Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Serrer les dents

The longer I stay here in Madagascar, the more I am just astounded by what people here are doing for literature. Writing books and getting them published is difficult in any environment--we in the States love to complain about it, mostly because it's true--but there are additional hurdles here in Madagascar that American writers and publishers have never dreamed of. Things like no commercial printing presses, and precious few other ways to get books produced. Things like no established grants or fellowships or stipends or anything from the government--the poor Ministry of Culture is routinely underfunded--so every fundraising effort requires new ideas. Things like a tiny readership for any book, because so few people can afford books here that reading as a pastime has dwindled to almost nothing.

And yet.

People here are dogged, tenacious, willful, even stubborn. They grit their teeth and muscle through to get books published, write new ones, and train the next generation of writers. They hit the pavement every single day to make things happen, and it's so impressive.

I've only been here for a short while, and yet here's what I've seen in the past two weeks alone:

  • A non-profit association that's existed for over six years and has been publishing books for the past two years is spearheading a new initiative: a federation of writing associations and unions, in both Malagasy and French, to coordinate their efforts, cooperate on projects, and share resources.
  • A center for mothers and children in one of the ghetto areas of Antananarivo is preparing a show for Christmas. A couple of writers are volunteering their time to come in and teach several of the kids, ages 8-14, to write and perform slam poetry as part of the show. (I got a little taste of it on Thursday when they performed their works in progress for their peers. It was intense, in the best possible way.)
  • A bookstore that opened just three years ago is coordinating a "booksellers' picks" list from all over the Indian Ocean region, to be featured at the Salon du Livre in Paris next year.
  • A well-known author is planning to re-release one of her best-known titles in a new edition with illustrations and photographs, and publishing it here, in Madagascar, instead of France.
  • A few of the associations in the brand-new aforementioned federation are already laying the groundwork for a new project next year, to bring a mobile library into one of the most rural and hard-to-reach areas in the country (160km northeast of Tana...a minimum of three days to get there).
  • There's a new event being planned to celebrate a recently published posthumous work of Madagascar's most famous and beloved poet, which will feature the critical work of people who until now had remained in the shadows.
  • And I'm here, too, getting connected with writers who are interested in translating directly from Malagasy to English--we'll be working on polishing their translations and finding places in the US and UK to submit, query, and look for grants.

Pretty good for an "impoverished Third-World country," huh?

Strike that. Pretty good for two weeks ANYWHERE. Go Madagascar, you show the rest of the world how it's done!

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?

How to Pick an MA/MFA Program in Literary Translation (But first, do you even need one?)

I recently made a quick trip down to NYC at the invitation of the magnificent Sal Robinson for the first event in this spring's Bridge Series: Breaking In. Moderator Allison Markin Powell led Heather Cleary, Katrine Øgaard Jensen, Mary Ann Newman, and I in a discussion about the state of getting started in literary translation. As usual, though, there's so much more to say than can possibly be covered in such brief (but otherwise lovely) events. Blog posts have fewer limitations and more links, so let's unpack some of these issues a little more.

The night's first topic was MA/MFA programs in literary translation. One of the great things we've seen in the past decade or so is the sheer growth of programs, especially with how many new programs have started being offered in the States. But here's the thing: you absolutely do not need an MA/MFA to be taken seriously in the literary translation community. There's no real prestige to having an advanced degree in this field. So if you're already getting started yourself, you don't want to take on even more student debt, or you just don't really care for the world of academia, don't fret! This is a creative profession. Your work speaks much more to your abilities than any university-issued piece of paper can.

In order to decide whether or not an MA/MFA is right for you, consider what you’re looking for. Perhaps you feel your English (or whatever language is your own target language) writing isn't strong enough, or you're hopelessly under-read in world literature. Maybe you need to cultivate the relationships and connections necessary to be a freelancer in a creative profession. Or do you need pure business help, a better understanding of how the publishing industry works? If you're just looking for one or two facets of getting started, consider the following (much cheaper) options:

WRITING PRACTICE: There are lots of straight writing workshops offered by many different organizations. Look in your area, or check out these two online:

FEEDBACK ON YOUR TRANSLATIONS: This is pretty easy to do in an exchange between two or several translators. Don't be afraid to ask people -- chances are, they'd like another set of eyes on their work, too! Otherwise, for a more formal setting with experienced translators looking at your work, try the following options:

PUBLISHING INFO: Get an internship at a publishing house. Period. It's insanely useful. Find a publisher you admire and just ask them, especially if it's a newer or small press. Otherwise, here are some good places to start:

  • New Directions
  • Open Letter (generally offers month-long internships over the summer -- email them for more information if you can't find any online)
  • Archipelago
  • The New Press (another of my alma maters, if you can call it that)

THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING: There are books to read, and there are online courses to take. Mix and match, if you like:

CONNECTIONS: Joining an organization and talking to people, whether online or in person, works really well! Check out ALTA and ELTNA (or, for a more UK- and Euro-centric focus, the ETN; or, for a global expat view, the Translators Association Diaspora group on Facebook). Plus, look in your area for translation-related events, and strike up conversations with people there. A mentor, whether informal or through a program, could also be a big help:

  • ALTA's Emerging Translator Mentorship Program
  • BCLT's Emerging Translator Mentorship Programme (old link here; new one coming once the administration of the program changes to Writers' Centre Norwich in mid-2016)

THEORY: Well, in that case . . . maybe you should just go apply to that MFA, after all.

So if you have decided on an MA/MFA program, now you have to choose which one! Although there aren't many out there yet (at least, not in the States), there are still enough different options for everyone, from the 1-year MA at the University of Rochester (the MALTS program, my own alma mater) to the 4-year MFA at the University of Arkansas (which is also lovely, and I know many people who've done that program who would tell you so).

Besides considering things like location, duration, and cost -- which are all very important -- here are two tactics to figure out which program to choose based on what you're looking for:

  • Look at the course list: Is it more theory-based? Lots of writing workshops? Any teaching required/offered? Any courses on how the publishing industry works? What are the thesis requirements? That should be enough to tell you what the different programs have on offer.
  • Look at the faculty, and do a quick Google search on them: Are they purely scholarly? Do they have translations published for a general audience (e.g. published by a non-university press)? Have they written articles for non-academic outlets? Do they serve on boards or run outside programs? That’ll tell you more about what the program will be like and what kind of contact circles/relationships you can expect to build.

So, that's that! Customary disclaimer: This is essentially my own opinion, and it's not the whole picture. Also, it's basically US-specific, since I don't know anything about the many graduate programs that exist in the UK or elsewhere. My personal frame of reference is that I took three years off after undergrad before going to get my MA from the University of Rochester, which was an excellent choice on my part and served the purpose I was hoping it would.

But what about the rest of you? If you got an MA/MFA, did you think your experience was worthwhile? Anyone out there not get an advanced degree and really wish they had? Do you disagree with me altogether? What information am I missing? Let me know in the comments below!

The PEN Model Contract (a.k.a. ALTA Mini-Review #3)

Happy New Year! Bonne année et bonne santé !

And what better way to start out the new year by going back and . . . reviewing something that happened two months ago?

Bear with me. A new year means new organization, which means that I found a note to myself from last year with a helpful suggestion to set out a bit about the PEN Model Contract on this here blog. Very helpful, past me. I wish present me had found the note sooner, but hey, better late than never.

Anyway. The PEN Model Contract is here:

Learn it. Use it. For translators, it's a document that works for and protects both you and the publisher. And although PEN does not currently have the ability to give legal advice, the contract has been vetted by their lawyers, so you can point hesitant publishers to the contract as proof of an industry standard. I've even sent the link to my non-translating author friends as an example of a legally sound contract.

"But Allison," you say, "I'm working with a publisher so big that they have a whole team of lawyers! They've got a standard contract they want me to use!"

Not a problem, my dear translator. Look: all contracts are negotiable. All of them. Period. This was a point that was brought up in the panel that was held to discuss the PEN Model Contract at last November's ALTA conference, and it's an important one. Since contracts are, by definition, an agreement between two parties, that agreement can be different for every set of two parties that comes along. But remember, too, that negotiations will mean compromise. The great thing about the PEN Model Contract is that it reminds you what the possibilities are to ask for in a contract, as well as how to word those requests in a professional way.

You can also adapt the PEN Model Contract to your own circumstances. A few examples that were brought up in the panel include:

  • splitting up payment into three stages (upon signing, upon delivery, upon acceptance of final draft)
  • payment due upon completed translation vs. accepted translation
  • calling the initial fee a "payment" instead of an "advance", which clears the way for royalties to begin from the very first copy sold
  • ensuring your name on the front cover, not just any ol' cover
  • possibility of sub-rights for the translation (a possible wording could be "Translator holds the subsidiary rights for all formats, including, but not limited to, electronic book, audiobook, film and TV rights, and translation")

Another thing that was mentioned during the panel: be wary of payment that is contingent on the publisher receiving a grant. It's often helpful if the book is supported by a grant, but you can't have your payment being dependent on a grant coming through, especially if you'd still be expected to deliver the translation.

