Perfect Example of Publishers' lack of efficiency and cost-cutting

Update: A lot of people think this post is intended to insult the profession of translation. It’s not. It’s easy to assume that if we’re talking about being more efficient it means that translation is an inefficient profession. That’s not what’s meant.

Chad Post talks about the possibility of giving translators a larger share in royalties in return for not paying them anything for translations (last paragraph). That’s what is meant. The cost of $8,000 is very high for a book that is an unknown in terms of how much money it’ll make.

A model where a translation that fails pays out next to nothing and a success pays out a lot is much better – it’s efficiency and it’ll be necessary in the new Publishing world.

Thanks to Andrys at Kindle World for pointing out this section from the Wall St. Journal on the costs of translating books into English –

Still, translations can be expensive. Chad Post, director of the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books, which specializes in literature in translation, said translators typically command between $100 and $125 per thousand words. A 60,000-word novel, for example, could cost between $6,000 to $8,000 to translate. Well-known translators, he added, command as much as $175 to $200 per 1,000 words.

“There’s a perception that books in translation don’t sell as well, so you have to spend more on marketing than you might with a typical American author,” he added. “You have to spend more to get their name into circulation.” ‘

Basically, this is in response to Amazon Crossing and it’s Publishers making excuses or perhaps not being aware of their options.

$200 per 1,000 words translated?

Let’s get this straight –

  1. Translators command between $100 to $125 per thousand words.
  2. A 60,000 word novel costs $6,000 to $8,000 to translate.
  3. Well-known translators command $175 to $200 per 1,000 words.

We’re in the middle of the highest unemployment numbers in decades.  We have companies distributed all over the world and so much cheap labor everywhere – including in North America.

Do people really get paid $125 per thousand words translated?  

5 ways to cut money on translations

Here are 5 ways to translate cheaply. With a little thinking Publishers could easily figure out how not to spend $8,000 per novel translation.

  1. Get users to translate the books – just as Facebook got users to translate the user interface. Offer them a credit or free books or something.  
  2. Hire just out of college unemployed students. Hire interns. Sponsor a gap year and you’ll probably be able to get a book translated every month.  
  3. Use Mechanical Turk or ODesk or one out of the dozens of freelancing websites.  
  4. Use a good Translation software and then have someone verify the results.
  5. Even translation companies offer their services for $10 per hour. Surely – it couldn’t take an hour to translate 100 words. You could write a novel faster than that.

This actually brings us to the other claim – that marketing for International Books is much more expensive than for an American Author.

*** If you’re really upset at this point it’s a good thing. Please read this follow-on post – Notes on the future of Publishing.

Check Demand for the books Before you translate them

Amazon should consider adding this to their Amazon Crossing Page –

  1. Present readers with options and a short summary and let them choose.  
  2. Pick some of the best-selling books and offer the first 2 chapters translated for free – see audience reactions. 
  3. Let users pre-order a book with the understanding that if 1,000 or 10,000 preorders are reached the book will be translated.
  4. Let authors contribute part of the funds in exchange for a larger royalty rate.
  5. Talk to expatriate forums and travellers and people interested in a culture and gauge interest.

Obviously Publishers in all their years haven’t set up any system to do this easily and cheaply. Amazon on the other hand can do all of this at minimal cost.

If you have to spend a ton on marketing you might be doing something wrong

If a book was a huge hit in another country, in another language, it must have done something right.  

Instead of marketing it again –

  1. Figure out what made it a success and translate that into the new market. 
  2. Use social proof – If it’s a mystery that sold 1 million copies in Chinese then market it to mystery readers with that 1 million figure.
  3. Again – letting readers vote gets them vested. Every single person who voted for a book is much likelier to buy it. Everyone who participated in the voting is a little likelier to buy it. It works for American Idol. Try it in books.

Publishers aren’t just struggling to turn books into successes. They also seem to be struggling to translate success across markets. It’s obviously not easy – However, it’s surely not as difficult as Publishers make it out to be – Why would Amazon be trying it if it’s impossible?

