Eight Complaints of a Literary Translator

One: A couple of weeks ago, my mother’s doctor said he charged £25 to write a (short) letter about the state of her health. I commented that it was more than people would often pay me, as a literary translator.  His response: “Yes, but I studied and I have a qualification.”


I am used to the self-importance of doctors.  Moreover, this kind of rudeness requires only one kind of response: ignoring it.  


Or else posting it on Twitter in the original English and other languages, then mentioning it in a blog.


Two: An author is haggling over the price I’ve quoted for a translation. She tries the usual tactics: “But I could get someone else to do it for half that!” (What’s stopping you?) and “But I’m a freelancer, I don’t have a regular salary!” (Newsflash – I’m a literary translator, so I’m a freelancer, too).  I don’t budge.  She then says, “But I’m a single parent with two children to raise on my own!”


Paying to have your book translated off your own bat is the Vanity Project par excellence. It is not a necessity, like food or healthcare.  Would you go into Tiffany’s, Fifth Avenue, and haggle over the price of a bracelet because you’re a single mother?


Three: A publisher offers me a job, and asks how soon I can do it.  Always a potentially explosive situation.  I can, of course, put aside what I’m doing at the moment, burn the midnight oil, work fourteen hours a day, but why do that if I don’t have to?  The publisher gives me no hint as to their schedule, and appears to throw the ball in my court.  So I give my time estimate.  The publisher gives the job to somebody else, telling me the translation was really urgent.


Four: As above, but the publisher’s question is, “How much would you charge?” then the job is given to someone else because my estimate is “beyond their budget”.


In the name of Saint Jerome*! If it was that urgent or if you had a fixed budget, why didn’t you just say, “I need it for such or such a date/This is my budget for this – can you do it for then/for this much?” in the first place, instead of playing power games?!


Five: I give an author, who assures me he is perfectly fluent in English, a translation of his novel and encourage him to make comments and/or corrections.  None of his suggested changes are grammatical.  We spend a total of sixteen hours on Skype, while I teach him basic English grammar, and wish I had charged him double.


Six: An author queries the stylistic choices I have made in my translation and, no, her English is not very good.  She wants it to be closer to the original in idioms, syntax, word order.  I try and explain that a good literary translation cannot always be literal. That a reader mustn’t, even for one second, feel it’s a translation, but a book in its own right.  “Oh, but I’m very protective of my work,” she says.  “It’s like my baby.” 


When your baby eventually goes to primary school, will you sit in the classroom and tell the teachers how to do their jobs?


Seven: I receive a copy edit with track changes in red on every single line of my work.  It’s not just corrections.  The copy editor has re-written my entire translation.  It will take me longer to go through the “suggestions” than I did translating the whole book.  I ring the eager beaver and get, “I haven’t changed that much, it just looks worse than it is because of Track Changes.” 


Yes, dear, I’m familiar with Track Changes.  I’ve been using it since before you left school.  There’s so much red in my text, it looks like it’s positively bleeding.


There are the writers, the translators, and the copy editors.  The boundaries should be clearly defined.  


Eight: A newly set-up, enthusiastic literary agent wants to meet me to offer me a “unique opportunity”.  


I visualise: the opportunity of translating a beautifully-written, meaningful novel that has won the Strega or the Goncourt prize, getting paid at least 11 pence per word, and the prompt payment of an advance, as well as of the outstanding balance at the end of my work.


I get: “We feel you’re the right person to look at our list, choose a book you really believe in and are passionate about, find a publisher interested in buying the translation rights, then put them in touch with us.


I blink.  “And what would you be paying me for, effectively, doing your job?”


“Well, we’re new you see... but we’re looking for someone who really believes in us and our books, so that we can grow together.  And if you find us a British publisher, then we’ll definitely put in a good word for you as a translator.”


I walk away, smiling, with Anglo-Saxon expletives mentally directed at the “enthusiastic” agent.


* Patron saint of translators



Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Orna Raz
Dear Katia, this is brilliant, and so true about so many literary projects. On FB I joined a group with the curious name "Things ... Read More
Sunday, 31 May 2015 20:56
Katherine Gregor
Thank you so much, Orna. So glad you enjoyed it. Actually, I love my job... only sometimes it's fun to have a moan about the mor... Read More
Sunday, 31 May 2015 21:41
An entertaining read, Katherine, and a most enlightening view of the problems a translator has to face!
Monday, 01 June 2015 13:06
2119 Hits

Tallis versus Byrd – when you lack the appropriate vocabulary

“You can really tell if it’s Byrd or Tallis from the first few bars?”


H. likes some Early and 16th Century music, but is more of a Romantic and 20th Century man.  He likes passion in music.  I like post-white-ruff composers but need serenity and the reassurance that the world makes sense.  So we meet in the middle, at J.S. Bach.


I know that, sooner or later, he will test me.  My eyes dart around the room and I chew on the inside of my cheek.  “Yes,” I finally reply.


