A passion for the written word

Ros Schwartz, president of the European Council of Associations of Literary Translators (CEATL), visited Athens last week to attend a conference on the future of the book in Europe. An experienced translator of more than 30 books, Schwartz also teaches her trade at Middlesex University in London, does a visiting lecture at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, is an external examiner at the University of Westminster and runs practical workshops on the business side of being a translator. She spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about how she started her career and the issues facing her profession. In many ways, Schwartz is a typical translator – a woman who came to the craft by way of adventurous life experiences, and who combines a passion for the written word with devotion to the art of translation. Total immersion How did this dedicated professional get started? Not by a method she’d recommend, says Schwartz with a grin, but it’s obviously one she enjoyed and it did provide that sine qua non of her craft – total immersion in another culture. «I got into translation by dropping out of university, running away to Paris, living there for eight years, doing every possible odd job, teaching English, traveling a lot, picking grapes, and generally seeing a complete panorama of different layers of French culture. Being a foreigner in a country gives you a kind of passport into different social classes, which you wouldn’t have in your own culture. As a foreigner, you’re classless, people can’t place you, you’re a rather exotic creature. I taught English in companies, I taught private clients, so I had personal access to a very wide range of people.» That was fun, but reality intervened: «When I finally decided it was time to grow up and get a job, I was in my 30s. I went back to London. I thought I was pretty clever: I spoke four languages, I’d traveled, I’d spent a year in India, and I’d done loads of stuff. I discovered to my horror that I was completely unemployable. Nobody was interested in my languages; I couldn’t type; I had absolutely no work experience that meant anything in England. «So there I was, in my early 30s, thinking, ‘What am I going to do when I grow up?’ And I realized I was going to have to use my own resources.» That meant putting her language skills to work. Schwartz introduced herself to publishing houses as a translator – she had already translated one book on her own initiative – and eventually got a commission. «Gradually, it built up,» she recalls. «I joined professional associations. I was very fortunate to be taken under the wing of some very senior, well-established translators, and a lot of work came from colleagues in the profession. It’s very supportive; it’s one of those old-fashioned professions that does work, not quite by apprenticeship, but by older people taking younger translators under their wing and nurturing them, and I was nurtured by colleagues. I learned by making mistakes, I learned on the job, and I learned a lot from working with very good editors.» A cultural bridge «I would say that living in another country for a long time really gives you that ability to make the cultural bridge that you need to make as a translator,» says Schwartz, who recommends a mix of life experience and formal training as grounding for a translator. «I think formal training on its own is not enough. I don’t think anyone should go into translating too young. You need to have lived; you need to have really experienced another culture in depth. You need that total immersion in the culture to understand every nuance when people are speaking, exactly what it is they’re saying, what’s behind what they’re saying, what the class implications are. «Formal training gives you a kind of confidence. As someone who teaches translation, I find my role is more to encourage students to just go with their instincts. I think one needs both. You need that balance between theory and practice. Theory does help you to think about your practice, but it’s not enough on its own.» Status and remuneration A forceful speaker on behalf of translators’ rights at national and international forums, Schwartz believes the main issues facing translators are status and remuneration. «Translators are almost, by definition, invisible,» she says, «which makes it very difficult in terms of having a profile. It’s very easy for publishers to forget to put translators’ names on the book. It’s very easy for reviewers to forget to mention the translator.» «The invisibility factor, plus the fact that many translators lack formal qualifications, makes them shy of putting themselves forward,» argues Schwartz: «Even though they have accolades, they’ve won prizes, they’re recognized as being brilliant translators, they feel like impostors, about to get caught out at any minute.» Authors’ associations help writers negotiate contracts, but translators – whose associations often come under the umbrella of writers’ associations – usually have to negotiate contracts alone. Publishers often take advantage of this, she says, and translators, who frequently bring books to publishers in the first place, are almost always underpaid. Status and payment go together, and Schwartz would like to see recognition from publishers «that what we do is a very, very difficult and demanding thing that takes an awful lot of time and needs to be remunerated.» «In countries with languages of limited diffusion, the royalty is not really the issue,» says Schwartz, «it’s getting a good rate of pay up front, but for those of us translating into English and Spanish, which are mega-markets, a tiny royalty on a book can make an enormous difference. «The issue is really recognition of translation as a profession. If we had more recognition of our status, then pay would follow on.» The Athens conference on the future of the book in Europe «was a welcome initiative on the part of the Greek presidency and it was a very valuable opportunity to bring all the different sectors of the book industry together,» says Schwartz. She joined several colleagues in speaking out in Athens, questioning EU funding systems that force translation centers to squander valuable time and human resources making annual applications for money, and even to cancel projects due to late disbursement of funds. «European Commission programs are not matched to the needs on the ground, she argues. «Translation centers are doing this fundamental work of putting translators and writers in contact, of building those bridges that we’re always talking about, and it’s an ongoing, regular activity.» She objects to EU demands for «innovative» projects to fund: «Having found that workshops are a very successful way of training new translators, bringing together authors and translators is a very good way of guaranteeing quality work, why have to reinvent some new, exciting project every year in order to get money?» Schwartz would like to see the Norwegian approach implemented at the European level: «They put it in terms of human rights. The Norwegian government believes it is the right of every Norwegian to have access to the world’s major literature, in their own language. And they put their money where their mouth is. They fund translation, then support it by buying a certain number of copies of the published book and putting them in public libraries, so that the publisher is not carrying the risk alone. Translators work in a reasonably secure financial environment; they are valued, and recognized.»