Inside Baseball

You might have noticed I’m trying to be as specific as I can when describing what I’m up to these days. It’s not exactly page-turning stuff, but I’ve noticed a real lack of facts and figures out there: literary translators tend to be very coy about how many books they’re working on at once, how many words they translate a day, what they’re getting paid, if they’re getting royalties, etc.

I suppose this is to avoid the impression that we’re machines, churning out as many words per day as we can. (Which no one wants to be, in fairness.) I think we’d all rather give the impression that we craft each novel by itself, stopping only to fill up on creativity and inspiration, and that we’re all being paid much more than the industry standard (because we’re worth it), although the per word rate doesn’t really matter because we’re making a fortune off the royalties we negotiated with our publisher.

Needless to say, most of us are trying to translate a reasonable number of words per day (1000-2000) that strikes a balance between producing a quality translation and paying the bills. As things stand, the 1600 words a day I’m aiming for at the minute are paid the usual rate by the Canada Council for the Arts (which covers 100% of translation costs for the publisher). That works out as 1600 words x 18 cents a word for a very reasonable $288 a day. Slave labour it’s not. (Earn $288 five days a week for 52 weeks a year and that’s $75,000.) And that’s before taking into account the other literary translations I’m working on at the same time or the other freelance stuff I’ll send off today.

All in all, I would say literary translation has the advantages and disadvantages of any freelance job. The drawback is, of course, that while we occasionally earn $288 and up five or even seven days a week, there are plenty of days when we are waiting for the phone to ring or, more usually, doing unpaid sample translations and pitches or reading long books that we think we should probably get around to pitching one day. (Not that I’m complaining for a second: I really enjoy pitching books I love. Ditto for reading books I love.)

So just to say I hope these facts and figures will one day be useful to someone and I hope they’re not coming across as too inside baseball. One day soon I’ll go into more detail on royalties and a few of the other things I mentioned above and didn’t get back to. Radisson awaits…