One final note: in Europe, translator copyright is considered a moral right. The PEN Model Contract could help Americans get there, too.


***Disclaimer: None of this constitutes legal advice. I'm not a lawyer. I'm a translator.

ALTA 2014 Mini-review #1: Women Taking Initiative

One of the best parts of my year is the annual ALTA conference, which took place last week in Milwaukee. And one of the best parts of this particular year's conference was the chance to moderate my first roundtable, which had a very fun name, if I do say so myself: "Taking the Initiative: How to Get Involved, Get Results, and Make Friends Along the Way." I gathered a group of translators I admire who have all started very interesting things, and I asked them to describe the process:

  • what they saw lacking in our industry
  • how they decided to fill the gap
  • what made them decide to take action, instead of waiting for someone else to do it
  • what problems they encountered along the way, and how they overcame them

We got some fascinating stories and practical advice out of it.

  • Lisa Carter talked about developing her own freelancing into Intralingo, her small business with courses for literary translators
  • Esther Allen talked about lots of translation initiatives within PEN America, including Michael Henry Heim's amazing donation to fund the PEN/Heim translation grants
  • Olivia Sears talked about how the Center for the Art of Translation was started over twenty years ago, and how the translation landscape has changed in the meantime
  • Erica Mena talked about starting the Anomalous Journal (and eventually Press) out of her own apartment, and the challenges and freedoms of not being a non-profit organization
  • Susan Bernofsky talked about how her incredibly useful blog Translationista was started, as well as some other advocacy work she does to fill the voids
  • I also talked a little about how ELTNA was started, and is continuing to evolve (on the anniversary of its creation)

Notice anything about that list? It's all women.

Now, I didn't plan the panel this way. Initially, I thought about people who had dreamed up some really cool stuff, and asked them if they'd like to come talk about it. And there was one male on my list, but he wasn't able to attend the conference this year. At any rate, about a month out from the conference, I suddenly realized that the people on my roundtable email list were all women.

Erica noticed it, too, and commented on both the panel's makeup and the fact that about 3/4 of our audience interested in hearing these stories were also women. She posited that maybe women start these things--especially if the things involved volunteering or working for free--because women are generally more giving and maternal. (Yes, we're going to be dealing with major stereotypes here. Roll with it for now.) But ALTA was founded by men, and men currently occupy the president, vice president, and past president positions on the board. That's a lot of volunteer work.

Maybe it's just that there are more women translators than men, or at least more who attend the ALTA conference and could thus be said to be involved somehow. (A quick count of participant bios show that approximately 155 women presented or read at this conference, out of approximately 252 total participants--that's over 60% women.) Or perhaps it's that I'm female, and so I'm more naturally drawn toward working or talking with other women.

Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that men operate more within the existing parameters of leadership to take charge, whereas women find typical leadership roles harder to access, so they just make their own. (This is a hypothesis. I told you there'd be some grossly overgeneralizing stereotypes.) (Also, to clarify, this doesn't actually hold water with ALTA: although the "top three" board positions are held by men, there's actually a female majority on the board, plus our female managing director.)

Basically, what I think I'm trying to say is, there are a lot of possible correlations here, and even more possible causes behind it. And we're getting into slippery statistical territory. Correlation does not imply causation.


To get back to the original topic, the roundtable was fascinating, even for those involved. Every last one of us has our notepads out and were scribbling furiously. We talked a lot about connections and reactions, how one essay can spark someone else to get in touch and do something, how the question to ask is "why not?" instead of listing all possible excuses for getting something done, and how sometimes you just have JDIs: Just Do Its. (I did apologize for the acronym-speak, but my husband's an engineer.) There was also a fascinating discussion of how more established organizations actually find it harder to drum up interest in their programs and new initiatives--CAT and ALTA being two examples--because people think they already know what the organizations are.

And on that note, if you'd like to get involved with an existing thing or have a brilliant idea for something new, come talk to me. Or talk to the appropriate person. Someone. Anyone. Literary translation, much like life, depends on fun new things being formed and developed all the time.

Babelcube: How About Them Apples?

Emma, this one's for you. I started responding to your comment on the last post, but it spiraled into much grander (and longer) territory.

