What Is Literary Translation Worth?

Ferrante Knausgaard original language

Next time you’re reading Elena Ferrante, or Roberto Bolaño, or Leo Tolstoy, think about this.

When you buy a book in translation, only a few pennies of that money are going to the translator–you know, the person who agonized over every word to bring you an incredible story from halfway around the world. In fact, many translators don’t even earn a royalty, so they’re not getting any of your money.

If literary translators weren’t working for pennies, the only other way you could explore these masterpieces of international literature would be to actually learn a foreign language. And how much would that cost?

Well, at the very least you’d have to buy a foreign language dictionary and spend some time conversing with a native speaker. But you’re not just trying to order dinner in a foreign restaurant, are you? No, you’re trying to read a complex novel in its original tongue. That requires fluency.

To become fluent, you’ll need to study the language for about 10,000 hours. If you’re serious about reading Karl Ove Knausgaard or Gabriel García Márquez without the aid of a translator, you’ll go back to college, which costs an average of, let’s say, $40,000.

We’re selling Andrea Gregovich’s translation of USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid by Vladimir Kozlov for $18.

That’s a discount of $39,982 off the price of learning Russian.


Seems kind of foolish not to buy it, huh?

Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and an Editor at Fiction Advocate.

1 Comment

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One Response to What Is Literary Translation Worth?

  1. Far too little, I agree.

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