Translation Fund, Anyone?

In my spare time—ha!—I am thinking about setting up, or helping oversee the setting up of, a translation fund driven by donations.

Here’s a hypothetical model.

Using carefully vetted translators, strong centralized oversight, and soliciting the opinions of experts in non-English-speaking countries (editors, etc.), we’d oversee the translation of short stories into English, our only focus being “non-realist” fiction (or whatever term denotes the totality of fantasy/SF/horror/surrealism/magic realism/etc. without dividing things into the false camps of genre and literary). The emphasis would at first be on stories by writers not yet translated into English.

Donations would fall into “small” and “investor” categories. Small donations would truly be donations, with no return. Investor donations, which could be targeted toward specific writers or countries listed by the translation fund organization, would have the possibility of monies being recouped.

How? Donated monies would be paid to the translator for the translation. The writer would, as part of the deal, agree to turn over a % of any resulting magazine or anthology sale to our translation fund. The investor could then either put that money back into the fund or take it out.

It’s late and it’s possible I’m reinventing the wheel. I’m sure also there are a thousand holes to be poked in the logic of this idea. But I thought I’d put it out there since even if the above isn’t practical perhaps something good would come out of the discussion.

Comments

  1. says

    Sounds like an overdue idea. I’d donate, but waiting for a full-time job first. Would also help in the selection, if needed.

  2. says

    I don’t know — I think it’s a pretty good idea! Translation seems to hold back a lot of authors who aren’t writing in English (I’ve got a good friend in Montreal whose novels I can’t read, since they’re in French). This could really open up the “non-realist” field!

    You could certainly count me in as a donor!

  3. says

    As far as I know there is nothing like that. Some countries do have government funded grants for translations of their works into other languages, but most countries don’t and even those that do have criteria for funding things that limits the possibilities quite a bit.

    I know personally of a huge body of work I’d like to translate, but it is difficult to do without money, especially when other non-literary translation contracts that often pay well compete for time.

    Dedalus was putting out a lot of great fantastic translations for a period, but I think their funding might have dried up, so I am not sure who is really doing it now. Black Coat is putting out quite a bit of good work, most of it done by Brian Stableford, but I would imagine he is doing it as much for love as for money.

    The strange thing is, that English, though it is the most common first language, is in some ways behind other languages as far as translated work available.

  4. says

    As a non-English writer with virtually no chance of getting my work translated I think this idea is great. At Internova we had and still have a similar project going but without funding in the background.

  5. Juha T says

    I like this idea. Not least because I’ve been working on getting into translating “non-realist” fiction from Finninsh into English. Finland does have some kind of government funding for this, but from my perspective the really difficult part would be finding a publisher in the English-speaking world.

  6. says

    I’m still puzzled why it seems so complicated for the English speaking contries. It would be so easy to do as everybody else does — just to include translation costs in a book’s or magazines budget.

  7. Juha T says

    D’oh! I meant write “Finnish,” of course, not invent a new language called Finninish. That I’ll save for when I retire.

  8. says

    Hell yeah, I’d donate to that. It sounds like an excellent, and well over-due, idea.

    Two thoughts…

    Kickstarter (http://www.kickstarter.com/) might be a good way to get the project off the ground.

    And it might be an idea to let established English-language markets (Asimov’s, Interzone, etc, whatever) to become ‘affiliates’, or ‘partners’, or some such. In return for regular donations, they get first pick of the translated stories. It would mean that the project has regular, guaranteed incoming money, and the magazines would have a regular pool of fantastic stories to dip into.

    Either way, I have a job and I’d happily donate a slice of my income. I’d even set up a direct debit to make a regular donation every month.

  9. says

    Complex to navigate through as far as organization goes, but utterly brilliant. As far as literature goes, the scene is segregated by languages and only the big novels [usually from the English speaking countries] transcend the language barriers.

    It needs to happen. I am currently broke… But I’d support in any other day.

  10. says

    This is a good effort. I’m from Serbia, and there *are* works worth translating and there *are* government grants, but they mostly cover novels, by people and works deemed to “represent the nation in favorable light”, so they are conservative in the selection (or worse). I believe such a grant was recently put to good use in translating the works of Zoran Živković to Italian, however, that is an exemption, as the rest of Serbian “non-realist fiction”™ (heh) writers do not pull that kind of weight with the press or public. I would very much like to see this happen as English-to-Serbian translators are cheap and numerous, and Serbian-to-English are not :/

    But the effort gets real payoff only when followed by the actual publishing, be it in Asimov’s or Clarkesworld, wherever, just as long as people get the chance to read it…

  11. says

    What Juha said about the Finnish government may be true of a lot of European countries — there may be government funds for translating national writers.

