Whenever I tell someone I am a translator, they often ask me this question. As soon as they hear the word translator, they think of literature. When I tell them I do commercial translation, not literary translation, I often have to explain what it is. I work with translation agencies, businesses and local governments to translate product information, product packaging, websites, tourism guides, museum displays, press releases, manuals, academic papers, and more, from Japanese into English.
Literary translation and commercial translation are two different fields. In my fifteen years working as a translator, I have been asked to translate books on numerous occasions. I accepted three of the requests, two because they were short and I knew the subject matter, and one because I had already translated most of the material that was going in the book. The three books were non-fiction and I could translate them comfortably without too much research.
Once, someone asked me to translate a work of fiction. While the book looked interesting, I knew it would take me a long time, and would require many hours of research, consulting with the author, and checking and rewriting. It would require complete immersion in the story, and an understanding as deep as the author’s. It would have taken me so much time, there was no way I could have done it, and still managed to eat and pay the bills.
I enjoy reading and writing fiction. Another job of mine is writing graded readers for learners of English. So far, I have written around thirty books. While these works are short, I understand just how much time, thought and energy goes into creating a work of fiction. I imagine literary translation would be like writing the book from scratch. There are linguistic and cultural differences to consider. The book must be accessible and comprehensible to its target audience, and must read like it was written for them. That takes considerable time. I know some literary translators. All of them have other jobs which pay the bills, and they work on the translations in their spare time. They can take up to a year to complete a book, sometimes longer, if edits and rewrites are required. Most of my jobs are completed in a day or two, or sometimes a week, depending on the length. It is rare that I get a job lasting longer than a week or so. I like getting work done and out the door quickly. It gives me more time to write my own fiction, and it pays my bills.