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Hard to make ends meet as a translator in Sweden

Published onsdag 27 januari 2016 kl 12.00
"It's a very, very big task to translate a book"
(2:58 min)
Hur går det för e-boken? Foto: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
The increasing importance of e-books is also affecting translators. File photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Despite having a qualified job, many literary translators in Sweden struggle to make a living of their profession. Faced with low salaries and tight deadlines, some have to resort to other occasional part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Ludvig Berggren, information officer at the Swedish Writers' Union, explains that despite these difficulties, the situation in Sweden is better than in other countries, as they have signed an agreement with the Swedish Publishers' Association which includes a minimum wage. This helps freelancing translators when they have to negotiate their rates.

"But still, our translators need to have an extra job. Some of our translators work at day cares or other jobs in the literary business or as teachers," Berggren tells Radio Sweden.

Literary translators are usually also under pressure when it comes to how fast they must finish each job.

"Publishers have their deadlines and the market moves very fast and it's a very, very big task to translate a book," Berggren explains.

Inger Johansson has been a freelance literary translator for more than 40 years. She feels lucky because she has been able to focus on her profession since the beginning of her career, but she is also aware that her income would have been insufficient to support her family.

"Even if I would have been able to support myself, I wouldn't have been able to support three children that I have, without support from my loyal husband, who was better paid than I ever was," Johansson says.

Johansson explains that, since Sweden joined the European Union, there has been a bigger demand for technical translations, so many of her colleagues started combining them with literary ones. She sees the increasing importance of these technical translations as a solution to make a career as a translator more profitable.

Technology has also had an impact on the situation of translators, as audio books and e-books are increasingly popular and are transforming the industry.

Berggren says that their agreement with the publishers includes e-books, but that the pay for translators is still quite limited.

"I think it's too early to say anything about e-books. There's a lot of talk, but in the end, publishers still aren't making that much money from e-books," he says.

Another technological tool that could be seen as a threat for translators is automatic translation, which is quickly improving. Johansson, however, thinks that there is still a long way before machines are able to understand the subtleties of human language.

"As long as translation programs are not able to look through irony, humor and puns, human translators will be needed," she says.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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