    If you’re looking for a translator of Spanish or Italian, let me know.

  12. Justin Howe says

    I’d definitely donate. Sounds great.

    Would the stories be slated for anthologies or preexisting magazines? Or would this be to fund a new anthology/magazine? Not that either really matters as to whether or not I’d donate, but curious where the stories would end up.

  13. Juha T says

    The organisation that handles the promotion of Finnish literature abroad is the Finnish Literature Exchange (http://www.finlit.fi/fili/en/). I’m not sure if it’s government funded, though. Knowing Finland, it probably is at least to some degree.

  14. Laurel says

    I would be very interested in translating stuff from Spanish. My rates are low and I’m a SFF reader!

  15. J M McDermott says

    My only thought is that you could take the donation model to create the translations and make a web-based database/publication/archive/zine of one’s own, without the investor model, and without the secondary marketing of works to other magazines.

    My gut says there’s a lot of logistical complexity in your idea that could easily lead to making the operation a non-profit and seeking grant money.

    I do think more translations would be a very good thing, though, so if it gets up and running, I’ll chip in a few bucks, too.

  16. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Lasītāja:

    It’s not that simple for a couple of reasons–for one thing, the magazine editor would have to do lots of research and make lots of contacts in various countries to get a sense of who to translate, and then also what particular stories. Unless you’re an English-language mag that is devoted to this kind of thing, that’s a pretty big extra burden. (It’s the tyranny of English, yep, but that’s just the way it is. If things had worked out differently, we’d all have Finnish as our second language and all of us in the US would be begging Juha to be translated!)

    So this is a way of providing that editorial filter. Admittedly, it might take a few months to set up.

    Government monies might figure into it, but the main thing is to always remove as much bureaucracy as possible and as much constraint.

    Jeff

  17. Jeff VanderMeer says

    JT–the goal is to infuse the existing market with these stories, not to create a translation-based magazine. One that couldn’t really be monetized, and thus couldn’t pay the writers. I also see the writers as being free to submit the translated stories wherever they like. If they want advice on where to submit, cool. But a lot of them would already know.

    Jeff

  18. Deightine says

    I think this is a brilliant idea, and I would most certainly donate to it. I would pay attention to the suggestion of an affiliate program up above by Dylan Fox, as it would greatly reduce the strain on the fund by holding a steady demand in place, but I would make the magazines bid for the pieces with the reminder that their money will potentially get rolled back into a semi-charitable fund. Perhaps get it tax exempted as a cultural service, so that magazines/anthos can bid donations to the charity as well a few times a year for the best pieces? They get to write it off, the fund makes extra money, and the winning written pieces that get into the bidding war get flattered from here to the ends of the Earth. Just a thought.

  19. says

    Deightine–yes, it’s pretty clear to me that this could devour my life if I let it, all while I have to bring in money to put food on the table. So there’d have to be underlying structure and processes put in place so that after getting things established, other volunteers could supplement my efforts or take my place or whatever. Might also be something Strange Horizons would be interested in eventually including under their umbrella since they’re already set up that way–haven’t done much more than think about it and post this post.

    Jeff

  20. says

    I love the idea. Just in Quebec, Canada, where we speak french, a lot of good SFF and horror is published, often in very small markets or fanzines (we have only one pro SFF/horror magazine, named Solaris). I would love to see the best of our production be translated to english for it to be read by more people. Just to give you a hint, here is a list of the horror novels or collections published in french in Quebec in the last few years : http://www.fredericraymond.com/p/lhorreur-au-quebec.html This only includes horror and excludes short stories published in magazines or fanzines, so there is a lot to mine. I’m sure our SFFH community would be happy to get involved in such a project.

  21. says

    Yeah–I think Japan has been better represented in terms of translations than China. There’re lots of translated collections by Japanese writers, but still could be more.

  22. says

    I think for contemporary fiction, a lot has been done with Japanese, but many of the older works are still untranslated. With Chinese it almost seems like the opposite. But maybe your idea for the fund/project is geared more towards living writers?

  23. says

    I still think what you need most of all are enthusiastic and good translators who love speculative fiction and know what’s going on in their source-language literature. They should talk to editors and convince them to buy that amazing story they want to translate so much.