It takes six months.  Then, one day, he remembers and pulls out a couple of CDs from the shelf.  I sit on the sofa, ready for my aural exam, somewhat anxious I’m about to fall flat on my face in a sticky puddle of embarrassment.


He plays the first few seconds of eleven separate pieces.


“Byrd.  Byrd.  Tallis.  Byrd.”  I get ten of them right, even though I can’t actually name the pieces.


H. gives me an enquiring look.  I’ve never had to explain it before, and I realise that, as I try, I lack the fundamental music terminology to express my thoughts.  My ears seem to know but the road between them and my mouth hasn’t been built yet.


Thomas Tallis is harder, I start saying.  Like a white light, a moonbeam.  William Byrd is gentler, with copper and gold tones.  Tallis is like white stone – limestone – cool to the touch.  Byrd is like timber – like mahogany – smooth, with a warm red sheen to it.


Then, in Tallis, there’s that straight line, can you hear it? (H. looks at me with good-humoured amusement.)  There’s always that very straight, constant line, like a laser beam, running through the music, and all the rest rises and falls around that constant, ever-present, blindingly white line, whereas in Byrd, it’s like bursts of deep reds, browns, burnt sienna and maybe a hint of forest green.


Tallis is a glorious, glamorous display of music as architecture.  His music bounces off stone fan vaulting and flies across the ether.  Byrd is more intimate, more wistful, a caress. 


There is daring and confidence in Tallis.  There is hope in William Byrd.



Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Such an extraordinary period in music, and how lucky we are today to have such faithful renderings. I like both Tallis and Byrd ve... Read More
Monday, 16 March 2015 04:38
Katherine Gregor
Yes, I like Palestrina but, Like Tallis, I prefer hearing his music in a large, vaulted cathedral, than on CD. On CD, it sounds a... Read More
Monday, 16 March 2015 08:22
1485 Hits


One finger for every pie.

One colour for every intention.


The first thought that flashed through my head when I saw the gloves.  I was in a Norwich shop called ‘Head in the Clouds’ – apparently, UK’s oldest head shop.  I didn’t know what a head shop was, until a friend explained it to me, a few weeks ago.  Knitted gloves with garish stripes, like a Naïve rainbow.  I want these gloves.  


When I was twenty-five, I wore black leather gloves with tiny golden clasps on the wrists.  So fine, I could fumble for small change in my purse without taking them off.  In those days, I would ensure that my shoes, handbag and gloves matched.  Never one brown, the others black.  I would never, ever have worn anything so loud and garish, so look-at-me.


I decide to buy the gloves as a fiftieth birthday present to me from my twenty-five-year-old self.  The self that wishes she had been less afraid, had had the courage to be herself, and live, instead of spending the next quarter of a century only dreaming, planning, rehearsing.


When I bring them home, I notice that they give off a slightly overpowering, heady scent.  It’s what you always seem to smell in crystal and New Age shops.  I think it’s sandalwood.  I lift them up to H.’s face.  He immediately retreats with a snort.  “Camden Town, 1971.”


I call the shop and ask what the scent is.  The sales assistant is enthusiastic.  “Oh, it’s Nag Champa.  It’s very popular – we have three different kinds.  Next time you come in...”


As politely as I can, I explain that I don’t actually like the smell – but reassure her that I’m not complaining but merely enquiring.  Just curiosity, that’s all.


I make a mental note to fumigate the gloves in frankincense when I am next burning some.   


Rainbow gloves with red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue and purple stripes.  Red thumbs, orange index fingers, yellow middle fingers, green ring fingers, turquoise little fingers.  Gloves not afraid to be noticed – and they invariably are noticed and commented on when I go shopping, see friends or stop off for coffee.  A friend says they particularly stand out in contrast with the rest of my – conservative – appearance.


Bright, bold colours to empower my hands, to endow them with creativity and courage.  A finger for every intention on my fiftieth birthday.


Red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise.

This finger for writing.

This finger for music.

This finger for drawing.

This finger for translating.

And the little finger for... for discovering new skills.


Both hands for receiving and accepting gifts.


I’ve done my preparing, my growing up, my sowing.

The time has come for doing, for living, for reaping.  For enjoying.


Half a century.  Wow.  Fifty years young.


As Georges Guétary says in An American in Paris, I am now "old enough to know what to do with my young feelings".




