Thursday, 5 September 2013

Things I Will Do for Free

There are some things I will do for free. Here they are:

1. I will translate a short story, essay or extract of my own choosing for submission to a magazine (print or online), especially if a) the magazine doesn’t cost anything and/or b) I hope to spread the word about a particular writer or book.

2. I will moderate or appear on a panel or read from my own translations in the UK (if the organizer pays my expenses) or at small events in Berlin.

3. I will edit friends’ translations in exchange for them editing mine.

4. I will read friends’ original manuscripts and comment on them.

5. I will give advice and recommendations to the best of my ability.

6. I will give interviews to the best of my ability.

7. I will write a blog, or two, and occasional pieces for other people’s blogs.

8. I will run a monthly translation lab where translators can help each other.

9. I will do short translations for charitable projects.

10. I will co-edit a no-budget magazine of current German writing in translation and organize an annual translation talent contest.

That is the end of the things I will do for free in my professional life. I am lucky to be older than the internship generation, which is good because I have never been in a financial position to work for free. I love my job but I have to be able to make a living out of it. Over the past few months, I’ve heard about a reputable German publisher commissioning sample translations in return for books, I’ve seen companies operating on a shoestring by employing more unpaid than paid staff, I’ve been asked to curate a special edition of a magazine for no pay, which did not have a budget for any translations I did or commissioned, and I’ve been asked to recommend translators who will work for no pay in order to gain experience.

There is the argument that people without a huge amount of start-up capital should be able to start a business too, not just rich kids. But if your business model is based on exploiting people working for free (rather than just exploiting them in the usual Marxist sense, while paying them) then that business model is not sound. And I’m not the first to say that the rise of the unpaid internship increases inequality, by making it harder for those who can’t afford to work for free to get into certain industries.

So my personal rule of thumb about working for free is this: if someone is going to make money out of the thing they want me to give them for free (e.g. my translation) I won’t work for free.


Helen MacCormac said...

I've thought a lot about what I will do for free.

It's quite a scary equation and probably won't help me become an established literary tanslator although that's probably what I'm best at.

I've decided to not pay German publishers a fee for translating a short story, essay or extract of my own choosing for submission to a magazine.

I've decided not to do sample translations for German publishers who are not prepared to pay a minimal fee or provide a sample copy of the suggested book.

I will no longer send unsolicited book reports to UK publishers because so far they have never replied. I will just ask if they are intersted in a certain author and await their reply.

Insight: I talked to Maximilian Droschl - Droschl Verlag - at the Leipzig Book Fair this year and he said something along the lines of Vergiss es. No one wants to read our stuff. It's us who love books in translation. Do it the other way round.

Unfortunately I have no talent for that.

Helen MacCormac said...

Did I mention that I haven't found a single German publisher who needs or is prepared to pay new people to do translations.

My theory is that we have some of the most amazing translators out there who cover the market. They are all brilliant.

Suhrkamp told me: Die Konkurrenz ist so stark.

Fact is - I can't earn even a penny.

Isabel Cole said...

Helen, you should never, ever be the one to pay the German publisher a fee for translation rights! And they should never ask that of you - that would be extremely unprofessional of them. The fee, if any, should be paid by the magazine that publishes the translation. If they can't afford to pay a fee, this can often be negotiated with the publisher. Until a piece is accepted for publication, the whole issue of rights fees is moot. And again, it should be between publisher and publisher/magazine.

I co-edit with Katy and just once I corresponded with a translator who thought she had to pay the German publisher the rights fee for the translation. I told her what I told you.

Good luck!


Nikki ( said...

I'm a writer and not a translator, but I am right there with you on this. Actually, your "things I would do for free" list includes more then mine. Basically the only thing on mine is helping out friends with proofreading (usually for an exchange of babysitting) and writing for small indie publications that I am totally obsessed with and that I know for a fact aren't making any money. Other than that, yeah, hot cash please.

kjd said...

Thanks, Isabel.

Helen: respect to you. I know it's not easy to get into literary translation but it is possible to do so with your self-worth intact. You seem to be going the right way about it. Luck and flukes aside, it took most of the literary translators of my generation I know several years of trying before they translated their first novel.

On Droschl: it's interesting that many German publishers seem to take this view. One issue in this case is that Droschl do fine books, but they're not the type of books that typically appeal to British and American publishers. I wouldn't let that put you off - after all, German publishers are not experts on the English-language publishing world.

kjd said...

Hats off to you, too, Gorilla Lady.

Unknown said...

I'm guessing the idea about poor people being able to start businesses too came from our email exchange, and I just wanted to clarify, I said people without money should be able to Do Things. By which I meant more like starting a magazine or Verein or whatever. If you're not earning money, and you can convince other people to not earn money with you, great. But I think even people without much money are under the same obligation to pay if their business is really a business.

kjd said...

Thanks, Amanda. I agree - partly because I do quite a few non-money-earning things like that myself (as you know), which work fine on the premise that everybody's donating their time for free because nobody's earning anything at all.