Eight Complaints of a Literary Translator

One: A couple of weeks ago, my mother’s doctor said he charged £25 to write a (short) letter about the state of her health. I commented that it was more than people would often pay me, as a literary translator.  His response: “Yes, but I studied and I have a qualification.”


I am used to the self-importance of doctors.  Moreover, this kind of rudeness requires only one kind of response: ignoring it.  


Or else posting it on Twitter in the original English and other languages, then mentioning it in a blog.


Two: An author is haggling over the price I’ve quoted for a translation. She tries the usual tactics: “But I could get someone else to do it for half that!” (What’s stopping you?) and “But I’m a freelancer, I don’t have a regular salary!” (Newsflash – I’m a literary translator, so I’m a freelancer, too).  I don’t budge.  She then says, “But I’m a single parent with two children to raise on my own!”


Paying to have your book translated off your own bat is the Vanity Project par excellence. It is not a necessity, like food or healthcare.  Would you go into Tiffany’s, Fifth Avenue, and haggle over the price of a bracelet because you’re a single mother?


Three: A publisher offers me a job, and asks how soon I can do it.  Always a potentially explosive situation.  I can, of course, put aside what I’m doing at the moment, burn the midnight oil, work fourteen hours a day, but why do that if I don’t have to?  The publisher gives me no hint as to their schedule, and appears to throw the ball in my court.  So I give my time estimate.  The publisher gives the job to somebody else, telling me the translation was really urgent.


Four: As above, but the publisher’s question is, “How much would you charge?” then the job is given to someone else because my estimate is “beyond their budget”.


In the name of Saint Jerome*! If it was that urgent or if you had a fixed budget, why didn’t you just say, “I need it for such or such a date/This is my budget for this – can you do it for then/for this much?” in the first place, instead of playing power games?!


Five: I give an author, who assures me he is perfectly fluent in English, a translation of his novel and encourage him to make comments and/or corrections.  None of his suggested changes are grammatical.  We spend a total of sixteen hours on Skype, while I teach him basic English grammar, and wish I had charged him double.


Six: An author queries the stylistic choices I have made in my translation and, no, her English is not very good.  She wants it to be closer to the original in idioms, syntax, word order.  I try and explain that a good literary translation cannot always be literal. That a reader mustn’t, even for one second, feel it’s a translation, but a book in its own right.  “Oh, but I’m very protective of my work,” she says.  “It’s like my baby.” 


When your baby eventually goes to primary school, will you sit in the classroom and tell the teachers how to do their jobs?


Seven: I receive a copy edit with track changes in red on every single line of my work.  It’s not just corrections.  The copy editor has re-written my entire translation.  It will take me longer to go through the “suggestions” than I did translating the whole book.  I ring the eager beaver and get, “I haven’t changed that much, it just looks worse than it is because of Track Changes.” 


Yes, dear, I’m familiar with Track Changes.  I’ve been using it since before you left school.  There’s so much red in my text, it looks like it’s positively bleeding.


There are the writers, the translators, and the copy editors.  The boundaries should be clearly defined.  


Eight: A newly set-up, enthusiastic literary agent wants to meet me to offer me a “unique opportunity”.  


I visualise: the opportunity of translating a beautifully-written, meaningful novel that has won the Strega or the Goncourt prize, getting paid at least 11 pence per word, and the prompt payment of an advance, as well as of the outstanding balance at the end of my work.


I get: “We feel you’re the right person to look at our list, choose a book you really believe in and are passionate about, find a publisher interested in buying the translation rights, then put them in touch with us.


I blink.  “And what would you be paying me for, effectively, doing your job?”


“Well, we’re new you see... but we’re looking for someone who really believes in us and our books, so that we can grow together.  And if you find us a British publisher, then we’ll definitely put in a good word for you as a translator.”


I walk away, smiling, with Anglo-Saxon expletives mentally directed at the “enthusiastic” agent.


* Patron saint of translators



Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
Dear Katia, this is brilliant, and so true about so many literary projects. On FB I joined a group with the curious name "Things ... Read More
Sunday, 31 May 2015 20:56
Katherine Gregor
Thank you so much, Orna. So glad you enjoyed it. Actually, I love my job... only sometimes it's fun to have a moan about the mor... Read More
Sunday, 31 May 2015 21:41
An entertaining read, Katherine, and a most enlightening view of the problems a translator has to face!
Monday, 01 June 2015 13:06
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It’s no secret that I haven’t been producing. My blogs have been frozen, waiting for prose or poetry, observations, wisdom, creative snippets, but all I’ve posted is news. Similarly, my twitter feed has been saturated with retweets of other people’s posts, artwork, photos, while my Facebook status—actual status—has been quiet.

