The European translation situation

The release of the recommendations of the EU’s European Platform for Literary Translation (PETRA) took place during a Frankfurt Book Fair panel on translation on Friday, Oct. 12. “In most countries, literary translators are in need and have trouble earning a living,” the report states (this incidentally is also true of literary critics, bloggers and freelance journalists who write about Central and European literature . .  just sayin.)

In fact, the report lays out the numbers and they aren’t pretty: average annual gross income for literary translators is below €12,000 in eight countries and below €24,000 in at least 10 countries. Average net income is even bleaker: below €10,000 in 10 countries and below €20,000 almost everywhere. The report then compares income and purchasing power of translators with employees in the manufacturing and service sectors. I’ll stop here.

Lost in the process

We all know that even in the best translation a lot can get lost from the original writing to the translator’s final draft, so imagine what gets lost from the original source of imaginative literature to a fifty page government document full of figures, citations, bullet points and officialese that could justifiably be translated from many substanceless words into a few concise points. Nevertheless, this report does contain some clear recommendations regarding education, training, copyright and increasing translators’ visibility, all of which of course require money, which seems to be getting cut across the board.

Money was an issue discussed on the panel from both sides of the Atlantic, with Bas Pauw of the Dutch Foundation for Literature talking about Europe taking a step back in regard to cultural funding and Ira Silverberg, Director of Literature at the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) talking about how of the NEA’s $140 million budget his program gets $5 million, of which $1.5  goes directly to literacy programs. And then there’s the little matter of the upcoming elections. Obama has requested an increase in their budget. The other guy wants to send them to the same place he wants to send Big Bird.

“If Mr. Romney gets elected I’ll be moving back to New York and getting back into publishing,” Silverberg said, in regard to Romney’s stated intentions to abolish the NEA altogether. “It’s a really bad time for the arts because they’re not seen as essential .. They’re political bargaining chips.”


In keeping with its bland, official character the report is extremely vague for the most part. A visitor from outer space reading it wouldn’t even know what actual countries are in Europe let alone which ones treat their translators worse than others. It is only towards the end of the report in pointing out “possible solutions” that the “best practices” of Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia are provided as an example.

What is absolutely worth reading is the synthesis of the recommendations written by Françoise Wuilmart of the European Centre of Literary Translation (CETL), which defines the translator’s ambiguous status with a poetic flourish and refreshing frankness. Below is just a small part, translated itself from the French by Shaun Whiteside.

“On the one hand: the translator’s role as mediator between cultures is obvious. If literature is appreciated everywhere, it is only thanks to the mediation of literary translators, and thinkers would not be able to engage in dialogue in time and space without passing through the translated text. Hence the mobility of humanity’s spiritual legacy is entrusted to the attentive and re-creative reading of the literary translator.

On the other hand: the very essence of the translator’s enterprise lies at the source of his misfortune. Wholly at the service of the author of the original and his writing, he is obliged to step aside, and the success of his performance  depends on his invisibility. As a co-author, he will be consigned to oblivion. If, on the other hand, his traces are visible, he will be named in order to be criticised. He loses either way.”

I’m not sure what the laws on dueling are in Belgium but I will have to check before preparing my response to Wuilmart for the following: “The literary critic, generally ill-informed about the specifics of the profession, will ignore him or, conversely, talk about him in purely negative terms.” I’m only kidding of course, I know all about dueling laws in Belgium. Seriously, I agree, though have to plead that it’s hard to write about the translation when you don’t know the original language.

Still, it’s clear that serious improvements need to be made both for translators and for translations and any attention that can be brought to the issue is useful, whether in a book review or a government meeting in Brussels.

PETRA is an initiative of the Literarisches Colloquium (Berlin), Passa Porta (Brussels), The Polish Book Institute (Krakow), Transeuropéennes (Paris) and the Slovak Literary Translators’ Society (Bratislava).

Update – Now you can download the full report at PETRA’s website here.

Photos – 1) PETRA congress 2011 by Johan van Eycken, 2) Ira Silverberg speaking at Frankfurt, 3) the Hungarian stand.

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Categories: Literary Events, Translation


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2 Comments on “The European translation situation”

  1. Alex Zucker
    13/10/2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Thanks for this report. Here is a link to several articles on Words Without Borders with great advice for how to review translations, even if you don’t know the language being translated:

  2. literalab
    13/10/2012 at 10:30 pm #

    Thanks, and I remember you writing about this a while back in reference to another review too (can’t remember which now off the top of my Frankfurt-fried head – Russian, I think).

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