“Hi, you’re on the guest list!” What a wonderful greeting to hear as soon as I walked through the door last night. Although it sounds trivial, it actually mattered very much to me. There is nothing better than hip hop music when you’re angry, and I was so angry all day yesterday, and at the moment I can’t really afford to go to the concerts I most want to hear.
These two things are related.
Yesterday morning, after I woke up late following an exhausting week and realized I had left my eye drops in the office the night before, it was conveyed to me by roundabout ways that an international journal, for which I have been translating for years, is no longer willing to pay my standard rate for translations. The reason given for a new rate far below even my special “starving artist/favor for a friend” rate was that another translator is willing to work for this rate, so it must be good enough. Take it or leave it.
Obviously I am in an extremely privileged position, because my immediate response would have been to leave it. I have more than enough work as it is, I don’t need this journal. Apart from the blatant arrogance of even thinking along those lines, however, the translation was to have been for an author I highly respect, someone whose writing matters very much to me, so it’s not that simple. At the same time, the terse message conveyed to me indirectly started raising so many, many questions in my mind. Over the meanwhile twenty-one years that I have been working as a translator, I have somehow managed to firmly establish myself in a very specific and specialized niche, but contemporary art and digital media art, social-critical theory and theoretical reflections on technology are not “profitable” fields, and funding for fields like these has been successively dwindling on every level for years now. Wherever funding might be available, accessing it means jumping through an endless series of hoops with twenty-page applications, multiple tenders, specific objectives with elaborate evaluation procedures, etc., etc. etc. – hard work that is obviously not funded to begin with. I am well aware of that, and I know all too well how many individuals, groups, small organizations, and even larger institutions are struggling to cope with this situation. What usually happens then is that people contact me, explain their situation and tell me how much they value and appreciate my work, but now they can’t afford to keep paying me the same rate. Then we negotiate. We work together to find a solution that both sides can just live with, and I continue to enjoy working with them and translating for them, even though it means I have to squeeze in extra work to make up the difference. The information that another translator is willing to work for a much lower rate, so that rate must be good enough, is not enough motivation for me to work more for less money. Some day I may be forced to do so, as so many people are, but privileged as I still am, I’m not there yet. Although I live in daily dread that I’m going to ruin my reputation by becoming unreliable with deadlines, communicating insufficiently or making stupid mistakes under pressure, at the moment there are still enough people who don’t just want an English translation, but specifically an English translation from me, that I’m not going to run out of work in the foreseeable future.
The issue of payment in combination with the absence of any kind of expression of appreciation, however, still provides no information at all about quality. I’m not so arrogant that I would simply assume that anyone working for lower rates does not translate as well as I do. I know perfectly well that that is not necessarily the case. English is common enough that there is certainly no dearth of competent to excellent translators, and for people just starting in the field, the competition is fierce. Being able – or at least (necessarily) willing – to work for lower rates may simply mean that someone needs no more than a laptop and an Internet connection in order to work. They may be working at home, in a cafe, in a park, in their car, but the crucial difference is they have no office, no infrastructure, no overhead. Isn’t that how everyone is supposed to be working today?
Obviously, that is not how I work, although theoretically I could. I live in the flat that Peter and I bought together, for which the mortgage was paid off the summer before he died. That means I have very low housing costs, which are covered by my widow’s pension. Rather than just retreating to work at home as a sad old widow with two cats, however, I still insist on maintaining the structures that I have created on the basis of what Peter and I created together. Just with my translation work alone, I support my office, the Workshop, and a number of people more or less attached to one or both of those. I pay rent, taxes, social security, telephone, electricity, heating, insurance and various other bills solely with the money I earn as a translator – and until recently also the salary and employer fees for my office helper, although sadly I could not afford to offer her as many work hours as she needs. It is admittedly a stretch, but I can just do it, and it still feels like what I need to do.
But again and again and again, I find myself questioning whether this is really what I need to be, should be doing, especially in the context of a message like the one I received yesterday. Despite all my efforts, this barely leaves me enough to live on. The reason it works at all is that I live in Linz, I belong to a network of people who look after one another in all the different ways that we are able to look after one another. I can go to concerts, performances, theater productions, because people put me on the guest list. Everywhere I go, people know what I like to drink and it happens often that someone else pays for a drink for me or simply shows up unexpectedly with something I need. What do I have to offer? Most of all, right now, I have the Workshop – not just the space itself, but also the idea of the Workshop. And every time I stand in front of a group of people and explain what I’m trying to do with the Workshop, I see an expression of understanding in their faces, affirmation, often something that even looks like hope: yes, we need spaces like this, bureaucracy-free, free of all pressure to “produce” something, a space that people can use without having to apply for funding, because all I ask in return for the use of the Workshop is that people figure out for themselves what the Workshop needs to keep it going, what I need to be able to keep going, so that I can keep the Workshop going. And the people who need this space never cease to surprise me with their creativity and resourcefulness, with their generosity.
Maybe I’m a hopelessly romantic idealist, maybe I’ve just been reading too much old feminist science fiction lately, but I still need to believe in the possibility of utopias, even if they only exist for a brief moment or only in a certain bubble. But they can’t exist at all, unless we can try them out.
One thing I have certainly learned from being a widow is that people need one another. We all need to look after one another, share whatever we can share – whether it is space or food or laughter or any of the many different gifts and talents and ideas we all have. After all, maybe it is the symbolic significance of the low rate of payment I reject: it may be “good enough” for an isolated, self-sustaining existence, but that is not good enough.
Christopher’s song for the Workshop: „We all need space to grow“