It’s not because I’ve been idle. The past six months have been filled with activity: editing, practicing, reading, exercising.  But recently, I became aware of a sensation—an itch in cells I could no longer reach, and all attempts to scratch them satisfied nothing.  I turned on the computer, opened files of works-in-progress, stared at the screen, waited, and pffft, bupkis.

If I’d had nothing else going on in my life, that is, if I had not been engaged in other creative pursuits, I would have stressed and stewed about it, wondered what was wrong with me, how and I why I became so contentedly mute. And yet...and yet….

There were those bits of verse, scrawled spontaneously at bedtime on a lined pad.  There were those random thoughts, no, that’s wrong, those were ideas nudging, occasionally chiding me for not entertaining them properly, for dismissing them as common, trite, worthless.

Stupid nags. What could they know? The cells that could have given them life had obviously taken a hike, joined the witness protection program, or died of ennui.

So I moved on….

...shut off my computer.  Turned it on only once a day to check mail, see who was doing what, read interesting posts, and share the highlights with followers and friends.

Except a funny thing happened. One of those annoying little nags got me to open an old spiral-bound notebook, something I hadn’t done since buying my first laptop. Then it prodded me to pick up a pen, which I still remembered how to use (checks and greeting cards, you know…).

And an hour later I had pages filled with prose, and a rupture of cells kicking me in the head saying, “What the hell took you so long?”

I love technology. I do, really.  It was an easy transition from composing on paper for acoustic instruments to generating, modifying, and organizing sound in an electronic music studio. And I have no trouble composing with notation software. I’m very fond of being able to listen to the sounds as I write them. I have good relative pitch, but it’s not always 100%. The immediate feedback is nice...wonderful, in fact.

But I have never been able to craft a work of poetry or fiction on a computer, and I don’t know why I thought I could, or why I spent so many frustrated years attempting to convince myself I could. I think back and recall how I used to look at photos of writers at their typewriters and wonder how they were able to produce that way. Every time I sat down at a typewriter, my mind went blank.

I know there must be a glitch between the keyboard and me, some freak reflex that causes a sudden disconnect, short circuit in the process. I would try to figure it out, but I think in the end, the cause doesn’t matter.

So, I’ve stocked up on pads and pens. The computer, as a means of recording my literary ravings, will stay off until there’s a complete draft to transcribe. My sites may be quiet for awhile, and I will probably be visiting my social media haunts less frequently, certainly less frequently than is recommended for writers these days, but I won’t be completely absent. I’ll be around. And I’ll be heeding the chatter of little nags, now that I can. Happily. Thankfully.

©2015 All Rights Reserved

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Oh dear, Barb, this sounds just like me, too many ideas and thoughts bubbling over and having to discipline them into WIPs at vari... Read More
Tuesday, 28 April 2015 17:03
Barbara Froman
I'm always so interested in other writers' work habits, Rosy, what helps, what hinders. All the positives you cite in writing fict... Read More
Tuesday, 28 April 2015 18:32
Rosy Cole
Yes, I so understand how the inner editor freezes and I think it's something all real writers suffer from. That the mainstream pub... Read More
Wednesday, 29 April 2015 12:44
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The Next Step

Today by email I got two rejections.

The first was a rejection from an agent I had queried about a children's book. The second was a rejection of a poem by a literary magazine.

It is not unusual for me to get a rejection:  the contrary is true. Blue moons are common compared to acceptance for me.

But two on one day is unusual, and it made me take note of my reaction. For both, I went looking for the next place to submit. Rejection no longer seems like a denial of who I am, or even a commentary on what I have done. It is just the next step in the process of getting the work in the right hands. 

I thought today it is like finding a place to plant a flower (something even more uncommon for me than blue moons). You need to find the right spot. This soil is too acidic. This has too little sun. This gets not enough rain.

I want my flower to bloom.

It takes a while to find just the right spot. 






