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Friday, October 1, 2010


There's a rather insignificant poet from a certain [language redacted]-speaking country. If you want to translate or write about this poet, however, you can earn a chunk of change, through a foundation that awards $1,500 prizes to promote this poet. I'm assuming that the competition is not going to be stiff, because nobody is writing about this poet except a few who are presumably doing so, at least in part, in the hopes of cashing in.

Although this is all above board and perfectly legal, it corrupts the process by introducing an incentive that is out of all proportion to normal "rewards" for translating or writing. I've tried to swallow my natural inclination and do some translations just for the cash, but I just couldn't. The poems were not easy to translate but they weren't very good either. [Of course, I could be wrong; he could be a brilliant poet. But why do you have to pay people to work on a brilliant poet?] It wasn't my virtue that made me incorruptible, but my disgust. If the poems had been just a little better I would have done it. It would seem more honest to pay a translator a decent salary and publish the guy's poems in a vanity press.

So corruption in this larger sense occurs when incentives are artificially skewed. It doesn't take a lot to skew things. I was almost tempted by a mere fifteen-hundred dollars.


Of course there is no "natural" system of incentives in the first place. Students write dissertations on topics they think are marketable. They see there are more jobs in one subfield than in another. I get more attention from a book on Lorca than from a treatise on prosody, what am I going to do? If you see that only administrators in your university get paid an upper-middle class income, you put your name in for an administrative gig.

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