Publishers tend to take the ‘How can we spend a ton of money to solve this problem?’ approach.

It’s a pattern that keeps repeating

There’s this magical pattern that Publishers keep repeating –

  1. We need to do X (translation, formatting, conversion into a format, DRM).  
  2. Let’s find someone in New York who has a fancy office and help him pay his rent.  
  3. If he’s good the cost ought to be at least $100 an hour or a few thousand dollars per book.  
  4. If there’s a way to waste effort and time let’s make sure to incorporate it in.
  5. Let’s make sure to spend a lot of time and effort talking about how difficult it is.

Yes, obviously, it isn’t as cheap as readers would like or as cheap as people who understand technology would be able to get it done for. However, it can’t be as expensive as Publishers are making it out to be. 

There’s some huge fundamental flaw here – For $100 an hour you can get a top-notch iPhone App developer. For $8,000 you could get a full app made that reads Project Gutenberg books – all 40,000 of them. If it’s taking you that much just to get a single book translated you really, really need to take a hard look at –

  1. Whether you’re still in the right business. 
  2. Whether you’re being ripped off by every single technology person you’re working with.

Publishers need to take a long, careful look around the room – if they can’t spot the sucker it’s time to rethink things.

38 thoughts on “Perfect Example of Publishers' lack of efficiency and cost-cutting”

  1. Mmm. I don’t think translating is all that easy.. First of all, think about how hard it is for people to understand and explain concepts in books that are in their own language. I clearly remember an exercise in my Senior year French class, where we read a passage of a book in French, and then two different translations of the passage. It was very interesting to see that 2 people can make the same few sentences very different.

    A good translator explains the feel and or concepts of the book and doesn’t just find the equivalent of words. Authors choose specific words to mean slightly different things, the nuances and meaning in books can be very complex already!

    Also,they often must identify and explain things that have no cultural equivalent in another language….For example, in the 1800s, there was no other way to explain deshabille, so that word is used in the US as well, but if you just look it up in a US dictionary, the definition lacks the spirit of the word..

    I think it does take a master to properly translate feelings, mood etc, not just someone sitting front of Bablefish online typing words.

    Also, it might take longer to translate a book than to write it. Think about how simple it is to write something, and how much longer it can take to explain it if someone doesn’t understand.

    I usually agree with many posts on this blog, but not this one. Way too easy for most of the subtleties to be lost in translation. Basically, your plan could turn non English books into Wikipedia entries LOL. Sorry!

    I have no comment on the marketing portion, just the devaluation of good translators. And no, I am not one myself. 🙂

    1. I agree. A book is more than just words, it is the flow and beauty of the words. Yes you can woodenly translate a book quickly and cheaply, but does that really capture the work you are translating. Cheap is good for some works, but other works of art, really require something more than the lowest bid. I am all for cutting costs in publishing, but if you are cutting the art, then you might as well quit early.

    2. Surely $8,000 is a very small thing in the process. Having a good translation is a worthy goal that should not be skimped upon. Both foreign language translations and audio renditions of books can be spoiled by poor transformations. Authors themselves frequently make poor audio versions and I imagine that effectively translating a well written book is not easy.

  2. The comparison with a developer is not appropriate. An iPhone developer would be depending on frameworks and libraries to do most of the heavy lifting for a 6-8 hour project while a translator will have to go through the whole work from beginning to end. There is no possibility of re-use of previous code.

    Also, trying to use the Mechanical Turk or similar doesn’t seem very effective. If it takes an expert to cobble the results back to something decent, that person would have more trouble doing that than writing the translation straight from scratch.

    To my mind, $8000 per book is actually not a bad price when you consider the amount of units that they print and the translation effort/time required.

  3. I agree with Bianca and Adam. When I read this post, my gut feeling was telling me this is wrong. It is not just about translating words but making sure you don’t lose the rhythm of the narrative in the translation. I can’t comment on whether the rates being quoted are reasonable but I think your 5 suggestions to cut money on translations would devalue foreign language books.

