Monday, 2 February 2015

Literary Translation Adopted into Pantheon of Cool

So I've been observing for a few years now and noticing a change. Whereas the standard response to "I translate novels" about five years ago was, "No, I mean what do you do for a living?" it now seems to be a little more admiring. Maybe I'm moving in different circles now but actually I think translated fiction is becoming a thing. As in, it's slightly obscure in the best possible way, like bands not many people know; being aware of it makes you look impressive. Unfortunately for me, I think I'm aware of it in the wrong way, what with my sad obsession with German books meaning I'm just not up on the latest big thing from Korea or Iceland. I'm like one of those people fixated on The Wedding Present or something.

I digress; what I wanted to share was proof of literary translation's arrival in the mainstream of the non-mainstream, its acceptance by the cool kids. I like to think of the cultural world as one big sixth-form common room where all the kids hang out between classes – because surely we learn all we need to know in life at school? And there's a big clique of teenagers who are confident about their tastes and into whatever's easy enough to like at the moment, probably Breaking Bad, let's say, although that's probably hopelessly behind the times because I can't really be bothered with these TV series things. They're fine, these kids, they're happy on the sofas talking about who did what in episode twelve, and that's good. Then there's the thin layer of cool kids. They're not happy, I should think, but they probably don't want to be. They're the ones who know about cultural phenomena first, all kinds of things: films, bands, books; nowadays they'd be the first ones to post an internet meme. In my own story they're the ones who got in to see Blur play in Camden before Blur were famous and before the kids themselves were old enough to get into gigs. They have a particular table in the common room where they congregate; they probably smoke roll-ups.

And then there's the kids on the margins with their weird happy-making stuff. Maybe the religious ones or the ones with bizarre hobbies. They might flit from place to place in the common room, or maybe they have a little corner to themselves. It might smell a bit strange. Sometimes they mind not being cool or mainstream but usually it's fine; they have their little obsessions to keep them occupied. And that's where I'd put literary translators and literary translation readers, normally.

But look, the cool kids have reached out, or the oddballs have reached out, and now their worlds are touching! The London German-lit person Jen Calleja has her own column at The Quietus and it's about translated books! It's called Verfreundungseffekt! The first piece is about a gloriously obscure book, poems by a Finnish punk translated into English and published in Mexico! It's like the second-last scene in a John Hughes film, when everyone bonds unexpectedly and the world momentarily becomes a beautiful place. There's loud music playing and none of the translators/oddballs have ever heard it before, because they have been inducted into this new place, the pantheon of cool.

What will it be like? We shall see. My advice now, for literary translation people, is to pitch articles, reviews and the like to utterly cool publications. It may only be a passing fad, who knows, but we should milk it for all it's worth.


Jane said...

I've noticed this trend too, and as a translator I'm frankly a bit worried about it. Here's why: while translation doesn't pay lavishly, it does pay enough to earn a living. Like many writer-translators who need to earn a living, I started doing a lot more translation and a lot less journalism around 2008, when the bottom fell out of (English-language, but especially US) freelance journalism pay. Journalism, like literary writing and academia, can get away with paying abominably in part because it is cool - coolness is at least part of what creates the vast pool of people willing to give their work away for free. Translation has, at least in my limited experience, never been cool enough for translators to be willing to work for free for "exposure" - or cool enough to attract large numbers of rich kids able to indefinitely work for free. I've always felt like translation's lack of coolness was one of the things that kept it going as one of the last word-related professions that still paid decently.

So when I see translation getting cool, my reaction is "shit, guess I'd better learn computer programming."

kjd said...

Oh, Jane, that's a very good point you have there. I've actually seen signs that certain German publishers, for example, are luring would-be translators into translating samples from their books for free, essentially, because they can. So it's a very real fear but being a natural-born optimist, I'm going to point out one thing:

In order to translate well, you need to know two languages well, and you need to write well as well, and you need to have a lot of, well, patience if you want to get into literary translation. Those are three things we have in our favour, PLUS the fact that translators tend to stand together and support each other in demanding decent pay. So I'm not learning computer programming just yet.

Jane said...

Yes, one of the things that seemed ominous is that as the cool publications have started running a lot more articles about translation, I've noticed a marked uptick in trust-fundy Brooklyn-based Millennials calling themselves "writer and translator" rather than just "writer" -- tacking on "and translator" is, it seems, now perceived to add gravitas and international flair. But you're right that there's a vast gulf between calling yourself "and translator" and actually doing all the slow, unglamorous work of learning multiple languages really well. I am now reassured, despite my pessimistic nature, and will hold off a while on signing up for the Introduction to Java course.