In The Guest, poet and literary translator Robin Myers explores poetry translation as process, practice, vocation, meditation, and craft. Drawing both on her own projects-in-progress and the work of other translators, The Guest is a kind of diary, a thinking-out-loud about the pleasures, challenges, and decisions required—and invited—by bringing poems into another language. To do them justice and to make them new.
Love’s Labor’s Lost
Catching up with an old friend some months back, I mentioned a project that was close to my heart: a book of poems I’d translated that was slated for publication later in the year. My friend doesn’t work in a literary field, and she was curious about the process. How do you find a publisher for a translation? And was I managing to support myself financially by translating poetry?
Um, no, I said. I translate lots of other things—prose, some literary, some not—to pay the bills. But there’s almost no money in translating poetry. In fact, I added a little sheepishly, I wasn’t getting paid anything at all for this latest translation.
Nothing at all?
No, I explained. I get some author copies and there’s a royalty clause. No money upfront, though. And that’s not unusual.
She looked puzzled. Then why do you do it? she asked—a sincere question—and paused: …For the prestige?
There is, famously, infamously, pretty much no money in poetry, ever, a reality that won’t be news to anyone with even a lukewarm interest in the genre. For its part, literary translation—of any genre—is hardly known for raking in the big bucks. I keep chuckling to myself over the recent stranger-than-fiction episode of a publishing scam in which an employee in the Simon & Schuster foreign rights department devised an elaborate scam to steal unpublished manuscripts, possibly to jump-start his career as a translator, which the New Republic primly described as “not an especially lucrative [market], to say the least.” The translation of poetry, then, is located way at the bottom of an already-rickety financial ladder.
Yet what never ceases to amaze me is how opaque it all is. Every once in a while, an acquaintance will get in touch to say that they’ve been asked or selected to translate some poems and want to know the going rate. Every time, my answer starts out the same way: no one knows!
For both prose and poetry, rates vary wildly. Wildly varied, too, is the institutional guidance, when there is any at all, for determining those rates. An organization like the Society of Authors in the UK publicly states an average fee (often misrepresented as a recommended fee) from which prose translators and publishers typically start negotiating (£95 per thousand words, if you’re curious). In the same vein, the Society of Authors has “observed payment in the region of £1.10 per line with a minimum of £35 per poem.” There are no such specifications on record for the US; in fact, antitrust laws prohibit US professional organizations from recommending or publishing rates at all.
What I can say from my own experience as a translator of poetry published primarily in the US is, to borrow an expression from Spanish, hay de todo en la viña del señor: there’s some of everything in God’s vineyard, aka, anything goes. When it comes to full-length book translations, I’ve been paid by some presses, as I told my friend, nothing. Or no money at all plus a few published copies, or no money at all plus a whole bunch of published copies. In other cases, I’ve received a few hundred bucks (sometimes to be split with the author): an advance on royalties that, given how modestly poetry tends to sell and how tiny a percentage translators are contractually stipulated to receive (often as low as one percent), will almost certainly never materialize. In one extraordinary instance, a press has offered me a rate per line—an approach that feels far truer to the range and complexities of poetic language than a per-word rate for prose translation.
I don’t see that last method ever becoming the norm in the US, a country with minimal public funding for the arts, mostly because so many poetry presses are running on shoestring budgets as it is. So many poetry editors are struggling to stay afloat while doing what they love. Like poets. Like translators. I can barely begin to imagine the number or the magnitude of infrastructural sea changes required for poets, translators, and other writers to earn a reliable living—to trust that we can earn a reliable living by doing this work.
In this sense, I want to keep pointing to poetry translation as a site of exacerbated precariousness—and to keep underscoring its implications for how poetry gets translated and by whom. Class and race constantly affect who has access to publication opportunities and employment in the arts; who has time and leeway and financial support to pursue “passion projects” that may never yield any income to speak of. In the words of Alex Zucker, one of several US-based translators who has worked tirelessly to establish the Authors Guild Literary Translation Model Contract:
One of the reasons why publishing in the U.S. is as white as it is (as well as overwhelmingly cis, straight, and non-disabled) is because of the low pay, especially at the entry level. Traditionally, the main way people have gotten into the business is through unpaid, or tokenly paid, internships, and because of racial capitalism (because capitalism is racial), this dynamic is also at work, also visible, in the production and publication of literary translations. In short, a big part of why most literary translators are white is because it pays so little. White people, statistically, because of the racial wealth gap, are way more likely to be able to afford to work as literary translators. So the issue of pay is central in determining who translates. At the same time, it’s important to realize these issues aren’t unique to translation or publishing, but a problem of our economy and society in general, of capitalism.
Alex is someone who advocates continuously for the working conditions of translators as workers, as people doing a job to earn money, not just as artists. After all, as he puts it, art in our society “too often carries with it the expectation that it will be unpaid, or that money is not central, the whole ‘labor of love’ trope.’” (What reeks of this trope more than poetry? What else has been more damningly romanticized out of utility, out of practicality, out of getting things done?)
These are systemic, maddeningly cyclical questions with systemic, maddeningly cyclical answers. For now, it’s Alex’s words I return to:
All I ask is that people consider how low pay and working conditions restrict who’s able to do literary translation to those who have more privilege and wealth, and how that affects who and what is published. If this is something they care about, I would ask that they too adopt the cause of better pay and working conditions (for all translators, to be clear; not only themselves); and if they don’t care, I just ask that they not make it harder for those who do by claiming that what we want is unreasonable.