  4. I’m taking the middle road on this one.

    Yes, translation is an art. It’s not something that a canned program can do.

    On the other hand, the publishers probably stick to the same few translators out there, rather than fostering a marketplace of publishers. If they opened up translation jobs to all comers, you’d see prices drop without the equivalent drop in quality.

    One solution for publishers (and Amazon) would be to set up a translation bid site. Get the rights to a foreign book. Post the first part of the book in the original language. Ask for translated submissions and prices from all potential vendors. Once all the submissions are received, pick the best combination of price & quality. And if the final product doesn’t come in on time & quality, don’t accept bids from them again.

    The end result is that the marketplace from translators would grow, more people could make money at it, while prices would drop and more books would become available.

    With modern communications technology (like email…), you don’t need to use the same few translators over and over again, all located in the same geograhical area. Perhaps you could get a good translator who lives in the foreign country.

    Heck, perhaps offering the translator royalties rather than a flat fee might be an interesting idea, too. If the translator has a good enough reputation that their name attached to the project increases sales, they probably deserve a piece of the action.

    Either way gets rid of the $10K overhead. (Of course, there are much larger financial disincentives in place to get rid of, too.)

  5. (free access link) – Publishers to Issue Digital Works Intended as ‘Appetizers’ for Novels

    In a sign of how digital technology is influencing traditional book publishing, Ballantine Books and Harlequin Teen each plan to issue short standalone digital works intended to serve as “bridges” to coming novels.

    Too bad this blog isn’t organized to encourage and facilitate discussion of groups of topics. Or, maybe I am missing something. Where to post this information is a mystery to me.

  6. I have to agree that quality of translation can make an immense difference. Almost anyone could sit down with an X-to-English dictionary and offer a makeshift literal translation after a little while. But that sort of translation is fit for Godzilla movies and little more. If you want to actually convey what makes the book good, you need to grasp subtleties, narrative rhythm, the poetry of the language, and so on.

    On the other hand, $8k really doesn’t sound like that much of an investment to me. Possibly I am not understanding the financial aspects of the publishing business.

  7. As someone who works in the translation industry, $125/thousand words is a perfectly reasonable rate (and barely a livable wage), especially for a literary or “artistic” work. Ideally, the reader should never be able to tell that the work was translated or written in a different language, in a different culture. Novels are not necessary about the story, but rather about how the story is told.

    For a technical work, content trumps style.

    In either case, we have all read texts that are poorly translated: imagine the translator for your DVD/VCR manual being let loose on the latest Swedish crime novel or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  8. How to Save the News The Atlantic:

  9. Literary translators very rarely get one novel after another to translate. Has anyone here thought how long it takes a professional translator with decades of experience (not just someone who has just left university and “thinks” they know a language!) to translate a novel properly? A translator can do between 2,000 and 3,000 per working day at an unrushed pace. (Rushed translations are only for big conglomerates who put the profit motive first and want only crime novels.)

    New technology can be used to publish books, but not to translate them. Literary translation should be a full-time job, not just something you tack onto your job as lecturer or librarian to make your CV look good.

    In the English-speaking world a dismally small percentage of contemporary literature ever appears in English. Go into a German, French or Dutch bookshop and see from what a variety of languages books are translated.

    Have any of the people in this discussion actually done any translation, either in a workshop of for real? Or understood that many of the great works of literature from, say, Europe had to be properly translated before they could be read by U.S. or British people?

    This discussion seems, sadly, to compare literary translators with typists – it goes into the translator’s brain in French and comes out effortlessly in English. Sorry, that’s not the way real life works.

  10. Get users to translate the books – just as Facebook got users to translate the user interface. Offer them a credit or free books or something.

    Hilarious! You just don’t have the first clue about translation, do you? Translators are expensive because it is a highly skilled job.

