

Today, the 60-plus year conflict between Israel and Arab countries has impacted heavily on translations between the two Semitic languages, which are now viewed by many with mutual suspicion and distrust, often times the languages are learned primarily by the security apparatus in the various countries.

And, of course, that’s only one of the more obvious problem areas. In the English-speaking world it’s easy to be complacent — we do, after all, have many fabulous publishing houses that take pride in publishing translations. But there are still many underrepresented areas, and that’s a political problem as well as a cultural one, if it’s even possible to separate the two. Bellos says that “bellyaching is part of the community,” and of course he’s right, but he’s also being modest. An awful lot of that community is about dedication to what’s valuable and right in literature and the world, and it’s important that we continue to support translators as much as we can while making bold decisions as publishers.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.