  24. says

    LasÄ«tāja: Part of the problem with fiction that is still under copyright or by living authors is that the publisher then has to pay two people. It takes me as long to translate a story as to write one and my rates for translation are often higher than for the fiction I write. Also, if a publisher takes a book or story of mine, sometimes I’ll even do it for free or very little if I think it will help me build an audience. But for translation people rarely care much who the translator is – so it does little to help build an audience for the translator. And spending days, sometimes weeks, translating something just to then have to convince an editor to buy it, then be paid 5 cents a word which then would be split with the original author, is not always as rewarding as it might seem.

  25. says

    Brendan: Believe me or not, Estonian, Russian, Spanish etc. publishers also have to pay both for a translation rights and for a translation, and still they somehow manage to publish Swedish, Czech, French etc. stories (at least works of literary fiction). Yes, you need a willing publisher, but these additional costs are as natural as a bookkeeper’s or graphic designer’s wages.

  26. says

    There’s a good production of fantasy and science fiction in Italy, too.
    I’ve been co-editing an anthology of Italian (and international) SF/Fantasy this last six years (Alia – you find details here – http://www.arpnet.it/cs/alia/alia.htm).
    I’d be happy to help along with your project, should you need an indigenous guide in the Italian scene :-)

  27. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Lasitaja–so if I read you right, we should abandon this effort entirely? Or are you just pointing out the way it’s done elsewhere. Because I prefer to deal with the reality of a situation and find work-arounds than to deal with an idealization that doesn’t actually exist here.

  28. says

    Ouch, it was written in my horoscope to keep my mouth shut today… Let’s say, cherish your translators and pay more attention to them, promote their work and maybe actually encourage people to try their hand at translating. Just money will not be enough.

  29. says

    Lasītāja: The problem with the way you have outlined this is that the burden falls totally on the shoulders of the translator. They have to both translate the work and then shop it around in the hope someone will buy it.

    I think Jeff’s idea is that a number of translators who have a track record of some sort of translating and maybe finding good material in foreign languages are given a support system. This would mean that a translator might also be able to do work on less commercial fiction. Because the way you set it out, a translator would naturally gravitate to what is easiest to sell (known) rather than what might actually be the most interesting work.

    Many good non-English language writers might find their way into English for the first time. I don’t see how such a thing could be bad or even looked on with the slightest bit of negativity.

  30. says

    Literary translation is an art in itself, it’s not something every technical translator can do. So, you have to be prepared to sell at least yourself, just like writers do it, to build your reputation.
    Some kind of support organization certainly would be a good thing, I’m sorry for sounding so negative.

  31. Jeffv says

    Hey, no worries, lasitaja, I find your pov important too. Didn’t mean to come across blunt. Am typing in-between commitments. Like right now in an apple store in a mall typing this on a sample iPad. Lol. More later.

  32. says

    Jeff, you know iPhones are like a gateway drug. First that, then the iPad, and then a MacBook Pro and ultimately a MacPro. Give in. You know it’s right :P

  33. says

    iPhones are my personal drug of choice. Just waiting for the iPad becoming available in Brazil.

    And I’m all for this translation effort, of course.

  34. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I am on the road a few more days, but will carefully review all info/suggestions on this thread. Can continue, too.

  35. Juha T says

    I didn’t mean to suggest establishing a magazine for translations. I think having funding available for translators before the story has a publisher is great, it would eliminate a lot of the uncertainty (at least for the translator). I wouldn’t assume that non-English-language writers are as familiar with the English language market as local writers are, so I think advice on where to submit would be a valuable service.

  36. Chris says

    Are there “classics” that are not protected by copyright in the US that you can start with? That lets you skip negotiating with agents and worrying about copyright law. Then you would just be dealing with the translator, who would of course own copyrights to the translation. You would have to agree on whether the foundation or the translator would market it and have an agreement that the proceeds would pay back the foundation. But you wouldn’t have to negotiate with an overseas agent.

    Otherwise you would have to check if it is even legal to translate a work without permission, even if all you do is sell it to the author of the original work for $1.

    Another option: the foundation could promote its goals by funding translation of *samples* of works to encourage publishers of anthologies etc. to negotiate with the agents to acquire rights to do full translations. (Thus avoiding many copyright issues.) The foundation could also maintain a directory of those willing and able to do translations of speculative fiction, which would aid the publisher.

  37. says

    I’d support this. Don’t know what else I could do other than some donation of cash, but I’d love to help out any way I could.