  11. Not much to add to what others have said here, except that, as an experienced literary translator myself, I found this easily the most stupid and ignorant blog post I’ve ever read, and extremely insulting to my profession. Translating a literary work is a lot more difficult than translating an instruction manual. If not an art in its own right, it is certainly a highly complex craft, requiring experience, application and a lot of sheer hard work. The reason publishers turn to the same translators over and over is that they know which translators have the reputation of being good at their jobs. If you’re a film producer with a great script and you’re looking for a director, you would try to get Spielberg or Scorsese, not some kid straight out of film school.

    1. I have no desire to insult anyone’s profession.
      We’re in the middle of tough economic times so it should be clear that no one’s profession is safe.

      Would you say there’s a non-zero probability that the big Publishers die out?
      In case they do who would pay you the money you deserve?

      What if a few of your rivals go live in Buenos Aires or East Europe and charge half rate?

      Almost everyone is interpreting my write-up of what will be needed as my saying that it is right or how things should be.

      It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or what anyone is worth – all that matters is where the market is headed.
      It’s reality – As things get tougher prices will have to be cut. Take a look at the app store and the quality of some of the $1 apps.
      Take a look at what’s happening with newspapers.

      In 5 to 10 years there may not be any book publishers or authors left who can afford your services.
      Instead of interpreting it as a personal attack – which no one has the time or inclination for – just take it for what it is. Publishers are unprepared for where books are headed – If you can find independent authors and smaller publishers capable of paying you as much as the big Publishers do – great. If not – then perhaps this post won’t be as stupid and ignorant as you think.

      Lastly, you can consider it as stupid as you like. However, it’s not insulting anyone’s profession so please abstain from putting in interpretations that aren’t there.

  12. “Lastly, you can consider it as stupid as you like. However, it’s not insulting anyone’s profession so please abstain from putting in interpretations that aren’t there.”

    So what would you call a comparison between the work of a translator and a interface translation by Facebook users?

    While i do enjoy this blog, for all the information it provides, this particular post is wrong on so many levels, that i don’t even know where to begin.

    Besides, theres more about the market than price competition, i’m sure you are well aware of that.

    1. It’s giving an example of how to get things done for cheap.
      Consider this example (from one more person who thinks this post insults their profession) –

      And going back to the production side of things for a moment, there are god only knows how many fully translated manuscripts that translators have been unsuccessful in placing. And I’m sure a lot of these people would be happy to forgo an advance in lieu of a better royalty rate just to finally see their work make its way into print . . .

      He’s saying the exact same thing as I am – find ways to cut costs. To reward the successes and not pay for the non-successes. We’re on the same page except for some reason everyone is assuming the profession of translation is the subject – efficiencies are and prices.
      What possible reason could I have for wanting to insult translators?

      Just to be precisely clear – That was an example of a way to cut prices. It was not saying that translation by users is as good as translation by Publishers.

  13. Then what you suggest is not a mere cost reduction. It is a cost reduction that leads to a reduction in the quality of the final product (and considering user translation, that would be a tremendous reduction).

    And since we are talking about translation, you have to keep in mind that this not only reduces the efficiency of that process (because they don’t have the necessary skills to make a proper translation), but can also affect the effectiviness (unless your goal is only to publish anything, as fast as possible).

    Maybe you could make some suggestions that can reduce the final price, but allow editors to maintain their product quality.

  14. The recommendation from Chad Post. That’s what’s going to happen.
    That and working vacations where people live in Buenos Aires and other places that have 1/3rd the cost of living.

    Konrath is selling his book for $2.99 and getting $2 from each copy sold.

    It’s a completely different world. If your profession depends on these Publishers who want to sell similar books for $14.99 you have to factor in who has the better chance of winning.

  15. From what I can see, concern about translation costs is a red herring. Once a work is translated, it can be reproduced and sold in perpetuity, meaning that the initial cost of translation is insignificant compared to the revenue the actual work may bring in.

