Monday, 13 July 2009

Translation funding - push and pull

As a literary translator, I receive a significant proportion of my income from translating novels. Time is money, although you cannot translate too many works at once. If you take on too much work, you run the risk of slipshod translation.

One major source of income in this context are the funds set up in the source-language country to promote the national literature. That is what I call the "push" side of things: the country is pushing its literature onto the rest of the world, and is prepared to pay out money to do so. But there is a "pull" dimension, e.g. when the UK pulls in literature from abroad. This too is promotion, but this time of other countries' literature. Again, money could be paid to the translator, this time by funds in the target-language country, in this instance the UK. I fear that this side of funding is somewhat neglected.

The core Scandinavian countries have solid translation funds which pay not only for complete, book-length translations, but nowadays also for excerpts that a translator may use when promoting a particular book with a publishing house, alongside the synopsis. This money is most welcome. But cannot British funds, state-run or private, do more to promote translations by way of a supplement to what the Scandinavians offer? Cannot the Arts Council or England and private funds ensure a regular supply of money so that serious Nordic literature, poetry and prose, is translated?

I read in the Standpoint magazine that it could be time to abolish the Arts Council. While this may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater, it is true that from a literary translator's point of view there appear to be precious few British sources of state translation funding. While literally millions of pounds is spend on regional art galleries and museums that sometimes prove to be white elephants, Arts Council funding of the translation of, for instance, European literature as a whole is negligible. Maybe a British National Translation Fund could be set up, working alongside similar private sources of funding. This would ensure that literary translators are not galloping from one Scandinavian crime novel to the next, in order to make ends meet, but may have time to translate poetry collections and general novels.

If money comes to the translator from various sources, at home and abroad, this would also ensure that neither the vested interests of source-language country nor of the target-language one narrow down the choice of works to be translated too severely. Promoting a more varied flora of literary works appearing in English seems to me to be a good thing.

Eric Dickens


David McDuff said...

Perhaps Britain should help to fund the translation of work by British writers into other languages? I'm not even sure if this happens at present, but it might balance things out a bit. After all, there is quite a lot of funding in the other direction - i.e. from foreign sources to the U.K.

Eric Dickens said...

I feel that there is already a preponderance internationally of things written originally in English. The British Council has done a pretty good job over the years pushing BritLit. Indeed, the only place I have met people such as Laura Fish, David Dabydeen and Peter Ackroyd was in Tallinn. I met Malcolm Bradbury some years before in Umeå (never having met him during my three years as an undergrad at UEA). Stella Duffy was in Tallinn with the Serpent's Tail team a decade ago (and on the Newsnight Review a week ago.) Pete Ayrton of Serpent's Tail was partly there in Tallinn to scout out Estonian talent. Unfortunately, some of those who spoke at the meeting were not really suitable material for translation, perpetuating the Estonian piss-artist intellectual pose.

Extrapolating from my Estonian and Swedish experiences, I think the UK could be more magnanimous, accepting the fact that we ride piggyback on the political dominance of the Yanks in part, and rest on our 19th century laurels. So I don't really think literature written in English needs much promotion. It is pulled in automatically by the natives.

I think there is a natural tendency for many cultures to regard literature written specifically in English as the default mode when translation is considered. So I don't really believe that the situation is symmetrical. Let the British Council continue to promote BritLit as it does now; but the British subsidy of foreign translation is perhaps not necessary.