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This Is Uncomfortable

Meet Thomas Piketty’s translator

David Gura May 15, 2014
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What’s at the top of The New York Times’s list of non-fiction bestsellers? A book on income inequality, called “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” by Thomas Piketty, a French economist.

It is something of a sensation, having sold 300,000 copies, and Piketty has become as much of a celebrity as an economist can be.

What you may not know is that the book is a translation, into English  from the original French, and the translator, a man named Arthur Goldhammer, is a something of a celebrity in his world too.

Goldhammer met Piketty at Harvard University, where the economist was lecturing a few years ago. Later, Piketty asked him to translate “Le Capital au XXIe siècle” into English.

It took Goldhammer five months to translate some 600 pages. “The manuscript came in at about twice as long as expected,” he says.

Goldhammer, who is affiliated with the Center for European Studies at Harvard, works from his home, in Cambridge, Mass., in a “little room, slightly larger than a closet.” It is where he reads and writes, and it is also where he tinkers.

“I do some programming in my spare time, and study physics, and keep up with my past life,” he says, pointing out a Raspberry Pi, a computer that runs the Linux operating system.

Goldhammer has a doctorate in mathematics, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did his first translation in 1977. After serving in Vietnam, Goldhammer was living in Paris, and he needed money.

“Arthur’s career is extraordinary,” says David Bellos, the author of “Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything,” and the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University.  “He’s translated a large number of books and he knows an enormous amount.”

But Bellos says there’s something else that makes Goldhammer exceptional: “I would say there are maybe 20, 30 people in the English-speaking world who live by book translation alone.”

And Goldhammer is one of them.

The French-American Foundation awards a translation prize every year. Goldhammer has won it four times.

“Most translators are underpaid, and sometimes underappreciated,” says Charles Kolb, who runs the foundation. They don’t just go through a text word by word, he notes. They are, as he puts it, “capturing the flavor and the feeling and the context.”

Kolb laments there aren’t more books being translated into the English language – especially from the French. One reason for that, Goldhammer suggests, is there seems to be less money available for translations. There used to be more subsidies from foundations and foreign governments.

“Lately, it’s the author who finds his or her own subsidy,” he says.

Goldhammer won’t say how much he was paid to translate “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”. The money a translator makes is decent, he says, but it is much less than a tenured professor’s salary.

Goldhammer says most translators are paid a fee for every 1,000 words.

“In this case, I probably would have made out if I had taken royalties, but I didn’t,” he confides. Goldhammer and the book’s publisher, Harvard University Press, had expected the translation to sell maybe 20,000 copies. So far it has sold 15 times that. But, Goldhammer says, he has no regrets.

“It’s rare for me to translate a book where I can expect all of my friends at least to have heard about the book, if not to have read it.”

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