If you have any experience with literary translation, you probably already know that it tends to be more a labor of love than a job that can bring home the “big bucks.”
So why would anyone do it for free? I interviewed six translators (for free) to find out. My interviewees were Sue Burke, Mercedes Claire Gilliom, Armine Kotin Mortimer, Anna Schnell, Dorothy Potter Snyder and Patricia Worth.
First of all, what kinds of situations led these translators to work for free?
1. Being a fan of a specific genre
Several of the translators I interviewed got into free work because they were a fan of a specific genre. For example, Anna started translating comics and videogames for her own pleasure and to share with others to enjoy, which has in turn helped her connect online with other fans and translators.
Similarly, as a member of Spain’s Association for Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror (AEFCFT), Sue has translated posts for the association’s website to help the association reach a broader audience, since such promotional material can bring more attention to work from non-English speaking countries.
2. Love of an author or work while starting out in the field
As her first foray into translation, Armine chose to translate a work by Phillippe Sollers because she knew him and had written several academic articles about him, and thus cared deeply about bringing his work to English readers. Although she eventually found a publisher, she only received royalties. Thus the principal benefit of the work remained the positive feeling of bringing Sollers into English—as well her name being credited in the same size font as the author’s on the book’s cover!
Patricia translated a short story as part of a university course, but was then asked directly by the author for permission to have the translation published in a journal. This led her to translate several more of the author’s short stories and publish them in literary magazines. While Patricia wasn’t paid for the majority of this work, she found it encouraging to know each of her translations was “selected by strangers from a vast number of competing submissions.”
3. Lending a helping hand
Dorothy runs a translation hive for progressive groups like #Resist by pulling together translators who are willing to donate their time to ensure that action documents are translated into quality Spanish for the Hispanic community so that they can be fully involved in their political defense. She finds the work ethically rewarding, in that she is “extending the progressive web” to non-English speakers.
Mercedes’ first subtitling job was for an independent film project in which most of the people involved were working for free. She nevertheless enjoyed the work because the film was of a high quality and gave her experience in subtitling, which in turn boosted her confidence to take on more subtitling gigs.
What benefits did the translators discover in translating for free?
1. Getting experience at the beginning of their careers
All of my interviewees noted that doing free work can provide you with an opportunity to gain experience in the field, especially when you’re first starting out. As long as you have the time and budget to do so, it’s a great way to develop your skills. Patricia put it this way: “Because I’m [translating] voluntarily, there’s no deadline and no pressure to settle for words that are near enough but not good enough.”
2. The opportunity to try something new
Translating for free can be a great low-risk way to try out a new field, such as Mercedes’ foray into subtitling and Sue’s work in the Spanish science fiction and fantasy scene. As Anna recommends, “Never pass up an opportunity to learn something new, to grow, and to challenge your perceptions of what literary translation means to you, and to the world.”
Many of my interviewees noted free work as a great way to “get your name out there” and build your translation portfolio as a new translator. It can also help you make connections with others in the translation world and possible future clients. For example, Dorothy works directly with a few women authors and doesn’t charge them for her translations, but partners with them when she gets a publishing contract so that they both win.
4. Leading to paid work
The exposure and experience gained by free work can eventually lead to paid work. Anna mentioned that in the Japanese comic world, free translation done by fans and published on the internet has become the norm, but it can encourage English publishers to license the titles in print and commission paid translations of them. Armine has done several full-length translations for which she is still seeking publishers, but she sees this work as “a kind of capital,” since once a publisher is interested, the work is already done.
5. Personal enjoyment
Many of my interviewees initially took on free work because they admired the work they were translating, and/or enjoyed gaining the translation experience. This made the work worthwhile, even without pay.
What advice did the translators have to offer about translating for free?
1. Don’t let anyone take advantage of your skills.
As my many of my interviewees noted, there are lots of big corporate clients out there who think they can get translations done for free, especially with the rise of machine translation.
Sue and Dorothy described how many companies will ask you for a translation “sample” or “test” as part a job application, and then use your translation without giving you the job. If a company or organization is using your work for their own benefit and can afford to pay you, they should. Thus it’s good practice to only do free work for those who really can’t afford to pay you, or as a way to enrich your own skills.
2. Only do free work that you enjoy.
As discussed above, free work can be enjoyable because of its content, cause, or the experience it gives you. But if you don’t find the work meaningful in some way, don’t waste your time, because it will not be of benefit to you. So don’t be afraid to be picky!
3. Understand your role as a volunteer.
Since doing free work as a translator means donating your time and labor, you are a volunteer. Sue pointed out that volunteers deserve respect, a sense of equal partnership in the project, sound guidance and feedback, thorough understanding of the project, opportunities to offer suggestions, and some form of recognition, even if it’s just a warm “thank you.”
So, while translating for free doesn’t lead to money in the bank, it can be rewarding in a variety of other ways.
Have you ever had a positive experience translating for free? What did you learn? I’d love to hear your stories and advice!
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