Writers (and Translators) of the World…

Writers (and Translators) of the World…

Adriana Díaz Enciso

The other day I was about to send my translations of some poems to the online journal Asymptote, until I read in their submissions’ guidelines that they charge a fee to read any proposal. If the editors happen to like your translations and publish them, it goes without saying, you will receive no payment whatsoever.

In the United Kingdom, you must pay to take part in most competitions, which is the literal confirmation that all literary competitions are a lottery, but this is the first time that I find a magazine where you have to pay to be (perhaps) published.

During its ten years of existence, Asymptote’s work has been undoubtedly praiseworthy. I won’t take much time here to sing its praises because that’s not the subject of these notes; furthermore, its editors already do so unsurpassably in their website. What I will talk about is the scandal of such refinement in the exploitation of literary work.

I will start by reproducing the letter I wrote to the editors, because I think the debate should be public:

Dear Asymptote Editors,

I was looking at your submission’s guidance page a moment ago, planning to send you the translations of work by three Mexican poets. I was thinking of Asymptote because I admire and respect the work you do, and I’m grateful for the way you have helped to create a bridge across many cultures, many languages, many interpretations of the world.

However, I was shocked to see that there is a submission fee. This is not even for a competition! And of course, contributions aren’t paid.

You explain why you consider these painful measures necessary and do it convincingly. However, as an author and translator who has struggled financially all her life, while upholding her principles regarding literature with as much zeal as you do in Asymptote, I must say that after decades of hearing such stories I am now truly tired of being told how lucky we authors and translators can be if chosen, if featuring in some journal or other, how many doors can be open for us if we just make the small sacrifice of a) giving our work for free, b) even paying just to see if a journal may want it.

Asymptote is asking us to do both, and I really think it goes against everything Asymptote seems to stand for. I understand your reasons, but it is still the exploitation of authors and translators. And we are fed up. 

Surely you must be aware of statistics such as those of the Society of Authors in the UK, about how many professional authors live with less than the minimum wage. We are constantly asked to make sacrifices just for having the chance to be read. It is blackmail, and it is wrong.

Though I admire your work enormously and truly understand the plight you’re in, an institution, an organisation, or a journal, should never, ever, be asking authors and/or translators to sacrifice their individual wellbeing on behalf of that journal, organisation, or institution. Never.

Yet it happens all the time. Everyone asks us to sacrifice our wellbeing on their behalf, telling us how wonderful it may be for us if we are willing to do so, and are lucky to be chosen. It is about time for this to change, and I think that a journal so obviously concerned with an ethical approach to literature as Asymptote should be leading that change, rather than perpetuating it.

Our work matters, our wellbeing matters, we matter.

Asymptote has indeed a convincing discourse about its noble intentions. Its mission is nothing less than to “unlock the literary treasures of the world”. In an interview for the Poetry Society of America, Lee Yew Leong, the journal’s founder and editor-in-chief, states that “The main reason we’re online stems from our commitment to social justice. Providing free access to the world’s literature—for everyone, regardless of geography, language or class—is emboldened by an online platform.”

Commitment with social justice? A publication that doesn’t pay its contributors, and which now pretends to charge them for the possibility of being published? To start with, Asymptote doesn’t pay its staff, whose work is voluntary. No doubt they learn a lot and many doors are opened to them through working in such a renowned journal, but I still find it strange that a publication committed to social justice believes that literary work is, in essence, free.

In their website they explain that they don’t pay contributors nor their staff because they want to go on offering free contents all over the world. They say that, instead, they offer visibility to translators; that part of the funds they get goes to promote their work and finance the journal’s competitions, and they quote success stories: translators who, thanks to their presence in Asymptote, have received publication contracts. I have no doubt that this laudable work is true, and I do not ignore how difficult, heroic even, is the struggle to keep alive an independent literary journal, but the core problem of the prevailing model of exploitation of intellectual work is still standing, despite the best intentions.

  True, we cannot talk of capitalist exploitation proper, since, as we are informed,  Lee Yew Leong himself invested $50,000 from his own pocket to start the project and has received no payment for his work for six years. Admirable, no doubt, though it would be even more if the matter were handled with some modesty and didn’t appear on the website as blackmail to justify the lack of payment to contributors. After all, it is his project. I certainly congratulate him for being able to afford the investment. Most of literary translators, I’m afraid, live in a different reality.