    If you re-read the quote from Chad Post in the quoted article, he says it is the *marketing* that is costly.
    It is not clear to me whether it is Chad Post or only the authors of the WSJ article that mentioned that translations are expensive (original article here:, but switch11 did catch on to that and made his own “analysis” that this is an inefficiency of the publishing industry. An analysis that Chad Post himself denigrates in the same blog post that switch11 quotes from in his latest response.

    BTW, Here’s a happy story of an author getting his work translated and sold in a foreign country where he was otherwise unknown:

  16. Hey, I have another idea about how to cut out those greedy translators: pick a novel, send all the high school (or college) kids in the US who’re studying that language one sentence from the book, and get each kid to translate his/her sentence (for free, obv) and email it in. Then just assemble all the sentences in the right order, publish and… PROFIT!

    What could possibly go wrong?

    I think big-shot lawyers are expensive, too, so it stands to reason that you’d be better off consulting a fresh law school grad, right? Or else one of those “no win, no fee” guys.

    1. If you think a quality translation can be produced at sentence level, you obviously have absolutely no experience or knowledge about translation whatsoever. What about consistency throughout the novel for one thing? And a good translator sometimes changes the order of sentences and/or the sentence structure. That’s just for starters. “What could possibly go wrong?” Here you are just demonstrating your complete ignorance. Your idea is of course a perfect recipe for disaster. As any high school kid of any nationality could probably tell you.

      1. My complete ignorance of translation is matched by the complete guaranteed fact that there won’t be anyone left to pay those rates in 5 to 10 years. It’s impressive to see how everyone is quick to jump to defend the value of their work without considering for a minute whether or not there will be funding to support that work as Publishing changes its entire structure.

  17. As a literary translator, the only way I can make sense of this piece is as a satire on the notion of doing literary publishing on the basis of web stats and logorithms – i.e. taking Amazon’s “Crossing” approach to its logical extreme.

    “Get users to translate the books… just like Facebook” is priceless.

    Literary translation IS an inefficient profession. Literary writing is an inefficient profession. Literature is inefficient. Economically speaking. In that sense the word has no business being applied to creative work.

    That said, some of the suggestions here about producing and marketing books might be useful. That’s a whole ‘nother animal.

    But just to give you an idea of the “economic efficiency” of translation from the translator’s point of view: It can easily take a year, full-time, to properly* translate a novel of 60,000 words. For $8,000. Of course, it may have taken the writer 5 years to write that same novel. For $10,000 dollars. That’s life. But that doesn’t leave too many corners to cut.

    * “Properly” meaning: resulting in a translation that is remotely worth reading and hence an “efficient” use of the translator’s and reader’s time and energy.

    1. Isabel, thanks for your comment. It’s one of the few comments that put down some hard figures to help explain why my post isn’t making sense to translators.

      Encyclopaedia Britannica
      Microsoft Encarta

      Here’s a question – do you think the publishers of Encyclopaedia Britannica ever thought that people would write an encyclopaedia for free and that other people would prefer it over a professional encyclopaedia.
      Just had some kind Nook owner help me out with a store coupon for a free book since could’t go to the US for one. Think about that – people helping strangers for free.

      You might be surprised at how many people have the time to translate the work they love into another language they understand in return for a royalty rate or for free.

      1. You might want to read “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” by Chris Anderson. He talks about free and “freemium” models which are very similar to your points. However, don’t forget that these publishers and authors have reputations to uphold. Translation for books of well-known authors would probably require special treatment and a less than top quality translation will not do. However, someone like Cory Doctorow, who already gives his books away, may not care about the existence of a fan-translated work. The difference here is that Cory would not be able to charge for that work, for one thing, the work is not wholly his anymore. Nor could he expect the work to be of good enough quality that his publisher would be happy to not use its own editors and proof readers if they were to print it. The only works that benefit from fan translations would be those released for free or are in the public domain.
        I also believe that royalties for translators are not attractive for both the author and publisher because it lowers their profit. Translation is a fixed cost that is taken into account when there is a decision to publish in another language. Sharing profits with a translator via royalties is only attractive if there are not enough funds to even print, maybe for someone who wants to self-publish. Anyone else, esp. big publishers, would eat the cost of translation to maximize profits.