I've heard quite a bit of chatter about Babelcube, a service that lets authors hire translators directly, over the past several months, so it's high time that I went to check it all out for myself. My findings are as follows.

Babelcube is like a worm-eaten apple: glistening, healthy skin on the outside, with one little hole that leads to a rotten core.

Problem #1: Authors pay nothing for the translation of their book. That's great for the authors, but pretty bad for the rest of the world, considering translation is a service that demands appropriate payment.

This means that there is no upfront payment for translators. In fact, no payment is guaranteed at all. The entire work is done on spec. I have a colleague who explained to me his opinion that spec work should always be done for works from classic, well-known authors. As he says, "At least one of you should have a recognizable name."

Problem #2: Translators don't even get to read the whole book before bidding for it. They just get a sample, on the basis of which they might get selected and sign a contract. That's slightly terrifying.

Problem #3: Payment is based on royalties. Now, on the surface, this is actually a fine idea: why not let translators be held somewhat accountable for the sales of their book, similar to the way authors are? Now, this only works, of course, if the translator gets paid a fair wage for their work in advance, but let's set that aside for the moment.

The division of royalties is actually pretty okay -- at least at the beginning. It starts at a lovely 55% for the translator for the first $2,000 of net sales revenue, but then drops pretty sharply from there. So total, for the first $8,000 of net sales, the translator gets $2,900 (Babelcube has this figure right on their revenue share page). And while that's a fine number, let's assume that the book was a pretty slim novel at 50,000 words. That's a whopping 5.8 cents per word. Ouch. And after that, it gets even harder for translators to earn any money -- only 10% of net sales after the first $8K.

I don't want to completely rag on Babelcube, because they are ostensibly doing the world a service by getting more literature out there in more languages. And honestly, this type of setup is extremely attractive for self-published authors. The author has to be the rights holder, which usually only happens for self-published works. (Tangential hilarity: there's a clause in the contract which states that the rights holder must affirm that "the Book is currently sold by Amazon." Hahahahahaha.) But if we are in the realm of self-publishing, then the book is probably going to be priced much lower than traditionally published books: $4.99, $1.99, or even 99 cents. How many copies would have to sell for translators to even dream of that first $2,900 in payment?

BUT! But but but. Here's the biggest Problem of them all: a lack of accountability, a lack of ability to really know what's going on with your work. Now, authors are rarely able to read their own book in translation. One Greek author recently marveled to me how she wasn't even able to recognize her own name on the cover of a Russian translation, which is a fair point (and also highly amusing). But there's usually a more-or-less official set of checks and balances built into the translation process. Specifically, for example, when an English book gets picked up for translation into German, there's a German publisher at the other end who engages the translator and edits the translation. They make sure that the work is polished and presentable in German, even though the original English author speaks not a lick of German. At Babelcube, though, the authors themselves are asked to sign off on the first ten pages of the translation, and then again to accept the final finished copy. How in all the nine hells are they supposed to do that with any sort of reliability? Babelcube actually suggests the following to authors: "if you don't speak the destination language, you may have a friend who can help." Gee, thanks.

And for translators, the guidelines for the authors to accept the translation are a bit murky, as well. Babelcube offers themselves as an arbitrator if necessary, but it would still be pretty easy for the author to give the translator the runaround. Even if the translation was forced to be accepted, the author could "decline" to promote the new translation at all. If no one can find it, no one can buy it, and the translator doesn't get paid. (Not to mention that the translator could screw the author over in a very similar way. The difference is that the author doesn't have any money or unpaid time at stake.) Besides, this is one of those awful "work-for-hire" situations. Sure, you're paid royalties on this one, but that doesn't outweigh the fact that you don't hold any rights to your own work. Sigh.

Realistically speaking, the risk is very high for everyone. I would say that it's too high. And granted, for the translator, this seems like one of those opportunities that gets you experience and exposure early on in your career, as well as that all-important line on your CV. For some people, this is exactly what they need. Heaven knows I had my own terrible experience at the beginning of my career. I regret the outcome (and the payment, egads), but I can't regret the experience it gave me, and what it taught me NOT to do.

All I'm saying is that Babelcube looks like a very easy way to get a translated book under your belt, which could be really great. Just don't spend all of your time there.


Emma, I'd be extremely interested to hear what you think, as someone who's working with Babelcube. Are you happy with how you're getting paid? Did you have a good experience with your author? Any logistical snafus with the site itself?

Next Idea in Reviewing Translations

How in the world does one actually review translations?

I think the better question is, why is this such a hard question?

I propose a new way of reviewing translations, by considering two questions:

FIRST: Is the book a good book, in a vacuum?
Does it weather the normal storm of questions asked when reviewing a "normal" book, the questions of style, pleasure of reading, intriguing ideas, and the like?
The trick when answering this question is to credit both the author and translator with any successes and pitfalls. Although the translator has less influence over certain aspects (like plot and general structure), both writers are still responsible for the book in the translated form you are reviewing. Credit them both.

SECOND: How important is this text, in the context of the target language's literature, the source language's literature, and literature as a whole?
Again, this is a similar question to what is asked of "normal" books. How does it fit into the grand literary tradition? Does it introduce something new, is it heavily influenced by other works, is it a breath of fresh air or a clever reinterpretation of something else?
Granted, the middle part of this question may be difficult for some reviewers to answer regarding some books. I myself have no idea what the state of literature is in Kazakhstan, but I also have the ability to use Google, and might be able to figure it out in less than five minutes.

I guess what it boils down to is that I am very confused as to why translations have to be treated differently than a country's own fiction. Why does the exoticism of translated literature scare people away, when we have writers like Zoë Wicomb, Kiran Desai, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing IN ENGLISH about their "exotic" experiences from South Africa, India, and Nigeria, respectively, including italicized foreign words in their manuscripts that readers do actually learn to understand, and garnering both critical and popular acclaim?

Look. Translated books are just like regular books, except they have two (or more) writers to thank for either their brilliance or their failures.

Or is this overly simple, too simple? Is there more to it than just this?

You're not alone!

Ever get that sinking feeling that you're the only one out there with your problems? Sitting in your tiny apartment, staring at your laptop screen for hours on end, struggling with dictionaries and magazine submissions and not knowing a single soul who's been through what you're trying to do.

Yes, you. All you beginning and emerging translators out there.  Anyone who's tried to mine the depths of the Internet for anything that might help you find someone, read a contract, find reputable magazines to submit to, even figure out if graduate degrees or certification is necessary to start working freelance in this country, this network is for you.

It's here:

And we're waiting for you. 

Profitless Printing Through the Ages

The Genesee Country Village and Museum is awesome. 

Just putting that out there. 

I finally got to go see the historic village yesterday for the Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day , and I learned so much in three hours about life in the 18th and 19th centuries in Western NY. The most interesting bit to many people (including Mr. C) was the Civil-War-era replica of the Intrepid, a helium balloon used by the army.

The most interesting bit to me was the printing press.

 Courtesy of the Genesee Country Village and Museum

Courtesy of the Genesee Country Village and Museum

Of course it was fascinating: the history of an industry that led to my own career, the typeset itself, kerning...everything. (On a side note: search Google for "kerning" and enjoy. You won't be disappointed.) 

But something the printer said surprised me...and then again, it didn't. He explained that being a printer was a white-collar job, much like a doctor or lawyer of the day. But unlike those other white-collar jobs, there was no profit in printing. A printer did his work out of a sense of duty to his neighbors and fellow townsfolk, to bring them the local, national, and even international news that they would never otherwise receive.

Huh. Sounds a bit like today's publishing and journalism, doesn't it?

Change of Scenery

One common tip for freelancers, translators included, is to get involved in your local community. Nothing beats meeting people in person, putting your name and face out there, whether through business organizations, volunteering, social committees, whatever floats your boat. 

Moving, then, is a blessing and a curse. You have to start again from scratch, but there are so many new opportunities. And as it happens, moving out of a huge city to a more modest one actually works out in your favor. Highly.

In New York City, I got lost in the crowd. Even within the professional translator's association, I was just another face. And so was everyone else. People moved away, got busy, and fell off the face of the earth so often that no real community was ever built. There are too many groups, too many organizations, with thousands of people flowing freely between them.

But now, I have flowed definitively up to Rochester. Out of the big bad metropolis to a smaller city, full of small-town feel and village charm. There are lots of things for a translator to do, but each organization is the only game in town. The Rochester Young Professionals. The New England Translators Association. A strange being called Plüb that has spawned a matching Book Clüb. A university with an MA program in Literary Translation.

And because of these singular organizations, I've practically doubled the number of people and agencies that I work for. Already. I live out in the countryside, for goodness' sakes, and I've met more people -- more of the right people -- in three months here than I did in three years in NYC. This has been a most productive change of scenery.