The worst of times for literary translators in Germany?
In the wake of the worst recession since World War II, the German Foreign Ministry has decided to cut funding to international literary projects. Advocates say it imperils the already threadbare livelihood of translators across the country.
The ministry’s cultural budget for 2010 – which mainly goes to large programmes such as the Goethe Institute and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) – has been reduced by a modest €3 million to €723 million.
But a large chunk of these cuts affect the relatively sparse funding for literature projects, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told The Local this week.
“The literary support is a very small part of the Foreign Ministry’s culture work,” she said, explaining that last year’s budget of about €3 million has been reduced to €2.3 million.
And while a 24-percent reduction seems insignificant compared to overall spending, the VdÜ association for Germany's literary translators is alarmed.
The most visible change due to the reduction means that there will no longer be a translation forum at the Frankfurt Book Fair this October. In the past the VdÜ has teamed with the Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators (BDÜ) for the networking platform, but this year it will be subsumed by the fair’s International Centre.
The VdÜ’s leader Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel wrote in a recent newsletter that the decision is a “slap in the face” for a craft without which there would be no international literary exchange.
“A very important contact point for translators is lost,” Schmidt-Henkel told The Local this week. “While the ministry doesn’t support individual translators, it does support this place of international exchange, and now the loss of these contact opportunities will lead to a diminished perception of the trade.”
The decision which will be illustrated at the world’s largest book fair could also snowball into further financial cuts as other supporters follow the ministry’s lead, he added.
Daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel reported last week that the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin (LCB), which has a rich tradition of funding German literature translation projects, may have to give up their programme entirely. Meanwhile the Literatur Werkstatt, or “Literature Workshop” in Berlin, which focuses on supporting young writers and poetry, is lobbying politicians against having to drop their translation programme after the funding cuts, the paper said.
On an individual level, these are cuts that translators, who generally work as freelancers, can ill afford.
According to the VdÜ, which is also fighting for better compensation for those working in the sector, a “successful and busy” literary translator in Germany earns between €13,000 and €14,000 per year – a sum that lies on or below the poverty line.
“Translating literature is almost always a labour of love,” said Karen Margolis, a UK writer and 26-year Berlin resident who supplements her income with translation work. “Most people who do this have university qualifications and make less than the cleaning staff there.”
Margolis says her translation work generally lies in the humanities and sciences – including historical plaques and informational billboards around the city of Berlin – because she simply can’t earn enough on literary projects.
She translates poetry without pay because it is among her passions, and knows many other translators who fund similar projects including literary journals from their own meagre earnings.
“The government should not be cutting funding at all, but topping up in an area where people are working from their own pockets for the benefit of culture when they’d be better off going to the welfare office,” Margolis said.
“Virginia Woolf said, ‘money dignifies’ – if you don’t get paid no one takes it seriously,” she added.
And if cuts mean that the world sees fewer German works while Germans read less international literature, it won't just be the translators who suffer, experts argue.
Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry says cultural works remain a priority even if future funding is unclear.
“I can’t say how the budgets will look in the coming years, but it’s clear that culture is very important,” their spokeswoman said.