The slaves of literary translation

Technical and business translators often feel over-worked and under-paid. I wonder if they realize that our colleagues who are translating literature and who we all look up to, and envy, are actually in a much worse position.

Technical and business translators often feel over-worked and under-paid. I wonder if they realize that our colleagues who are translating literature and who we all look up to, and envy, are actually in a much worse position.

If you Google the question “Can you earn a living as a literary translator?” this takes you straight to a thread in ProZ where you find responses such as “It is notorious that literary translation pays poorly”, “No. It’s a hobby”, “I wish!”, and statements to the same effect.

A study published by CEATL in Brussels (“Comparative income of literary translators in Europe”) in its Conclusion has a heading “Scraping a living” – which I think says it all. The authors surveyed many European countries only to find: “It is only in the countries where wage levels are still fairly low (in Southern Europe in particular) or even very low (in Eastern Europe in particular) that translators’ gross income (at the highest rates) can exceed the average gross income of workers in the manufacturing and services sector.” France appears to be the only country where literary translators earn more than 80% of the average gross income. “In Italy, the situation is disastrous. In Greece, Germany, Finland, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland, the material situation of translators is critical and professional literary translators are virtually on the bread line.” This report makes shocking reading. It can be seen here: The final sentence says: It’s time to act! This was back in 2008. I doubt very much that the situation has improved. But would love to hear from anyone who can report progress!

When writing about the Übersetzungsfabriken I came across an interesting reference describing the fate of literary translators in the 19th century as slavery. In 1854, Friedrich Wilhelm Hackländer’s* 4-volume novel “Europäisches Sklavenleben” (in English: Clara: Or, Slave Life in Europe) was published as a riposte to Harriett Beecher-Stowes’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It describes in great detail the different social milieus – aristocratic, bourgeois, bohemian and working-class – whilst focusing on forms of slavery in Germany. The novel made great waves at the time and its author into a wealthy man.

The first protagonist among the white slaves he describes is Clara Staiger, a dancer, who lives with her father and siblings in appalling poverty. Because of her profession she is a target of male seduction, exploited by shady characters within the theatrical world. Her dad, a widower, is trying desperately to save her and his other children from misery, working “like a slave” – as guess what?

As a translator – in the service of Mr. Blaffer, a publisher, who is cashing in on translations of popular English-language books. Ironically, one of the books Staiger has been asked to translate is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Pressure is on, and pay is poor.

Hackländer sharply criticizes the translation practices of his time: the huge pressure to publish more and more quickly than the competition, the habit of taking several earlier translations and amalgamating them into a new one, and the pitiful fees on which the translation slaves can barely survive.

At the start of chapter 13, a meeting takes place between Mr. Blaffer (the publisher), Arthur, a young artist who is to provide the illustrations for Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Herr Staiger (the translator). Arthur tries to make polite conversation conjecturing that translation “must be quite good business. You do not need to do any preliminary studies, it’s really copying, and you get a good fee. There must be money in this, is that not true, Herr Staiger?” Blaffer immediately intervenes, not letting Mr. Staiger speak for himself: “Certainly, if you work diligently and you can churn it out quickly.” Arthur persists with more questions, with Blaffer getting cross at the artist being interested in the translator. Finally, Arthur directs his questions straight at Mr. Staiger: “As the diligent man that you must be, how much can you produce in a day?” Staiger, diffidently: “Well, if one works really hard one can earn a little, me for example …”, and while Blaffer tries to interrupt the conversation goes on to describe his day: “I usually get up at 4 in the morning, I kindle a small fire in my stove, bring my desk close to it … and start to work. Before that, while still in bed, I have spent an hour reading through a few chapters so as to familiarize myself with the story. I continue working till 7 when the children wake up, asking for their breakfast, which Clara, my eldest, prepare for them. These 5 hours, 4-9 are my most precious; as soon as Clara leaves the house, I am left to look after the little ones who keep interrupting me. …” He eats some lunch at takes a little rest from 12 to 1 pm, then goes back to work, often until 9, 10 or 11 at night. Arthur: “And what do you achieve in such a long working day?”. “If it flows nicely, … 16 tightly printed pages, not a bagatelle.” Arthur persists: “And what do you get paid for such a long day’s work?” Staiger: “The fee is 1 Gulden and 30 Kreuzer”. Arthur is incredulous: 1 Gulden and 30 Kreuzer for 14 hours of hard mental and physical labour! And if there is a day with no work coming in he does not get any pay at all. But he does have to work every Saturday and Sunday, there is no law that limits working hours. Arthur concludes that the slaves described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin actually have a better life, because their master looks after them and their children. And if the weather is no good they can stay in their cabin and don’t have to go out in the fields. Whereas our translator is expected to work come rain or sunshine.

Hackländer goes on to comment that European readers have far more sympathy for overseas slaves than for those in their own country. The exotic aspect makes them more fashionable and worthy. And concludes: “But if you want to have it more true to life and authentic, you do not need to go to Uncle Tom’s Cabin – we have it all here just as nicely, in our beloved home country.”

The VDÜ (Verband deutscher Übersetzer*innen) is brutally honest about it on their website: Und was den Verdienst betrifft, so gibt es nur eine Garantie: Reich wird man in diesem Beruf nicht. Nach wie vor kann nur eine Minderheit der Literaturübersetzer/innen ausschließlich vom Literaturübersetzen leben. (And as far as earnings go, there is only one guarantee: You cannot get rich in this profession. As ever, only very few literary translators can live from translating literature alone.) Clearly, it’s a job you do for LOVE.

The publisher reluctantly paying the Translator, Herr Staiger, a small sum as an upfront payment, thanks to the intervention of the artist who has put in a good word for him after he’s been told how hard survival is when you are a translator.

Born 1st November 1816 in Burtscheid (Aachen) in poverty. Through different professions worked his way up in society and became a successful writer, even made it into nobility. A plaque was put at the location of his birthplace in 2016.


Translation of passages from Hackländer’s Slave Life in Europe are by me, in a somewhat abbreviated form.

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