If there is such a thing as world literature, it is because today’s most interesting writers are also well‑travelled readers and a lot of what they read is in translation. An up-and-coming Colombian novelist might be inspired not just by Borges, Conrad and Faulkner, but by contemporary novelists from Asia, Africa and Europe; his literary response to their work will go on to influence what his contemporaries on the other side of the world write next. These complex patterns of cross-fertilisation would end overnight if it were not for literary translators and the publishers who support them. So you’d think people would thank us, wouldn’t you?
Well, sometimes they do, but in the next breath they’ll tell you what a terrible career move you’ve made. To a degree, they’re right, because the pay is pretty appalling. Although some translators get a sliver of the royalties, most work for a flat fee. We who translate from non-western languages will often discover, if a book becomes a world phenomenon, that most other translations will be from our translation and not the original. But by and large, we receive no extra fee and it is only when those working from our translations send us frantic emails that we discover how far our words have travelled.