Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Plus ça change: on being a translator in the UK a century ago

I'm reading the urbane Frederic Whyte's memoirs, titled A Bachelor's London: Memories of the Day before Yesterday 1889-1914, and he has this to say about the state of the translation profession and rates:
One of the curses of the town translator, by the way (and most of us are townsmen, of course), is his country competitor. A man earning his livelihood by his pen in London can scarcely translate a German book (unless he knows German as perfectly as English) for much less than £1 per 1,000 words. A man living in cheap quarters in the country may welcome such work at less than half the price. I heard of one very competent worker some years ago who translated a long and important French book at 5s. per 1,000! He was living in a Welsh village quite happily. (Whyte 1931: 141)

So far, so plus ça change (except for the mysteriously and exclusively male workforce of British translators...?). Whyte goes on to say:
Still worse competitors are the people who can afford to translate for the pleasure of it, or the kudos. The whole matter of payment for translators calls for rationalisation. Arnold Bennett used to advocate the founding of a Translators' Guild. It might be a great boon. 

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