Posted by Joel Martinsen on Thursday, September 30, 2010 at 6:56 PM
Translation, literary translation in particular, is a task far more rewarding than it is lucrative. Get a group of film and book translators together and the conversation will inevitably be punctuated by complaints about poor rates, unreasonable deadlines, and boneheaded editorial decisions.
Why do people do it? In 2009, fashion and lifestyle magazine Trading Up (优品) spoke to Sun Zhongxu (孙仲旭), who has translated Nineteen Eighty-Four and Catcher in the Rye (among other works), about the business of literary translation:
Trading Up also spoke to Zhao Guohua (赵国华), a now-retired translator who worked for decades on mainstream films like Victory, The Fugitive, True Lies, and Notting Hill:
Zhao also described how the practice has changed over the years:
So in this new world, how do you make money doing this? The simple answer – volume – introduces problems of its own: publish too prolifically, and you run the risk of harming your reputation as a careful translator who turns out quality work.
Even the mere appearance of hackwork can cast a shadow over a professional translator. Yu Shi (于是), a successful translator of commercial fiction, mentioned her hectic schedule in a late-2009 blog post: “I'm working non-stop, and new books will be coming out regularly over the next few months. I'm satisfied, of course, but I also feel a little tired. The past few years I've done practically nothing but work.”
The post was made ahead of the release of the Chinese version of Stephen King’s Duma Key. One commenter criticized her rate of publication: “Books translated in two or three months, and all that concern over annoyances. They’re likely to be rubbish.”
In reply, Yu composed a lengthy post explaining the publication process, why she chooses to translate commercial fiction, and her reasons for staying with a profession that is so financially unrewarding:
Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, and Why I Translateby Yu Shi
First, an answer to a comment on the previous entry:
1) None of my books was churned out in two or three months’ time. No churning out took place whatsoever. The cycle of translated books is not set according to the rhythm of the translator. There are many more procedures to go through once a manuscript is translated and submitted: review, editing, and deliberation on the part of the publisher....deciding a date of publication, as I’m sure you all can imagine, must also take into account the two major annual domestic book expos. So the fact that several of my translations are being released over the course of a few months does not mean that I cooked them up at all possible speed. The Dark Tower, for example, sat there for two or three years before coming out, while The Lottery was the last to be translated and was published first. One slow and one quick, a different so obvious, yet it still appears as if I translated a million characters in a single year...
2) Read (慌城孤读) also came out recently. This is a coincidence, but it is also inevitable. Yet it is the first collection of my writing in three years, a collection of book and film criticism from the last five years, most of which were published as magazine and newspaper columns. It is not something I simply whipped up in the time I wasn’t translating. And during the publication process it did indeed encounter some problems; briefly, the encroachment on literary language by the language of so-called “fast consumer media” unbridled my own feel for language. I have given this much thought.
3) On my Sina blog, I basically post only the results of my work. I no longer make posts about my personal life or reactions to books. The reason is simple: I have another place to write my personal thoughts, and I don’t need to copy them umpteen times across the net. If you think it’s too “commercial” here (I’ve never made this a major website or a celebrity blog, so there’s really nothing commercial to speak of), you are welcome to visit me at home or simply wait for my novels and essays.
To explain the pace of translation, I will now make an announcement: in October, I took just forty days to do a first-draft translation of the first half of Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol. Now I have begun the integration and editing of the document. Rushed, to be sure, but as everyone knows, the book was released across the world on September 16. I received the book on the 7th, and the publisher wants to release a Chinese translation in the beginning of December.
This is the first time that I have worked with someone else to complete a book. Although the Dark Tower was a single unit jointly translated by seven to ten people, at least each person had a separate volume to translate and there was no time limit. So The Lost Symbol is basically a first in my short translation history, in both translation format and time-frame.
Translating popular fiction really scratches an itch. And with a book that drops so many quotations and references, translation has been a form of self-study. But I have to say that in action scenes, psychology, and characterization, he is not Stephen King’s equal. Of course, that is not Dan Brown’s selling point. I have always believed that translating this type of popular novel is for readers who cannot read the original, so speed has its benefits, and in addition, a translation done by a responsible Chinese translator will at least be better than a truly crappy, unedited online version.* It’s no exaggeration to say that translating against this kind of deadline means going without food or sleep. That’s how I spent my October. No Golden Week, no vacation, no watching movies – just work.
I’ve never had the opportunity to say why, when I was writing fiction eight or ten years ago, I suddenly turned to translation. Even today, now that translation is more or less a settled thing, I get the rare person abusing me on my blog. So let’s talk about that....
First, so as not to neglect my English, of course. I graduated from the department of foreign languages, but I have not worked in education, nor did I go for grad school. And that old foundation would be wasted if it lay fallow for several years. At first it was for the sake of English that I agreed to translate children’s books. And later on after that, I met an editor who told me that what book translation needs most is not English spoken like an Englishman, but Chinese spoken well. This remark influenced me greatly. If not for that bit of advice, I would probably not have translated book after book.
Second, I only wanted to translate best-sellers at first, particularly thrillers and horror novels because....it’s quite simple: I find enjoyment in reading them which, for a translator, is a good, even happy, thing. An even more important reason is that in my own writing, dialogue and plot have always been a weakness, so I really wanted a make-up education, and translation is a good method, more effective than reading.
However, as time went on I did not stay constrained in a single genre. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima is undoubtedly an exception, but it is the translation I have worked hardest on to date, and it encouraged me to try more literary works in other styles.
Third, remuneration for translations is miniscule (I make mention of a worldwide comparison in the next issue of Newriting, which you can read if you’re interested*) – there’s no comparison with the time, energy, and even physical effort involved. Yet from another standpoint, it has become my major habit for the past few years. A lifestyle. At a time when it seems impossible to go on, translation allows me to forget all my troubles and embed myself into the lines of the text, caring nothing for anything else. Translation lets me exhaust my energy and no longer pine for unnecessary entertainment or sentiment. After life’s enormous changes, I believe that it was translation as opposed to creative writing that helped stabilize me to gradually start an ordered life. Thus when people are confused as to why I would be content to do all of this translation, my answer is simple: it takes the place of practically all of my entertainment and social activity, and has helped me make it through the work, emotion, and life of the past few years. It is a medicine. It has basically cured me, and – it has not made me abandon creative writing.
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+ Culture and corporate propaganda in Soho Xiaobao (2007.11): Mid-2007 issues of Soho Xiaobao (SOHO小报), illustrating the complicated identity of in-house magazines run by real estate companies.
+ Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship (2010.03): Internet executives complain about excessive Net censorship at an officially sanctioned meeting in Shenzhen.
+ Crowd-sourced cheating on the 2010 gaokao (2010.06): A student in Sichuan seeks help with the ancient Chinese section of this year's college entrance exam -- while the test is going on!