Purgatory and Paradise Preferred

For the last three years, my translation office in the apartment I rent has been a room which has no windows. This is not the room of my choice. Relatively new immigrants cannot afford to be too picky. One day, I will have a decent office again. I can glimpse a little of the outside world through the adjoining kitchen window. In very occasional moments of exasperation, I have referred to this place as a “dungeon”.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that my inner drama queen will never describe it thus again.

News which has sent a shudder down the spine of many a translator is the main reason for refining my word choice in future. It concerns the skimpy detail on the conditions under which translators worked to translate Dan Brown’s thriller, Inferno, officially launched in English on 14 May 2013.

It is not yet clear to me, despite various searches in various languages, just how many translators were employed, and into how many languages this book has been translated.

The bare facts have been presented by acclaimed Spanish to English literary translator, Lisa Carter in her characteristically clear style in a recent blog entitled, “The Hellish Conditions Endured” by Dan Brown’s Translators: Not A Joke 

Lisa has kindly agreed that I could re-blog her article. Her website, Intralingo.com, provides a wealth of reading. It will interest not only literary translators, but translators of non-literary texts too. I daresay that anyone who enjoys reading books will find something of value here, particularly if you like reading good translations of good books – with or without the cosy fireplace, cup of tea and calm domestic pet nearby.

My jaw dropped in the privacy of my airless office when I read the news of translators working for two solid months in a “bunker” in a secret location, without access to the Internet, mobile phones, and without any contact with family members to translate Dan Brown’s novel.

A flood of questions struggled to be my initial reaction:

What kind of person accepts that kind of contract? How desperate are they? Who are these translators? What, precisely, are all the languages into which the books have been translated? How can anyone translate a novel properly in only two months without research? Did these translators have any preparation time? Have they secretly being translating in bunkers before – under assumed names, moreover? Have these translators translated Dan Brown’s previous novels? Could, say, the German and the French translators (assuming they had “spare time” to do so!) confer with one another about the concepts involved in any particular passage? Did anyone drop out mid-project? Who recruited them? Horrors – did more than one translator work on the same translation (e.g. from English into French); you know, “slice up” a large project to meet the urgent deadline? Did anyone proofread the translations?

After an exhausting two minutes contemplating the above, I had to return to my own work, and meet my own deadlines. Keywords: Focus. Go on. Concentrate.

During my next self-imposed break, to stretch my body, refill my coffee mug, and so on, I purposefully walked outside, held my arms out wide, embraced the sky, felt the sun on my face and rejoiced in all my sheepskin-slippered glory in the freedom of my freelance translator life. A thought about the bunker story tried to worm its way into my head, but I deflected it, and thought instead about the sand traps – or bunkers – on golf courses, and how I used to love playing a good bunker shot in days gone by! The kettle had boiled, and I needed to start on my next job.

It was only last night that I came across Lisa´s article, and had enough time to read the article in The Telegraph in its entirety. A few evenings ago, I was sitting on the sofa with my laptop. Strangely, The Da Vinci Code was showing on TV in English, with Portuguese subtitles. I was not watching it, but my partner was. From time to time I did catch a few minutes, and was impressed with the way the subtitler had managed the tricky bits involving etymological derivations. I realise now that I was a tiny victim of a worldwide marketing plan. I also wonder now how much research – and how many minutes, hours – or even weeks – it took for the subtitler to come up with such neat solutions to what were obviously, to my mind, difficult bits to translate?

I understand the need for pre-publication secrecy for high-profile authors. I abhor the fact that some people think they have the right to the intellectual property of others and commit what amounts to theft by releasing “pirate translations” of all manner of material, but especially best-selling novels.

What I do not understand is what it takes for a translator – or anyone, for that matter – to accept bunker conditions willingly. In the so-called free world.

About 15 years ago, an accountant boss of mine rationalised an employee fraud by saying that “everyone has a price”. In other words, everyone is for sale. I am not going to debate this statement here. I do wonder, though, what the price for a lonely 60-day translation week at maximum output in a windowless bunker, with a non disclosure agreement and confidentiality clauses about as big as a pair of concrete boots would be?

