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?

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 Dramatic Irony Inherent in a Simple Bio

Repeating the same story ad nauseam can get boring. (Well, when you're learning a foreign language, introducing yourself and explaining what you study and why you're in Paris to forty-five people in two days is actually a good practice drill, but that's neither here nor there.) And granted, there's a good reason that lots of people in lots of different situations want to hear how I got started in literary translation, but it still eventually gets to the point where I'm dying to find different ways to spice it up a bit.

Well, I've figured it out.

Kind folks, I now present to you: the revised bio of Allison M. Charette.

So, you know the dramatic irony when you’re watching a really cheesy murder mystery on TV, and the killer hides behind a curtain just as the detective sweeps into the room? And the detective looks everywhere, getting closer and closer to the curtains, making you want to scream at your TV set “DUDE HE’S RIGHT THERE JUST GET CLOSER A LITTLE CLOSER COME ONNNNNNN”, and then finally, after what feels like forever, he sweeps aside the curtain—but it’s the wrong one. And he looks, carefully, painstakingly, then straightens up and says “Well, that’s that! A thorough search of this room: complete.” and he turns so confidently to leave and you’re like “NO YOU IDIOT THE OTHER CURTAIN YOU MISSED THE OTHER CURTAIN!!!!!!” and you start swearing at the detective and he can totally hear you through the TV set, can't he? And then it takes another forty-five minutes for the detective to finally catch the murderer, through a really circuitous series of roundabout wanderings, and you’re like “but if ONLY you’d just searched both curtains back at the beginning, you could have a whole month of your life back!”

Yeah, that’s how I got into translation.

Let me explain: I majored in French and even took two translation courses in undergrad (the first of which was taught by Emmanuelle Ertel, who’s just the most fabulous French translation professor). And I loved it, I spent half of my psychology lectures puzzling out new solutions to the translations we were doing. But I didn't look behind the second curtain, where there was a flashing sign that said “NEWSFLASH: YOU CAN DO THIS AS A CAREER”, so I didn’t get around to that revelation until three years later. Three years, a teaching stint in France, an admin job at a language school, a soul-sucking time at a mega-agency, and a publishing internship later. That's when I finally started translating for anything more than my own personal edification. And while I'm not really looking for those three years of my life back, because there were plenty of other wonderful, enlightening things that occurred during that time . . . I really could have caught the murderer sooner.


Pay It Forward

When you start out in an industry, any industry, you have a lot of things working against you. A lot of roadblocks, or obstacles to overcome, depending on your point of view. One of the most looming and glaring is the lack of contacts.  Every piece of advice for job seekers includes the instruction, admonishment, whatever, to networknetworkNETWORK your little butt off because you're never going to get anywhere without knowing people. 

And it's true. It's tough to hear, and tough to implement, but true. 

When you're just starting out, and don't know anyone, and have to suddenly make lots of contacts, it's scary. Terrifying, for some. Fear puts on the brakes, gets in the way. Fear of rejection, fear of no response, even fear of being a mild annoyance in some Very Important Person's day. 

"Why would the thrice-published Senior Executive Vice-President Experienced Person who knows everyone else in the industry be willing to talk to lil' ol' me, even for a twenty-minute informational interview?"

But here's the thing: most of them will. A lot of them are happy to help newbies. Everyone was a newbie once, no matter how unlikely that may seem.

I learned that two ways. The first, from Ramit Sethi, who writes a blog called I Will Teach You to Be Rich.  His posts convinced me to go try talking to people I admire. And when I did, I found that every single person I've reached out to to date has responded to me. Most have taken the time to have a conversation with me. At worst, I learn something new, and at best, I have a new business contact who gives me a job.

People are nice. 

I'm nice, too. (Hopefully, most of the time.) So when I got an email from a woman older than I was asking how I got started in literary translation, I didn't demur and shy away. I didn't cite my lack of expertise and beg off. Because even though I've only published one book, I have published a book. The "getting started" part of my career is over; I've hit the growth and expansion phase.  We exchanged messages and ended up having a lovely conversation.

And then a colleague of mine sent along a woman who was looking to get into French translation. I gave her my small mountain of info. (Maybe it's a large molehill. Not sure on that.)

Then I signed up for the mentoring program through my alma mater's alumni office. Now, I get about one email per month with recent or almost-grads who are curious about translation, literary or not. There's always the caveat that I'm not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I help however I can. And it feels awesome.

It's a source of pride to be able to help guide new translators down a helpful path, one that takes some shortcuts to the most effective methods of finding your footing. 

And then, at the same time, there are lots of contacts and mentors who have done the same for me. I still look up to them. I still ask them questions. And I try to check in with all of them every little while, because I am making strides in my career, and they deserve to know that and be thanked. (Christmas cards are a great way to do this.)

This turned sappy. Eventually, it'll all just become a huge circling cycle of paying it forward. 

Which, I think, is the way it should be.