Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

The Money Question

This is the big, million-dollar question: can you actually make a living as a literary translator?

Although if I could make a million dollars just by answering that question, I wouldn't have to worry about that, now, would I?

Here's the simple answer: no.

Sorry to burst your bubble and all that. But it's very true, and we can't delude ourselves. You really can’t make a living just as a literary translator. At least, not until you’ve got a decade or two under your belt. That being said, though, it's not that surprising: this is a creative, artistic industry, so this is just like how you can’t make a living just as a fiction writer until you get your first big advance, or until you've got a few books done, or until (wait for it) you've been working at it for a decade or two (surprise).

That being said, though, there are plenty of ways to earn enough money to live off of, and not all of them are abhorrent. Cross my heart! You don't have to waitress, temp, or stock a grocery store. Unless you want to. Chances are, you can get a day job (or additional freelance work) that actually has something to do with translation, or literature, or some facet of what drew you to this career in the first place.

On to the examples! I know you were dying for some examples. That's why you're here, right? At any rate, these are all real, actual jobs that friends and colleagues of mine have. They're really real. And they get paid well enough to support themselves. I promise.

•    Academia: This has been the classic path for a while. You get tenure, benefits, funding, and a healthy amount of time to work on your own research, which can of course include translation. This is starting to be a little less of a sure thing, because of high adjunct rates and not enough jobs, but many universities are starting to be much better about counting translations toward tenure. (Some people love scholarly work, but obviously, if you're someone who sees academia as a prison, you'd do best to avoid this route.)

•    Freelance editing, copyediting, proofreading, or other publishing tasks: This can be of translated or non-translated texts. Either way, though, you're probably going to be working for more commercial houses, and probably doing a lot of what could be considered more "popular" work -- romance novels, mysteries, a lot of the genre works.

•    Commercial translation, otherwise known to the wider world as just "translation": This is the business side of things. Legal, pharmaceutical, marketing, subtitles . . . any type of company and industry you could possibly imagine, so long as they operate globally. As a fair warning (from personal experience), this can be pretty dry and dull, considering the types of writing that probably got you interested in the literary side of things in the first place. That being said, though, if there's a particular subject area that you enjoy, you can specialize and get direct clients, which can actually be fairly lucrative.

•    Salaried publishing job: This one's nice, if you can get it. In addition to actually working in the industry you'd like to be in, stretching your own editing and writing skills, and learning much more about the publishing process, you could even end up working for a translation publisher! (As of when this post was published, Two Lines Press still had an opening available for an assistant editor. So cool!)

•    Get a sugar daddy/mama: I mean, let's not beat around the bush. If you happen to be dating/married to someone who has a really well-paying job, then you don't have to worry about supporting yourself. Full disclosure: this is me. I have an engineer husband who is, shall we say, the primary breadwinner. (So instead of worrying about pulling my weight financially, I spend some time each week volunteering and giving back, translating for a couple of NGOs and serving on the ALTA board, among other things.)

So, those are the broad strokes. How about you? If you survive just doing literary translation, how long did it take you to get there? If you don't, what other kinds of work do you do? What other ideas can we give people?