…it is only visible if it has been badly done.”
Pieke Biermann, German literary translator and author, said this in an interview many years ago and there is a lot of truth in the statement. In a way, being invisible is actually required. The translation should be a good read in the same way as the original and you are not supposed to guess straight away that you are not dealing with an original work.
The vast majority of readers do not even care whether they are reading a translation, let alone who translated the book and I am not just talking about average readers. A friend of mine teaches creative writing and literature and when we happened to talk about a book she had worked with in one of her classes, it turned out I was the translator – she had not noticed.
Even though translations are vital for the success or failure of a book in another language, they are not just usually invisible, but also generally poorly paid. The housework metaphor fits here as well – housework is important, but what about the money? Poor payment does not exactly encourage a great outcome if the translator needs to make a living and thus has to finish the translation as fast as possible. This is especially true for translations into languages other than English. Into English pays better, since there are simply not as many translators who can do the job – translators are usually translating into their own language. English native speakers are often not encouraged to learn foreign languages, therefore these translators do not have as much competition as their colleagues from other countries.
But despite the low income, most literary translators are still doing a great job as they are usually really passionate about their work. I believe that self-publishing can be an interesting alternative for them that might provide more long-term income, if they are prepared to participate in book marketing and play a much more visible role than they are used to.
I am cooperating with author J.F. Penn and we have recently self-published her first thriller Pentecost in German on a split-royalty basis, which means we are sharing the income. This is a risk, but at the same time there is more potential than going the traditional route with publishing houses if it goes well. Another way would be to be paid a fixed fee. I suspect most translators would currently still want to choose this route, because their low income does not allow much risk-taking. They should bear in mind, though, that they have the freedom to choose a self-published book which they really like and find worthwhile for translation.
If authors and translators are working on a split-royalty basis it is in the translators‘ own interest to contribute as much as possible to the book marketing. I must admit that this does not come easily to me – I am just not used to being visible. Therefore I am glad to work with an experienced self-published author like Joanna who has such a great positive attitude and I intend to share more of my experience on this blog.
You can read my interview with Joanna Penn on her blog.
And here is the German book trailer: