Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

When I first started writing about books and reading back in 2006, I fell into a rhythm almost immediately, writing three times a week and keeping up with several reading projects at the same time. Not to mention the hours I spent reading and commenting on other literary blogs and, in general, being engaged in the online literary community. For any of you who visit this space regularly, you might have noticed that things became very quiet late last spring.

The obvious reason for my blogging slowdown has to do with a certain wonderful little girl who has just turned two. Parenthood has put the crunch into timecrunch for me and I’m still adjusting to the shock. I should also mention that Switzerland, for all its lovely scenery, good food and fun people, isn’t as social as many of its neighbors. Many women in Switzerland stop working when they have their children, and most only continue part-time. Child care structures are rare and hard to get into. We waited a year and a half to get 1.3 days at our local daycare and made do with a part-time nanny so that I could work 2.5 days a week. Since August, I’ve had three full days of child care and this has felt like a luxury. (A luxury that won’t last very long – our nanny is moving on in January and our daycare cannot pick up that extra day. Did you all hear that yelp of frustration?)

However, I know I’m not the only parent in the world with this kind of problem, and the details of juggling parenthood and profession isn’t what I wanted to write about, even if it’s related.

I read an article last week over at Salon called “How to say ‘Balls of Gold’ in French?” (I’m not linking to it because they don’t need to see my personal rant here about childcare and literary passions, but if you’re interested in issues of translation, I’d highly recommend it). The article basically reminded me what a futile struggle I’ve been engaged in for the last few years as I pursue both a fiction writing career and literary translation work.

Everyone knows that making it (whether financially or critically) as a writer of literary fiction is extremely hard, maybe even sometimes impossible. OK, I accept that. Fiction writing is for the extra hours. But somehow I missed the memo on realistic literary pursuits and so went ahead and added literary translation to the mix of “extra hours” work, as if this could somehow become the day job to keep my writing afloat. Ha! In the Salon article, translator David Bellos says, “You can’t really live as a literary or book translator in the English-speaking world as a full-time job and also sleep.”

And he’s talking about people who actually get book contracts—not aspiring translators (ahem, that’s me) who have only published a few short story translations and spend half their time querying publishers with samples we’ve completed in our free time, in the hopes of getting a ridiculously low-paid book contract. Before having my daughter, I had enough time to keep up with both paid work and my unpaid literary passions. Being a freelance commercial translator and editor (and teaching the occasional scientific writing class) meant that I could contribute to my household income as well as have two or three hours a day to write fiction and translate any number of writers I hoped to see make their way into the English-speaking world.

But since then – goodness, I’ve been running on a lot of hope and not much reality. I suspect I’m not alone in this tendency, but I’ve spent the first two years of my daughter’s life thinking I could keep up the same level of activity as I had before she was born. I never told my commercial clients that I was working half-time (because they would have found another translator), and so there were many weeks that I crammed 5 days of work into 2.5 days. On the days that I didn’t have childcare, I literally raced to my desk anytime she went down for a nap, and then worked most evenings after she was in bed and every morning before she would wake up. I even took a Dictaphone on walks—I would find a very quiet country road near the farm, let the dog roam, prop my Ramuz or whoever up onto the stroller, and dictate a translation while my daughter watched the trees and listened to the story. This may seem romantic, but it’s also a little crazy.

And amid all of this, I finished a novel and took on more reviewing work than I’ve ever done before. I’m sure you can see where this is headed—somehow all these different candles reached the end of their wicks this summer and I’ve been cutting back on superfluous activities ever since, this blog included.

But the realization I came to after reading the Salon article was that I’ve been engaged in a double impossibility for the last few years—it’s sad for me to admit, but there is simply very very very little chance that I’ll ever make it as both a literary fiction writer AND a literary fiction translator. And all the more so because I’m dividing my increasingly restricted time between the two. And each requires infinite dedication, infinite patience, an extremely thick skin, and a willingness to continue even though very little money will ever get made.

So, obviously, I need to make a choice. And really, when I think about it, there is no choice. When I get to the end of my day, if I haven’t written any fiction, I get a little panicked. Even if it’s only 500 words, even if it gets deleted the next day, writing fiction is the only professional accomplishment that means anything to me. And publishing is notoriously hard; no one is going to go waltzing into my hard drive and pick up the stories and books I’ve got sitting there. The work required to get published is nearly equal to the work involved in actually creating the story and getting the words onto paper.

Now, I’m not even going to start discussing the insecurities involved in sitting on two, soon to be three, novel manuscripts that no one seems interested in publishing. Suffice it to say that I’m perfectly aware of the fact that to give up literary translation in favor of writing fiction means I’m giving up something I love to focus on something that may never work either. This reality has occasioned many a sleepless night.

In a perfect world (or my version of a perfect world), literary translation would be a valued profession and there would be hundreds of publishers around the world jumping at the chance to make literature available in as many languages as possible. Even with the recent noticeable upswing in interest in translated literature in the US, I don’t see it becoming easier to make a living as a full-time literary translator. So I am ducking out—for now. Maybe, hopefully, someday I’ll try again.

Now, before this post devolves entirely into a pity party for me (too late, yes, I know). I will point you toward an essay written over the summer by Alison Anderson, one of the most accomplished French-English translators working today (and a really lovely person to boot). Anderson presents a sound analysis of the problem underlying the difficulty/impossibility of literary translation as stable career. Her essay is both thoughtful and invigorating.

I can only hope that because this issue is getting raised (by Anderson, by Salon, by the report that Anderson references in her essay), thus proving that the literary world is at least paying attention, maybe something will change in the future.


4 Responses to “giving up the crazy”

  1. Kerry

    I hate that for you and for everyone with literary aspirations that the field does not provide the financial renumerations I wish it did. Mass entertainment has always been, and likely always will be, a more reliable source of income than true art or literature, despite the obvious superiority (to me) of the latter. I would have it otherwise, but the world is sometimes so unaccommodating to my desires.

    Regardless, I look forward to your first published novel, however and whenever it is published. I would say “best of luck” but, because I am sure you will find an audience, I’d prefer to say “congratulations!” in advance. Congratulations!

    • Michelle

      Thanks so much, Kerry. Somehow the literary people of the world must find a way to unite – and overturn the way things are. One of Anderson’s comments in her essay is that publishers seem to have a preconceived notion of what people want, and it doesn’t always match the reality. I do think this is true…one of the reasons why I love what Europa Editions does, and why I get frustrated with, say, Open Letter Books. I actually love what Open Letter does, but I’m also aware that it has a very narrow aesthetic…And the same discussion could be had for the non-translation publishing world.

  2. nicole

    It’s taken me a while to get to this post, Michelle, but let me just wish you luck as you pare down to a more reasonable workload and accept the difficult tradeoffs that entails.

    I’ve actually spent much of today thinking of how many things I wish I could do, if only I never had to sleep…or maybe if I married a millionaire!

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Nicole. I’d be happy with a 30 hour day – is that asking too much? Those extra six hours would certainly not go to waste.

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