      2. I’m glad if my comment was helpful.

        I’m not at all surprised that people translate work they love for free – I have done that frequently, as have most literary translators, because many literary magazines, online or off, that publish translations are no-budget operations. Actually, I co-edit one of those ( I wish we could pay contributors, but we can’t. It is wonderful that people let us have their outstanding work without any expectation of payment. So I appreciate the “free” models.

        However, they have their limits. It’s one thing to translate a short piece for free, in your spare time. A novel is another thing. Again, it’s at least a year’s work, full-time.

        Once I was asked to translate a 600-page literary book in a bit over a year. The publisher was actually willing to pay well (maybe around $10,000), but only after delivery. In other words, I would have had to work over a year, full-time, without seeing any money. To pay my rent, I would have had to take on other jobs on the side. I would have been overworked, distracted (and potentially undernourished!) – not, ahem, the best prerequisites for producing “value”, translation-wise.

        Or I would have had to quickly snag a rich husband, or move back in with my parents. (I don’t have much in the way of savings to live off.)

        This “royalty-sharing” scheme that’s being mentioned would be an even more ridiculous situation – the translator would have a huge committment of time and work without even any assurance of getting paid later on. So that would basically restrict literary translation to the independently wealthy, retirees, and people on welfare. Or it would mean a lot of really bad translations dashed off between other jobs.

        There is no value here without quality. And there is no quality without decent working conditions. If you want to produce “value” (i.e. a quality product), you need to invest in that up-front. Doesn’t a successful company (like Amazon) have the resources to do that?

        Oh, and would everyone involved in the process be paid on a royalty-, success-dependent basis? The programmers? The PR people? The layouters? The editorial board? Or just the writers and translators?

        There are many wonderful things about “free models” of culture, but in the end, if creative people can’t remotely make a living doing creative things, well, there isn’t going to be as much of those creative things. Unless you’re in a country with generous welfare payments. I live in Berlin – half the creative people are on welfare. It makes for a great cultural scene with lots of “free models”. But somehow I don’t think that’s what you have in mind.

        Anyway, those are the hard economic realities on our end…

  18. This is shockingly ignorant, yet an unfortunate reminder of how uneducated most people are about translation. I’m reminded of Swift and his modest proposal. And yet–it seems to be sincere.
    This is a moment when translators are fighting for recognition, acknowledgment, and decent pay. Creative work tends to get short shrift, for sure, but the fact that translators typically aren’t granted royalties is but one instance of how endemic the sort of thinking in this post is.
    Do you have any idea how many hours it can take to translate a thousand words of a literary work or an academic book? It can take hours, days, weeks, to the point where $100/1000 words is tantamount to exploitation. Do you have any idea how much expertise it takes, how much knowledge of both a foreign and your native language, as well as both a foreign literature and the target literature to produce a literary translation? It takes years to develop these skills, not simply a machine or a fresh college grad looking for a little extra cash.
    People may write or write translations out of love, so to speak, but nobody suggests that a computer could do the same.

    1. Actually, your point is exactly what the Rochester person is saying – Translators should get royalties and live and die depending on how well their translated books do.
      That’s efficiency and far more fair than any other argument.

      There’s such a strong sense of ‘what we do is so important’. The truth is people only care about what value you provide. No one cares how many hours I or you spend on our work. They only care about the value it provides to them.

  19. All right, then, switch11, am joining the fray a little late to say that, even though I think most of your suggestions for lowering the cost of translations are impractical, you’re on to something. I too am a literary translator of sorts; in the past year alone I translated a 650-page, 235,000-word behemoth of a history, a 50,000-word novel, another history, of about 50,000 words again, and a handful of short stories totaling about 20,000 works. And I did these translations–and did them well–all while working a full-time job that has nothing to do with literary translation. So I resent what I see as the suggestion, made by a few posters, that a literary translator who has to do something other than translation to make a living is going to produce bad translations.

