I was once accused by a translator colleague of bringing down the going rate for translation by doing it when I had another job. This person had no idea what I charged or did not charge for doing the work, and perhaps she was angry about something else, but I remember distinctly that her comment had come after I made a statement in some online forum—this was over a decade ago and I no longer remember what the forum might have been—about my being able to choose the work I wanted to do and generally take my time in doing it. What she apparently intimated from this was that I was somehow taking the work away from someone else by agreeing to do it for less because I had a steady job as a university professor.
This is rather a sore spot among translators, more so, I think, than among fiction writers or poets, who generally understand that it is not really possible for emerging authors in those genres to make a living on the basis of the writing alone. Even after fiction writers have published a couple of books, unless they magically begin to sell many many copies, which is impossible to predict and also rare, they will almost always still need to keep their teaching job or whatever other job they’ve got to pay the bills. Translators tend to think about this differently, however.
There are actually two parts to this sort of criticism from freelance translators towards those of us who have academic jobs. Translation for us, so the criticism goes, can be part of our academic dossiers, our promotion files, our curricula (plural) vitae. We can engage in it without caring about the money we get paid for it because it is part of this other domain and we’re being compensated on a very different basis, not for the work itself but for having done the work, a bit like the future anterior tense, which skips over the present and time travels to some future moment for accomplishments that have yet to be attained, all without ever leaving the present. “When I will have completed all these things, I will be a successful academic,” and so on.
This sort of imagined reward for translations performed in the academy may or may not be true in all cases. Much depends on the institution and the nature of the dossier, but it is true that in some institutions and for some faculty members, artistic translation can form a part of such a dossier and be counted somehow, whether as scholarly or as creative work, or perhaps as something in between. And so, in our protected and self-serving manner, to go back to the criticism, we are expanding our research profile all while taking work away from those who really need it and are devoted to it. This is the criticism, not always stated in such a bald form, but implied or merely suspected, for the most part politely (translators are nice).
I suspect that this quiet criticism, which has lurked in the back of my mind ever since it was directed so uncharacteristically directly at me many years ago, has tended to make me shy away from projects that might in fact be appealing to and needed by freelance translators. My personal rule has tended to be only to take on work that I thought was unlikely to be translated if I didn’t do it. This has meant, for the most part, non-commissioned projects that I needed to research and then pitch to publishers. And that has meant probably not genre fiction (though I suspect I would enjoy translating some pf those genres), also not popular or well-known authors, and mostly works on the experimental side, unusual somehow, highly literary, sometimes quirky or idiosyncratic. Luckily, I also enjoy such works.
There are big advantages to this way of translating from a scheduling standpoint. For one thing, generally no one is waiting for you to finish besides your own internal critic. And that means that you can spend a lot of time and energy on the project at hand without worrying about the dreaded deadline. You can also only work on projects you find attractive and worthwhile from an aesthetic standpoint or a political or theoretical one. You can also stop working on something if it begins to ring hollow somehow, or if your views about it or about life change. These are enormous freedoms, and I don’t think I ever took them lightly.
My current project has not been like this, of course. It was commissioned. It could have been translated by someone else. It has a deadline (had a deadline, then another, now it has what I hope will be the final one—next month) from a publisher with a strong list and an eye for high quality works. The exception has both proven the rule and reinforced it. I plan to go back to the rule after this, with a clearer sense of the privileges and freedoms I enjoy in approaching translation the way I generally have approached it, without rushing too much, thinking about the work carefully, selecting on the basis of quality and what I suspect I can do well, if not to say what I will have done well afterward.
Let this serve as a new year’s resolution then, and a sincere wish for anyone else who might see the work, the vocation, the calling to translate as the privilege that I do.