  38. Kakan says

    As someone who works full time as a freelance translator, I have to say I’m skeptic. How would you handle copyright? Most publishers secure foreign rights in the pub contracts. You would have to rely on the author releasing the rights themselves—but there still needs to be a contract, unless you intend to only work with public domain texts (which are usually >70 years old). And how would you find competent translators? There are so many poor translations floating around, in this day and age of machine translation and “fan subbing” (subtitles for movies), and a large market for bottom feeders offering ridiculously low rates for translation. Finding a cheap translator is easy, finding a cheap and GOOD translator is virtually impossible because we know our value and have our own businesses to run.

    I rarely do literary translation simply because it doesn’t pay enough. To translate, you have to basically write the novel from scratch. It’s not just replacing a source text word with the equivalent in the target language. To do literary translation well, you need to think like an author, not a translator. The time and effort that goes into that, in my opinion, does not match the compensation we can get, even from established publishers.

    I would love to spread foreign literature to the Anglophone world, who often miss out on excellent works; agreed. But I don’t know if crowdsourcing translations would work. A lot of legal and quality related issues in the way.

  39. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Chris and Kakan:

    I’m well aware of the issues, having just about finished dealing with 114 estates, agents, lawyers, publishers, and writers for our Weird anthology. Obviously, we would go the path of least resistance, but it’s also a mistake to believe that all writers have ceded rights to publishers, for example. I know this is not true in several cases.

    I’m also aware that good planning must be combined with the willingness to be bold and jump in.

    Jeff

  40. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Competent translators is easy, actually. I know some translators like to think it’s a specialized thing, but in fact you can find good translators for a reasonable price, and you can also pair an inexperienced translator with a good prose stylist for whom English is a first language. In many cases, the writer can *read* English but not *translate* and is certainly competent enough in English to check the translation. This has worked more than once for us with Ministry of Whimsy books in the early 2000s, and I’ve helped facilitate the process for other books/writers in the past.

    In any event, there are plenty of pitfalls to consider and plenty of things to consider in building a process for this–to dismiss them would be foolish–but I would also argue it’s very easy to say “no” and much harder to say “yes” to new initiatives.

    Jeff

  41. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Oh–just so it’s clear. I am not an advocate of crowdsourcing translations.

  42. Nick Mamatas says

    Sounds good, except that the US/English-speaking world magazine market for non-realistic fiction is itself dying, so the chances of “investors” actually gaining any sort of ROI is tiny at best.

  43. Jeff VanderMeer says

    True, but it’ll make ‘em feel better. :)

    There’s also an argument for providing assistance by doing whole books, but then I’m essentially becoming a publisher again, which is not something I can do. Still thinking about it.

    Hoping actually to publish a Michal Ajvaz collection, though.

  44. Chris says

    Jeff,

    I am sorry if the tone of my post was more negative than I intended. My point was not that I think it’s a bad idea. I think it is a great idea. I think of how great Stanislaw Lem is and wonder at what I am missing.

    The question is how best to accomplish the goals of the project given the available resources. You can see the focus on cost and rights to be either negativity or you can see it as trying to recognize the legitimate hurdles. If the costs are high, then money won’t be returned to investors and the overall amount of available funds will not be as large as it would be if the fund became self-sustaining. It is hard to picture how the fund would operate or how its goals would be defined without a grasp of the economics.

    If the cost vs. income is favorable, then the difficult issues will be things like selecting authors and negotiating rights. If it is marginal, then small improvements to the efficiency and gathering donations and investments may be the hardest part. If the finances are utterly dismal, then it becomes a desperate scramble to accomplish something concrete. Probably you have a good idea where along this spectrum things would lie, and that makes the things said by those who don’t already see the economic picture seem ridiculous.

  45. jeffv says

    Oh heck. No worries. All reality checks welcome. But i have run a publishing company and commissioned translations and worked with translators. I am used to work arounds and creative solutions while committng to high quality. Any initiative wld start small too

  46. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Just FYI–I’m going to continue to think on this, note everything in this thread and stuff coming in via email, and then sometime in late August begin to put together a plan, if this seems like it’s actually viable.

  47. m says

    I like this idea and would donate. As a NPO employee I’d say avoid setting up a non profit unless you really have the desire and to run another company because that’s really what it amounts to to properly register and stay in compliance. Also standard NPO charter / board rules type language about employees / board members not deriving benefits from their NPO work means that you mgiht not be able to publish works translated through the fund if you get benefit out of it. You could set up on fundable or something that doesn’t require the recipient of the funds to be a NPO. You could do a pilot fundraising drive for maybe 1 piece and see how it goes.

Trackbacks