Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Cold Cream and Sympathy

Das Magazin is the best magazine in Germany. The women's mags are just as inane as their English-language counterparts, the news magazines are just as biased in various directions, and I don't much look at the top-shelf ones, although there are plenty of them. But Das Magazin stands out from the crowd, covering interesting subjects, showcasing interesting writers, and with the most fascinatingly addictive lonely hearts pages I've ever read.

Founded in 1924, it soon became Germany's most successful illustrated magazine, with Marlene Dietrich gracing the cover before she made it big. It kept going under the Nazis - although the Jewish founding editor was chucked out - by blanking out politics, but was shut down in 1941 "for war reasons". In 1954, Brecht allegedly suggested to the East German authorities that they reintroduce it, in reaction to the masses' apparent longing for glamour and luxury expressed in the 1953 demonstrations. Quite how a glossy magazine could lower the labour quotas, I'm not sure, but it became a great success, and its tradition of publishing nude photography (and the rest of the content) earned it a reputation as the most "sophisticated" East German mag.

After 1989 it kind of vegetated a bit, I have to say. I remember visiting Prague with a group of East German students in the early 1990s, and a blonde beauty read a slightly smutty story out loud from it, to the obvious pleasure of the only man in our group, who publicly sported purple underpants - in fact, either he had several identical pairs or he didn't change them all through the long weekend. But that's beside the point. It's now a very lively publication, and I can thoroughly recommend it. I particularly like the short relationship stories by Kirsten Fuchs, by the way.

This month's edition features an article about the literary translator Christa Schuenke (Shakespeare, John Banville, William Gibson...) by Sophie Diesselhorst. It's a very interesting and no doubt useful introduction to the pleasures and tortures of literary translation. Being an "Eastern" publication, the magazine makes much of her past history in the GDR - what was it like translating when one couldn't visit the countries in question, how did she survive the fall of the wall, etc. And, of course, Christa Schuenke gets a chance to raise the subject of decent pay for literary translators. She says she had thought about translating less "difficult" literature under a pseudonym to pay the rent. But she decided to use her own name, at the threat of spoiling her reputation - so that everybody knows that "you can't exist on what I do."

Good stuff. But the tone of the article does less for the translators' cause, I can't help feeling. The second sentence introduces Schuenke's physical suffering: "And now, after 30 years at her desk, her back is no longer playing along... It is only a matter of time, she says, until her shoulders can no longer bear the burden of responsibility for world literature. And then? What will Christa Schuenke do when she can no longer translate?" We then find out about her poky flat all full of books, her passion for her work, how she goes about it, how she got into it, what she finds fascinating about it - and then it's back to the suffering. Working hard every day of the week, never earning enough to feed a family or save for a pension. Campaigning for better working conditions. "Sacrificing one day a week, one seventh of her precious working time, for voluntary work on behalf of her trade."

I suppose the problem I see here is the way the article tugs at the reader's heartstrings. Of course Christa Schuenke does a great deal for the translators' cause, and as a prominent member of the VdÜ, she can get publicity - like this article - that others can't. And it's great that the translators' association and its work gets a mention too. Yet I can't help feeling that the sympathy vote is not the right way to go about achieving fair pay. Portraying literary translators as a kind of Dickensian clique of long-suffering artists - and thus suggesting we need rescuing by some kind benefactor? - is not exactly empowering, is it?

So while Das Magazin has countered the phenomenon of translator invisibility, it certainly hasn't shown us in entirely the light I would prefer. Despite the three beautiful photos and the attention paid to Christa Schuenke's great talent and experience, it makes much of her problems. The title "Kalte Sahne & Weltliteratur" refers to a not very flattering incident in which she translated "cold cream" rather too literally. And the closing lines are dripping with pathos: "Translators have always been on the short end of the stick. Christa Schuenke will fight on nevertheless - even though she herself will probably never benefit from the outcome of the battle."

What I wish they'd written is how Christa Schuenke deserves decent pay because she contributes to the success of the books she translates. That she is a creative writer and should be paid accordingly, including decent royalties. That book prices and pay in publishing have gone up over the years, but translation rates have remained at a stable and very low level. That the quality of literary translation in general - although not necessarily the work of extremely dedicated individuals like Schuenke - would benefit hugely from being better paid. There is no lack of good arguments - so why fall back on the sympathy vote?


zoot woman said...

"The quality of literary translation in general . . . would benefit hugely from being better paid."

That's quite a common misconception among the community. Needless to say, better pay is something worth fighting for, for several reasons: for instance, although working a full-time job, we can't really make a decent living, and taking inflation into account, translation fees have decreased by 25 to 30 percent over the past 10 to 15 years. Etc. Etc.

But I don't think the - generally pretty dismal - quality of German translations would benefit one bit from being better paid. Or do you seriously think that if they increased people's "salaries" by 5 or even 10 EUR per page, all of the hacks would become first-rate translators overnight? Or that they would devote more time and care to their work? Why should they? If they can make more money without changing their m.o. at all?

Actually, I think the argument might even be damaging, because what it basically says it that we'd be happy to earn more in order to be able to work less (in terms of sheer volume, since we'd be devoting more time and care etc.) - and thus end up with the same measly income we have now. Und das kann ja wohl nicht Sinn der Sache sein, oder?

kjd said...

Hmmm. First of all, I don't agree that the quality of German translations is generally low. I know there are poor translations on the market, but I would say they were the exception rather than the rule. And when it comes to "quality fiction" (whatever that may be) I would say German translations are generally bloody good.

My argument about pay and quality - which I didn't set out in detail, admittedly - is threefold. Firstly, I think that those translators who currently hold down another job would be able to devote more time to their translations - and would do so. I would measure the value of a translation by the number of working hours invested into it - which of course isn't represented in the pay.

And secondly, decent pay would keep talented people in the profession. I know several people who have just quit because they can't make a living out of it. There would be fewer opportunities for "hacks" to take up translation, because people would stay in the trade for longer - getting better and better the longer they translated.

And thirdly, better pay would make literary translation a more respected profession, attracting talented people who currently go into other trades. There have been numerous studies on pay and respect, for example showing that academic careers in post-Soviet states, now badly paid, no longer attract high-fliers, where once they were every student's dream - to put it in overly simplified terms.

But I do see your point about earnings remaining measly. Because my assumption really is that people would be able to invest more time if they earnt more - although maybe not quite one to one.