I teach in an MA program in literary translation. Every year, students come in, expecting that once they have their MAs, they will be able to work full-time as translators of poetry or plays or whatever else. Every year, a number of students come in, sneering at people who translate users’ manuals or cookbooks or financial reports and vowing never to be one of them.
I suppose I see part of my job as informing students about the market for literary translation and about being realistic with them. An MA in literary translation will help them, of course, but it will not automatically enable them to support themselves by translating novels. Very few people – even well established, highly talented translators – can live off their literary translation work.
I also point out to my students that many people combine literary translation with other kinds of translation or with teaching or editing or research or work in the charity sector or work at banks and so on. I tell them how stimulating I personally find it to combine different types of translation and how it helps improve my language skills and my translation skills and also teaches me about new topics.
Most of the time, the students are definitely not convinced. Maybe it’s because they’re young (for the most part) and idealistic and think that everything can and will just be handed to them. Maybe they genuinely think they are too good for anything but translating song lyrics and memoirs. Maybe they don’t want to think about the fact that they will have to work hard in order to have a career in translation. Maybe they don’t have any money worries and have relatives who will support them as they translate short stories. Maybe there’s something else going on.
Of course I feel a bit hurt and shocked at the way they mock anything other than literary translation (one student actually said, “I would never lower myself to translate cookbooks!” even after I had mentioned how many cookbooks I have translated). But more importantly, I worry about what will happen when these students go out into the “real world”, armed with their MAs in literary translation, expecting to be able to support themselves on such work. I try to give them hints about how to improve their chances, and I organize talks with the Careers Centre on campus, and I talk to the students about practical matters such as writing a CV, networking, building a website, signing up with agencies, getting mentoring, and so on. So I try to do the best I can as a teacher and fellow translator.
But some students are resistant and only want to talk about translation theory. Some yawn as I suggest book fairs they might want to attend and how they can exchange business cards with editors and publishers. Some even criticize me, saying that I am negative and make them worry about what will happen next. So it’s a matter of trying to gently be realistic with them, to the best of my ability, hoping something that will sink in, while also continuing to encourage them.
What tips do you have for working with the next generation of translators?
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