Recent Comments
Sue Martin Glasco
You have such a mature and accurate assessment of rejections. I really like this, and I think every new writer should have acces... Read More
Thursday, 26 March 2015 04:34
Stephen Evans
Thanks Sue - the product of many many rejections ... Read More
Thursday, 26 March 2015 16:37
Katherine Gregor
I have planted pomegranate seeds in a small pot of soil. I trust they will sprout. I wish I could give you one. I must start su... Read More
Thursday, 26 March 2015 10:33
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The Old Writer


2:30, the clock told me, a time that surprised me. I’d been deeply sleeping. Awakening to the heat coming on, I thought it was closer to six.

I’d fallen asleep reading in the snug recliner, a light blanket and two cats on me.  I think that happened around 11:30. Now, gosh, it was time to get to bed. I’d need to get up in three and a half hours. But once in bed, I could not sleep.

Instead I began writing and thinking. I wrote novel chapters, work emails, and blog posts. Seven blog posts were written in my head, including Beer Epiphanies and Personal Inventory. Most of my novel work was focused on the two newest, “Everything in Black and White” and “The Bookmarker”, especially the latter of those two. Why not “Fix Everything,” I wondered. It was almost completed. What was needed on it was some mechanics, some tightening.

It dawned on me that I had a twisted attitude toward writing novels. I treat a novel I write as a novel I’ve read. Once I’m finished, I’m done. In theory, I want to have them published, distributed and read by others. But in practice, I’m now done with them. I’ve read them and I’m ready to go on.  What’s next? It’s a perspective that astonished me and set me chuckling to myself in bed. I need to do something about that attitude, I think.

Having learned that and all that writing and thinking done, though, reminded me that sleep was required. I called up an old method, long trusted, to help me. This is a fantasy. I am a survivor. I’m usually alone. It’s normally night – of course, I’m trying to sleep, so that makes sense – and it’s usually cold. It’s often snowy and icy.

I don’t know what I’ve survived but I do know I’m hiding. I worry about others finding me. Sometimes I do have other people with me. Never too many, usually less than a handful, and they’re all younger than me. I know that I’m out on in a long, broad field. Dark forests of tall trees border two sides. In the middle is a slight ridge, like a fold in the earth. In that fold is where I nest, in a rock and dirt cutout. It is not deep, nor even. I generally have a small fire going at the front of it. I’m fully clothed, a teenager on adulthood’s brink, in a sleeping bag.

Animals are often with me. Usually wildcats have come in from the cold world. Finding me and my warmth and security, they snuggle against me, striking an accord without words that we’re all in this together. It’s not unusual for a red fox and gray wolf to join us. The fox curls up against me like the cats. The wolf comes up from outside, watches the fire and studies me, and then takes up position inside, just past the fire, guarding the entrance.

I can see all of this from different angles, as though camera work is being directed. These elements are usually the same. Now what struck me that I’d seen before but had given scant thought about, was the creator behind all of this. I’d glimpsed him before but now I paid closer attention to him, this yellowish white man with long brown hair and a deeply lined, narrow face, sitting at a desk lit with a candle, scratching out the scene with a quill.

The Old Writer, I realized. The first writer in me, the one who fostered the other writers in me.

I was suspicious of that conclusion. I think I remember him, sitting at his desk and writing when I was a child playing with model cars and drawing forts, spaceships and treasure maps. I wondered, though, if he wasn’t a new creation, something to explain the survivor world. That was the thought evaporating into the night as I went to sleep. This imagined scene of surviving a cold, dark world, warmed and lit by a small fire, always comforts me and transports me to sleep. It’s not completely foolproof but very nearly so, and it worked that day.

I’ve examined the Old Writer in my walks and thoughts since that day in the middle of the week. He stays mute, busy at his desk and unapproachable, scribbling away. I want to doubt who he is and how long he’s been there, but I do believe he’s been there all of my life, directing my imagination.

Maybe he still does direct my imagination, and that’s why I now believe that’s his role. He’s just a trickster.

I’m done writing like crazy today. It was wonderful session. I worked on all three novels, although Cassidy and Talon in “Everything in Black and White” received the most attention. I’m not certain that will remain the title.

It’s a pretty day, cold, dry and sunny, with a picture perfect clear blue sky above the naked brown hardwoods and evergreens.


Time to walk home.

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