I am by profession an instructional designer, helping professors use technology. The work involves staring at the computer during much of the day. After finishing my professional work, I go back home, have dinner, wash dishes, and read a book to my kids. And then I go back to my computer to get a few more hours of screen tan - this time translating novels. The lack of physical activity means it isn't a balanced lifestyle.
Well, translators don't have a life anyway. One has to be slightly crazy to get into it, and even crazier to keep doing it. Translation is literally back-breaking work, which requires intensive mental effort and minimal external distraction. You sit quietly at the computer for so long that a passing alien might mistake you for a sculpture. Translation is difficult, too. Some books are so difficult to read that even one of my long time supporters said she was there for moral and spiritual support, not linguistic assistance.
Since 1997, I have translated a dozen or so books, including V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin and Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. Some of these books have won prizes. Let the Great World Spin, for instance, won the 2010 Weishanhu Prize, the highest literary award for an international author. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn won China Times's Books of the Year Award in the Youth Reading category at the end of 2010.
In any other line of work, this would have made a person rich and famous. In translation, you remain mostly off stage, and often poor - an indication that translators are artists, too. At present, most publishers pay about 65-100 yuan ($10-15) per thousand words for literary translation, no matter how good you are. You know that words are cheap because the rate has remained at this level for decades. The rate is so pathetic that I once considered giving up translation in pursuit of a career as a pig farmer, an idea that came to me after I translated Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole, a novel featuring a pig farm scout.
Then why would one translate? Part of my reason is the difficulty in saying "no". Since most publishers do not pay much, they add a lot of courtesy on top of their inquiry. I won't blink to resist coercion or temptation. But kindness kills. Courtesy conquers. Many editors' sincerity and persistence embarrass me into saying: "What the heck, I'll do it." I simply would not be able to bear the guilt if I rejected a well-made proposal from a cordial editor. It's a good thing that I did not encounter such a situation in marital decisions years ago. Also, literary translation is a rather small field. It is important to maintain a good relationship with editors, just for rainy days. Sooner or later, one gets addicted. Giving it up will be traumatic, just as continuing it could be.
Literary translation brings some secret joys. You get to interact deeply with good literature. Another joy comes from hope, almost a Promethean one, to borrow some small literary fires to set China's dull literary scene ablaze. Many of the authors I have translated were not even known in China when I started translating them. When I started Naipaul's A Bend in the River, he had not won the Nobel Prize for Literature and few people in China had heard about him. Now he is almost a household name among Chinese intellectuals. Translators have helped in a small way to make many authors' names familiar in China.
Through translation books travel, well received in some countries but rejected in some others. I was told by Colum McCann that his Songdogs was very well received in France and Germany.
There are some things in a book that make it click in a particular culture. Exactly which book have this potential is as much a translator's intuition as it is the publisher's.
As books travel, we seek to be good travel agents so that "the journey is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery" (Constantine P. Cavafy's Ithaca) among their new readers in a new language.
I am also a blogger, so as I translate and write profusely (sometimes to a fault, I must admit) about these books as a book critic, mostly as a change from translation. I talk a lot about why books are good or bad. In China, writing has been held almost as a mysterious art thanks to Lu Xun's jeer that some people wanted to learn writing by reading "novel writing methods".
The assumption is that you are either born a writer or you are not. But why not? People can learn the craft of writing by opening themselves to good influences. Good writing inspires awe and gives ideas. Good authors get others excited about particular ways to write, the way Franz Kafka wowed Gabriel Garcia Marquez with The Metamorphosis.
Such impact is made possible through the work of translators who can knock authors from their familiar pedestals or get them out of the maze of their writers' blocks.
It's my secret dream that one day or one night, a Chinese author reads a book I have translated and bangs on the desk: "I didn't know that novels can be written like this! I can do that!" There, the circle of life for writers goes on.
Visions like this keep me going, in the depth of the night, when the non-reading world has gone to sleep.
The author is a literary translator, instructional designer living in the US.