In Asymptote’s FAQ section we are told that if the journal ever has enough resources, it will hire an accountant, will pay its staff and contributors, in that order. That is to say, those who provide the contents are at the end of the list. Is it farfetched to think they should be at the beginning? That a publication’s project should make sure that it can pay its staff of course, but the starting point should be to find the way to remunerate the work that will fill its pages, and that if it can’t, then the project isn’t viable? Otherwise, authors or, in this case, translators, keep on being like the labourers who built the pyramids of Egypt to the glory of the Pharaohs… No, I’m sorry; the simile doesn’t work. Those labourers, as recent research shows, did receive some form of payment for their work.

However, to talk about glory makes sense. Asymptote doesn’t follow the model of capitalist exploitation in the sense that neither its founder and editor-in-chief nor its staff are earning money. Here the capital is other: it is prestige. The journal has acquired an outstanding reputation, no doubt deserved, and that prestige is the carrot it uses to attract its contributors. I’ve already talked about the stories they mention of translators whose career has flown high thanks to their presence in the magazine as a justification of their financial model. It’s a bit like those “before” and “after” pictures in cosmetics ads. Is it unfair to think the bait ignoble?

If the idea is to make available the “literary treasures of the world” in the fairest, most equitable and generous way possible, one would have thought that the value of those treasures and the human work that sustains them would be fully appreciated. Not to pay for that work is insensitive enough, but to charge to read it, promising probable prestige as a reward, seems to me dangerously close to abuse.

In Asymptote’s justification of these measures, we find an interesting paragraph: the editors understand that for many authors and translators “even these small fees may be a financial burden” and have therefore decided not to charge those who live in Africa or propose work by African authors… because now the journal is keen on increasing African presence in its pages.

I find it a most arbitrary exemption rule, dictated by the journal’s editorial interest. However commendable that interest may be, these rules don’t seem to be founded on a commitment to social justice; not even on logic. The journal’s fees may mean a financial burden for any author or translator, anywhere in the world, who lives with less than the minimum wage.  Furthermore, not to pay for other people’s work is a fundamental cause of social injustice, always and everywhere. I have no words to describe what charging for considering publishing it is.

“Poetry translation isn’t paid”

I started these notes with Asymptote’s case because I’ve just found out what their submissions’ guidance is, and I still can’t manage to digest the information.

However, that journal is only an example of the constant obstacles met by authors and literary translators who seek, like all human beings, to make a living out of their work. I could write a cautionary book about my work history, similar to that of thousands and thousands of writers all over the world, for reckless children who dream of writing books when they grow up.

Today I’ll just mention one instance. For a couple of years, I’ve been translating a selection of poems by British poet David Harsent. I initially offered the book to a Mexican publisher that not only manifested its interest but committed itself to publish it. At first, it seemed that it would also be willing to look for a way to finance my work, but it didn’t. Communication with them has been close to non-existent, and the last thing I knew more than a year ago was that there was nothing they could do; in their opinion, it fell to me, and even to Harsent himself, to get the money. Other publishers have also shown interest in publishing the book, but none in finding a way to pay for my work.

As a result, I am working through the translations at a painfully slow pace, since, hard as it may be to believe it, I too have to eat and pay my rent.

I know far too well how difficult it is for independent publishers to keep alive, most of all those that publish poetry. I know that they have everything against them in the publishing market panorama, that their existence is constantly under threat, and I sincerely admire and thank them for their tenacity, but I still find puzzling the degree of defeatism with which they admit that there is no way on earth to get funding for their translators.

Even more alarming is to see how many poets repeat themselves with feeble voice the mantra “the translation of poetry isn’t paid”, their gaze lost on the cracks on the floor, with the same resignation with which we say, “we’re all going to die, one day”.

Though it goes without saying that the translation of poetry demands time and concentration, not to talk about knowledge, skill and talent, the idea of receiving a remuneration for it has become taboo; just to ask whether it’s possible is considered in terrible bad taste. If we say instead that we will do that work for free, there’s no lack of publishers accepting the offer. Those same publishers, however, don’t expect to be given as a present the paper on which they print their books, for example. If they receive a grant they celebrate it, but they don’t take it for granted that paper or printing will be for free, or, to put it more clearly, that they will get them at the expense of the effort and personal wellbeing of the paper producers or the printers. It is only poets and/or translators who are demanded such a sacrifice. Why, when it is clear that without poets and translators they wouldn’t be publishing anything, but selling blank notebooks?