Scribe Doll

Recent Comments
Monika Schott
Loved this so much, Katherine, a wonderfully meaningful way to celebrate turning 50! Read it smiling the whole way through. x... Read More
Sunday, 08 March 2015 21:02
Katherine Gregor
Thank you, Monika!
Sunday, 08 March 2015 21:14
Happy birthday!... Read More
Sunday, 08 March 2015 22:28
1875 Hits

Baucis and Philemon

P. and T. kiss in public.  A swift, light peck on the lips, so full of tenderness and respect.  T. squeezes P.’s hand and he holds it, drawing strength from its warmth and reassurance.  I watch them in awe.  They are a handsome couple.  Tall, slim, with undeniable presence.  There is something unique about them.  A beauty I can’t put my finger on.  A quality of being fully alert, fully in the present, fully alive.  The beauty of survivors, of those who have grown a garden full of flowers despite life’s storms and gales. A silvery glow surrounds them.  Silver dust particles float in the air and gently land on you if you come close enough.


At T.’s eightieth birthday party, the many children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren she and P. share have erected a marquee in the garden, because the house isn’t large enough to accommodate all those who have travelled to join in the celebrations.  There’s a jazz band.  The place is heaving with friends and relatives of all ages.  These aren’t just guests.  They’re individuals whose lives have been in some way or other touched by P. or T., or both.  A friend comes up to me, who has known T. and P. for several decades.  “They truly enrich other people’s lives,” she says.  I agree. 


All of us there have a speck of silver dust embedded in our skin. 


P. has an authoritative yet velvety storyteller’s voice that changes fluidly from North American to English.  I love listening to him reading poetry on the radio.  I also love sitting at their massive, round, pale wood kitchen table, sipping whisky and listening to him explaining life, death and the universe according to Samuel Beckett.  His lean face is lined with furrows life has filled with passion for words, ideas and, of course, the theatre.  


We are sitting in the lounge, by the fireplace, P.’s blue-green eyes light up and he gets carried away expressing his admiration for Tennessee Williams.  He has forgotten that there’s a bowl of olives in his hand, and that it’s slowly tilting.  T. comes out of the kitchen.  She presses her lips together.  “P.!!” she finally snaps with loving frustration.  He rushes to his feet, his bushy eyebrows raised, and begins to pass around the olives. 


When we go to stay with them, I feel as though I’ve come home from home.  Digging into the heartiest, richest, most comforting cauliflower and cheese you’ve ever tasted, w give T. our various bits of news.  To everything I say, she reacts with intensity.  Her surprise is genuine, her shock outraged, her sympathy deep-felt, her delight joyful, her excitement passionate, and her laugh like a gurgling spring that rises from the depths of the earth.  There is an impish twinkle in her dark brown eyes.


T. and P.’s friendship is not a static feeling, it is an action that carries, depending on the need, hugs, advice or weapons to defend you.  If they wrap you in their friendship, then they don’t merely stand and watch your life but take part in it.  For them, to love is to get involved, and not be a dispassionate bystander.  They will nurture you, and fight for you.  They are the kind of friends you know it is an indescribable privilege to have in your life.  A glow with silver particles that land on your skin, and become embedded in it.


Scribe Doll   








Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
A lovely portrait. And cauliflower and cheese sounds marvelous.
Monday, 02 March 2015 05:21
Katherine Gregor
So glad you like it. Thank you for commenting.
Monday, 02 March 2015 08:13
Rosy Cole
A vivid evocation of what love truly is and what we seem to have long forgotten. It shows how impoverished and denatured our moder... Read More
Monday, 02 March 2015 11:11
1825 Hits

Writing For Life

We are a small, friendly community who value writing as a tool for developing a brighter understanding of the world and humanity. We share our passions and experiences with one another and with a public readership. ‘Guest’ comments are welcome. No login is required. In Social Media we are happy to include interesting articles by other writers on any of the themes below. Enjoy!

Latest Blogs

As part of my stay-at-home regimen, I have been rereading Walden. I have consulted it often, but not read it through for many years. When I first rea...
a riverhesitantin the darkstabbed with lightplays with my mindcrescent sleekwhitesuspendedin aerial pitchblacknessgiving false securityas we are dispa...
Am I haunted by an old place or just by forgotten spirits?Guadalupe sits in the hot sun by the edge of the river.La Senora Guadalupe: Wind, cold, san...
I watched the movie, Puberty Blues, the other night. I didn’t mean to, just found it as I was scrolling through for a movie to watch. It’s an Austral...

Latest Comments

Nicholas Mackey a pandemic verse (written late at night by the River Thames)
07 April 2020
Hi Rosie, I appreciate you taking the time to comment on my poem and thank you for your kind though...
Vanessa Boscolo Farm Reflections: Beryl
06 April 2020
Don, Beryl and their children lived around the corner from where I grew up in Werribee. I used to go...
Rosy Cole a pandemic verse (written late at night by the River Thames)
04 April 2020
Good to see you, Nicholas, and that you wanted share your poignant poem with us. Tragic though this ...
Ken Hartke Memories of Guadalupe
03 April 2020
I'm so glad you stopped by. New Mexico is a fascinating place. Every day here is like a box of Cra...
Nicholas Mackey Memories of Guadalupe
03 April 2020
Hi Ken, I was enthralled with your writing and pictures of my favourite state in the USA: New Mexico...