Tuesday, 22 March 2011

On the Pitfalls of Pro-Active Translators

There are now a number of programmes for literary translators that encourage us to be pro-active about pitching books to publishers. These are fantastic events usually lasting several days, which take translators on tours to German publishers, introduce us to writers and critics, take us to book fairs, and all sorts of delights. I've benefitted hugely from this type of programmes in the past, and am very grateful for the opportunities they've given me.

And I do indeed pitch German books to British publishers. I now have a handful of contacts to editors, who I bother every now and then with recommendations which often don't come to much. But occasionally it works out and the world becomes that little bit more golden. It's a wonderful feeling to have placed a book you love, especially if you get to translate it as well. Your very own baby, out there in the limelight dressed in a pink tutu and fairy wings, saying all its lines right (you hope as you sit transfixed in the auditorium, shaking with fear).

Yes, translators are well placed to spot great books in languages that editors don't read. And we have a slightly different ulterior motive to literary scouts and agents - of course we're ultimately in it for the money too as we want to bag the translation, but we don't want a cut of the fee. And while I know next to nothing about scouts and agents, I'll wager they occasionally push a book because they think it'll sell well, rather than because its sheer beauty and intelligence occupy all their waking hours.

So what we have is an increasing number of literary translators being pro-active, up against a publishing world that may be opening up slightly to international writing, but probably not at quite the same speed. One can only hope that the Chinese water torture method of endless drips will eventually wear down editors' resistance until the gates open and a wave of translated literature washes over us all. Like a leaky old lock on the Grand Union Canal, perhaps. Only in a good way.

And yet there's one problem, which I talked about with colleagues at the Leipzig Book Fair. How do we lone translators know we're not investing all our love and affection in a book that's already spoken for? We get all hot under the collar over a writer, reading everything they've ever written and poring over interviews to understand their motivations, our hearts skipping a beat every time we glimpse their books on a shelf. Yet especially around the big literary prizes, there could be two or three or more translators slavering over the same title. Tschick being a case in point, what with everyone in the whole world loving it, but I've felt a tad of translator envy over Clemens Setz too. And I remember some heightened emotions when Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize and it was unclear which of the translators who's worked on her before would get to do Atemschaukel.

The simplest solution is to contact the publishers, and possibly the writer as well. They should know if anyone has already got their claws into the object of our desire, or indeed if the rights have already been sold. But wouldn't it be wonderful if there was some way of communicating with other translators over potential projects on this level? I've generally experienced the profession as very supportive. We all work on our own so we do love to get together and talk shop when we can, and I've had valuable advice from various translators with more experience than me. It's just this one area where I sometimes feel like a teenager trying to grab a lock of Justin Bieber's hair, battling with a thousand other crazed girls.

Perhaps all we need is a listserve? And maybe the will to be open and honest and share our discoveries.

1 comment:

Harvey Morrell said...

Super Idee! Although a wiki might work a bit better as a central source.