Cats of the World

One evening, many years ago, I arrived by pesero to the Maxim’s de Paris, not in Paris, but in the branch the restaurant then had at Mexico City’s Presidente Hotel. My father was on a business trip in the capital and had invited me to dinner. I always got to such meetings feeling a bit like Top Cat, taking my chances to be let in even if my outfit wasn’t entirely in compliance with the venue’s etiquette, and convinced that the bill would amount more or less to the equivalent of my rent.

Towards the end of the dinner, I had the cheek to tell my father that I found his absolute lack of a support he evidently was in conditions to give, when he knew how precarious my circumstances were (I won’t dwell here on the thorniest details of the story), hurting. That’s where his immortal phrase came from: “I always told you that you would starve as a writer, but you’ve no idea how proud I am of you, and how I show you off to my friends”.

In the face of such eloquence, all I could do was to order dessert, an espresso, and a glass of port, since we were already there.

Before crying out in shock wondering how my dad could tell me something like that, and whether he didn’t see how cynical it made him appear, I will ask readers to look around and wonder if that isn’t the attitude of society in general before those exotic animals: writers and artists. 

When we talk about social injustice it never crosses our mind to think of them. We worry, and with plenty of reason, about the obvious inequality between rich and poor; the low wages in many countries for teachers and medical staff; the exploitation of labourers and domestic workers; the atrocious situation of millions of immigrants and the homeless, the social problems of prostitutes… But artists? Writers? What are those whining about? They chose it! They knew that such people hardly ever earn anything. What do they do that for? Moreover, who do they think they are?

It’s as if society wanted to punish us for our temerity. That is to say: global society—and that includes a great deal of the institutions, organisations and businesses that work with culture—has about us the same immovable opinion as a conservative Guadalajara family.

This attitude goes indeed beyond all borders of race, geography, or political leanings, and is no laughing matter. In history’s most dangerous times, this contempt becomes hatred (that is, for instance, why the exterminating loathing that culture inspires in the Mexican president nowadays is so alarming).

“Who do you think you are; what are you complaining of” … That is, how dare we demand respect and a fair payment for our work. The problem is of course ancient, and it stems from the very difficult question of what art’s social function is; a question doomed to meet the wrong answer because it is utilitarian, and that is a quality alien to genuine artistic creation. The value of what artists, writers and literary translators do cannot be assayed in financial or functional terms. And yet, a society without art and literature is a dead society, essentially impoverished, stripped of human meaning.

It is clear that those of us who work on these things don’t do it for the money. If that were the aim, we would be doing something else… or we’d be the kind of artist or writer who does do it for the money and sells their soul, if they ever had it, to the devil. But it should also be clear that we are citizens and human beings as well, like everybody else, with basic needs and rights. If not even the institutions, publishers or journals dedicated to culture are capable to acknowledge such an obvious truth, we will go on being sacrificed under the excuse of an intangible greater good, or in the interest of success and prestige. Almost always somebody else’s, by the way.

One thing is to invest the work, energy and, if we have it, the money we please in our own projects, for art’s sake, as Lee Yew Leong has done in the journal Asymptote. A quite different thing is to give that work away to others who will use it for their own profit, their own projects and renown, thus perpetuating the status quo according to which that’s the way things are, and artists and authors have no right to expect it to be different. When one is very young it is easy to yield, to believe in the bait of the “visibility” we will get in return for the lack of remuneration, and in these times of unbridled urge to be in the limelight, the promise of some possible prestige may be hard to resist. We should remember, however, that what is at stake is not only the acknowledgement of our most elemental rights, but culture itself, because in such circumstances the only other alternative seems to be art or literature deliberately commercial, by which I mean, made for utilitarian purposes, obeying not the creating impulse and need but the motivation of gain, and that, we know too well, isn’t art or literature, and has never been.

When I came to London, more than twenty years ago, I rented a room in a house that had on the bathroom door a poster of the “Cats of the World”. I couldn’t resist the temptation to write, beneath the title, “Unite!”. After coming across a journal of world renown that is asking me to pay to be, perhaps, published, I wonder whether the time has come to exhort writers the same way. After all, things didn’t go altogether wrong for Top Cat and his gang.

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