Translation factories – today and back in the 19th century

Much has been said in the last decade about the commoditization of translation. With ever increasing volumes of translatable content, the emphasis has shifted to quick turnaround times and low rates. To my surprise, I stumbled on evidence that this type of industrialization is not new at all.

Much has been said in the last decade about the commoditization of translation. With ever increasing volumes of translatable content, the emphasis has shifted to quick turnaround times and low rates. What we used to think of as an art or a craft has become an industry and translators have become operators on a production line that is gaining speed all the time.

We feel we have been downgraded to workers who get paid by the unit, a bit like knitters or weavers in the 19th century or washerwomen, whose labour gets paid in terms of quantity rather than quality. We lament this as a modern-day phenomenon and blame it on CAT tools and machine translation.

To my surprise, I stumbled on evidence that this type of industrialization is not new at all. *

Indeed, in Germany the concept of the “Übersetzungsfabrik” (translation factory) dates back to the time when Goethe was alive and huge numbers of works were being translated in record time by an army of translators. In 1850 it is said every second novel published in German was in fact a translation.

After the Napoleonic Wars, around 1820, the German publishing industry experienced a huge expansion. This was also the time of industrialization, where suddenly many more people were able to read and write, and wanted to improve themselves. Social mobility was suddenly possible. This meant that vast parts of the population were developing an appetite for reading matter – preferably gothic novels, detective stories, romances, social novels and adventure stories.

Finding that few German authors wrote stuff that was palatable, readers discovered a taste for what was produced in England and France, by authors such as Alexandre Dumas and George Sand, James Fenimore Cooper, and a little later Charles Dickens and Thackeray. This was the kind of thing Germans found entertaining, reflecting real life, with passionate and interesting characters, and castigating social inequality. Quite a contrast to their own authors who were difficult to warm to, too sophisticated, too high-brow and removed from their everyday concerns.

Among these foreign writers none was as popular as Walter Scott, whose works were published in many different translations and editions and filled shelf after shelf in German public libraries. “Scottomania” broke out. Starting in 1817 his novels were a huge commercial success in translation. Besides editions of his complete works, there were increasingly cheaper paperback versions of individual novels. Publishers at the time were aiming at “simultaneous releases”, i.e. they were trying to publish their German translations at the same time as the originals came onto the market – or even earlier, since the English editions were carefully bound and had to be shipped to Germany, whereas German translations were produced cheaply and locally.

Publishers were competing to get translated titles into print quickly. The fastest translators were paid the best money. Translation activity was hectic and many publishers saved themselves the cost of a checker or a reviewer! Also, translations were not protected by copyright and translators were cheaper than authors. As we know only too well, speed is the enemy of quality, and spreading a project among several translators can also have a negative impact. And that is exactly what happened: a great number of translators, who were paid by sheet, were working in these factories. Only the fastest could actually make enough money to live on (very modestly, and working long hours). Those that were meticulous and took their time lost out.

Sometimes it was easier to find a translator to translate from French rather than English. One critic complained that an edition of a novel by Scott had been translated without the translator ever even opening the English original. Apparently, the translations were often of such poor quality and differed so much from the original (and each other) that they were treated like different works, published under different titles!

And since it was of utmost important for a publishing house to be the first on the German market, they often started on the translation before the author had reached the end. (If this rings a bell, you are probably thinking of the ‘continuous workflow’ in localization.)

Some were not bothering to write up their translations; instead they dictated them to their assistants.

A vivid depiction of such a translation factory was written by Wilhelm Hauff who in 1827 published a satire aimed at the Schuman publishing house in Leipzig. It has workers on the first floor (the ground floor is taken up by a paper mill) doing “rough” translations at great speed (today’s translation engines). These are then taken up into small offices on an upper floor, where stylists are re-working the texts and giving them the final touches (today’s post-editors). Each of the rough translators on the first floor is handed 8 sheets at 7:30 a.m. which he is required to translate by 3 p.m. They then get lunch, before being presented with another set of sheets to translate. Each “stylist” revises the work of 7 or 8 “rough translators”. There is a separate room which houses the “poetic” workers – these are the ones that think up the mottos, headings, titles (today’s transcreators).

First among these translation factories was the “Franckh’sche Verlagshandlung” in Stuttgart, founded in 1822, which published a new complete edition of Walter Scott’s works and from there went on to Cooper, Dickens, Marryat, Lady Morgan und Horace Smith and the popular French writers Dumas, Hugo, Balzac, Paul de Kock, George Sand, Soulié, Sue and Vidocq. In 1843 they embarked on their highly successful series “Das Belletristische Ausland” with a record number of volumes translated every year. Of their many translators only two were known by name, the rest was an army of anonymous translators, often failed writers wanting to supplement their meagre.

Voltaire’s plays, for example were being translated by Übersetzungsfabriken (in the then used terminology: “Völlig nach Fabrikenart” (completely factory-style). The factory-worker translators were being reproached as lacking the ability to convey the spirit of the original and to appropriately render it in German. Of Voltaire’s tragedies and comedies it was said that in translation they come across as “frosty” – essentially correct but “entirely lifeless”. Much like what you might say about raw MT output today.

*See Robert Bachleitner, “Übersetzungsfabriken”. Das deutsche Übersetzungswesen in der ersten Hälfte des 19. Jhds.

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