Shall we say, somewhere in the region of €2,000 (two thousand euros) to €5,000 (five thousand euros) per word with 50% paid up front, plus a fair percentage of royalties, plus your name on the cover and copy right on the translation, with fringe benefits of psychotherapy for as long as you feel you need it, and a healthy lump sum by way of loss of amenities while undergoing psychotherapy? Have I omitted something? An agreed linguistic expert as arbitrator in the event of disputes? Final editorial say over the translation. Who signs off on the proofs? Does anyone care? Given the enormous perceived gains at stake, does one agree to penalty clauses for non delivery of the contracted product within the contract period? Does one include the translator’s right of first refusal on any similar projects in the future? Who takes care of fire insurance? This is Hell we are dealing with, after all. Where does it end?

I would be most interested to hear from the bunker translators what, precisely, their chief motivations were in accepting working conditions such as these. Were the motives of one translator similar to the motives of another? I also respect the parameters of the contracts these translators would have to have signed with the publishers, and certainly do not want to know the answers to any of these questions if it means a breach of confidentiality or any other condition of such contracts. As incurably curious as I am, I mean this in all sincerity.

I do believe that translators, whether literary ones or not, have the right and the responsibility to define their own terms and conditions. Within reason.

Very early on in my career, a much older translator said to me that I absolutely could not charge less than X per word. There is no point naming the figure; it was a different country, different economy, before the word globalisation had been coined. Why? Because by undercutting the price, I would be jeopardising the right of other translators to earn a fair living; denigrating the profession, as it were, and also immeasurably harming my own reputation. This was in the days of typewritten translations. This was not some fancy idea adopted after reading a forum thread with participants from about forty different countries; this was a grassroots opinion born of experience being uttered by a very principled woman indeed. I have visions of her having an epileptic fit in her grave as a result of the bunker story.

Given that price is only one facet of the translation process which is subject to negotiation and agreement between at least two parties, by extrapolation therefore, it is reasonable to say that agreeing to work in a bunker shut away from the world for whatever reward is going quite beyond the pale. The glossing over of this relatively minor detail in the press so far as if it were quirky, but necessary – and possibly even normal given the international fame of the author – is outrageous when one considers the possible ramifications.

I do believe it is essential for translators to define their terms and conditions for themselves. Their chief points of reference should be drawn from what is considered honourable business practice. There are many well-established translators and reputable translators’ fora from which valuable insights in this regard can be gleaned. The thoughtful and well-considered conclusions taken from one’s own experience have their place, too. Making this simple, yet necessary, step brings with it at worst Purgatory; at best Paradise.

Many translators have, like those in other professions, a set of standard terms and conditions in writing. I do not – although certain basic terms and conditions are published on my website. I do know, however, what I will and will not accept as reasonable. I have drawn a line beyond which no negotiation is possible. And so should you.


Disclaimer: My citing Lisa Carter’s blog above in no way implies her agreement or otherwise with the opinions expressed here in my related article.

Another footnote: You can download and read the first six pages of the Inferno on Dan Brown’s Official UK Website referrred to above. The opening scene, what with all its underground imagery, smacks just a little too much of what the translators possibly had to undergo, don’t you think?

3 thoughts on “Purgatory and Paradise Preferred

Add yours

  1. During the time of the Anglo-Napoleonic wars, soldiers lived and worked in underground bunkers and tunnels – for the defence of their country – not for the extra money.

    During WWI, men lived and fought in underground bunkers, tunnels and trenches.

    During WWII men and women, lived and worked in underground bunkers, not for their own safety, but as part of the defence of Britain. That was their job and they did it without bonuses and stress payments – and they signed the official secrets act.

    All these are facts, and the bunkers and tunnels from both WWII and the Napoleonic era are open for the public to enter and view (at a price). Right here where I live now.

    So, if I was a translator (which I am not), and if I was being paid a goodly sum with all mod cons laid on for hygiene, health and relaxation, I can’t see the problem with living and working in a bunker for 2 months. Especially if there was a team of translators working (as it seems to be) where they could obviously debate the finer points of a word or phrase or concept between themselves.

    People go into silent retreat and seclusion for days, weeks and months to various reasons, without internet, phones and fora. Is this any different? Except there is money at the end of it.


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