Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Bad News is Better than No News

There's something really wrong with bad translation practices when they start getting picked up by international news. In English, from The Telegraph. In French, from Le Nouvel Obs. These are the terrible conditions that translators for the major European languages had to endure and agree to in order to translate Dan Brown's latest work, Inferno. From February 15 to April 5, they worked 12 hours per day, 7 days per week, in an underground bunker, with limited Internet access, no way to take notes on their work, and no copy of the final product they delivered at the end.

All in the name of making sure that no spoilers were leaked.

This is madness, I tell you. But this isn't the first time such conditions have been imposed on translators. Another high-profile example came with JK Rowling's work, both the later Harry Potter books and her new one, The Casual VacancyIn all these cases (and, sadly, many more), translators are forced to work too quickly and under too many limitations for, generally, too little money.

Now, all of these situations are horrible, and there is an understandable outcry over the armed guards outside the Italian bunker for the Brown novel, or the sub-minimum-wage pay for translating Rowling. But it is doing some good, one tiny sliver of a silver lining in a darkened, thundering sky. It sparks all of this bad press, which raises awareness and attention about the hundreds and thousands of other terrible contracts that get dumped on translators of every ilk.

So often, people (especially Americans -- we're more guilty than most about this) assume that translation is easy, quick, cheap, something any bilingual person can do. Would you pay your translator the same hourly rate that you pay your lawyer? Or your accountant? No?

Well, those who don't are committing the same sin as sticking translators in a bunker without any outside contact, the same sin as depriving translators of a several-hundred-page text until three weeks (THREE WEEKS!) before their deadline. Translators, whether literary or any other breed, are artists and masters who have honed their craft through hours and days and years of classes, practice, and research. So while these terrible news stories are still terrible, they do serve to bring some of our plight into the limelight. They serve to remind the reading public about how much work goes into translation, and how terrible it is to deprive translators of humane working conditions or a living wage.

But fortunately, it isn't all bad news. Good presses exist: Open Letter, Archipelago, White Pine. Translator and author Lydia Davis just won the Man Booker International fiction prize. Edith Grossman is still writing and fighting for us. All in all, we're doing pretty well, I figure.