The Paris Review

Trash Talk: On Translating Garbage

When we speak of translation in these end-of-days, it is often in the loftiest of tones, as though it were a sacred duty undertaken by devoted adepts prostrating themselves before the altar of language. The self is renounced, the greed for authorship forsworn in service of a greater calling, which is no less than bridging the gaps between the peoples and cultures of the world.

This is certainly true if you’re translating, say, Don Quixote, or Heian-period Japanese poetry, or a new novel by Senegal’s latest rising star. But only a small minority of translators have the skill, opportunity, and financial security required to take on such labors of love. The rest of us, to earn a living wage, will have to make do with whatever garbage we can get. By garbage I mean any or all of the following: corporate-speak, brand manifestos, NGO reports, think tank reports, letters from government agencies replying to American oil companies, letters from government agencies replying to human rights organizations, prose written by self-professed wunderkinds whose trust funds and unearned self-confidence are paying for the translation, and that vilest genre of all, the art text.


I never set out to become a translator. It’s just that, as a writer, I needed an actual source of income in order to keep a roof over my head, and it had to align with my extremely narrow skill set. After stints in both copywriting and teaching, I stumbled upon freelance translation almost by accident, and for a while I thought I’d figured out the magic formula, that I’d found the ideal side gig for a writer.

The pitch sounds great: you get to work in the medium you love, your time is your own to divide up as you see fit (mornings for writing, afternoons for translation jobs), the commute is as long as it takes to get from your bed to your desk, and coffee and snack breaks can be had as often as you damn well please.

But it turns out that none of this is exactly true (except for the snack breaks part, which comes to prove less a perk

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