    At the low end of Post’s range ($100 per thousand words), these translations would have earned me, had I had a publisher for them, $35,500. Not bad, I don’t think, for something I do in my spare time because I enjoy it, because I think it ought to be done. Fantastic, in fact! Naturally, I am willing to give these translations to publishers for much, much less than even the low end of the pay scale mentioned by Post–as I imagine most translators in my position would. I feel no obligation whatsoever to hold out for an unrealistic fee out of some misguided notion of solidarity with my fellow literary translators or because a translator, as hypothesized above, takes an unbelievable twelve months of full-time work to finish a 60,000-word novel.

    Post also neglects to mention–and you don’t pick up on it–that publishers rarely bear the full cost of translations. Most countries outside the US have set up funds that will reimburse publishers a good deal of the cost of having their authors translated into English–and other languages. Academics, who sometimes do translations, often have access to subsidies from their home institutions that can be applied to the costs of translation. So take the figure of $8,000 per translation with a grain of salt–especially when you keep in mind that many translations won’t reap even that relatively meager amount in total sales revenue.

    In short, switch11, you are absolutely correct when you argue that the traditional model of publishing translations is highly inefficient.

    1. Hello Luder, I can’t judge your work – I assume from what you write that it hasn’t been published – but I know a lot of professional literary translators, and none who would consider that a normal/optimal workload and workpace.

      I can easily churn out two or three pages an hour translating straightforward, non-literary work that doesn’t require heavy-duty research or a strategy for doing justice to the style/tone/cultural specificity/wordplay/rhythm/dialect/ archaic language/eccentric vocabulary/experimental syntax/whatever of the original. If I could do that with (non-straightforward) literature and be happy with the results, I would. But I can’t. And, again, neither can any other literary translator I know or have ever heard of (except for the occasional Mozart-like genius).

      You are right to mention the importance of translation funding.

      1. I’m no Mozart-like genius, Isabel, or even a mere Stakhanovite. Like every other translator, I like doing things other than translating. Wasting time on the internet, for example. Staring vacantly into space. Yet by translating three or four pages most evenings after work and ten or so pages most weekends I find I get a lot done. Sometimes, to be fair, I do personal translations when I’m not busy at work (but such translations account for no more than ten percent of what I do). And if I had been commissioned to do the translations I did I might well have felt pressure. As it happens, though, I did them on speculation and felt no pressure at all; had I wanted to I could have done plenty more. Surely I’m not the only translator who has little trouble working in circumstances such as those I’ve described.

        Yes, of course, I’d like my book translations to make me a living. But the thought itself is a luxury, a pipe dream. How many literary translators working in English make a living from their book translations alone? Fifteen? Twenty? And yet, again and again, in responses to blog posts such as this one, I see professional translators’ attempting–as is only natural, I suppose–to justify what I consider unrealistic fees, to justify the existence of a guild that doesn’t seem to me economically viable. As if they were entitled to making a living from their translations. Not even the writers I translate–major writers in their respective languages–lived off the books they wrote. Why in the world would a translator of books that provided their authors only the slenderest of means think he could himself make a living by translating these books?

        Sure, some books are a lot harder to translate than others, but I still think a 60,000-word novel that takes twelve months of full-time work to translate is a rare novel indeed. Agonizing for hours or days over, say, an untranslatable pun is no more likely to produce a satisfactory translation than is making a swift compromise. And a book that takes that long to translate is probably just being done by the wrong translator; or it is a book of such narrow appeal–likely to sell between 300 and 1,000 copies–that a translator’s fee of $8,000 would be suicidal for all but the most heavily subsidized operations.

        One way for publishers to do better by translators and translations (and by readers) would be to listen more closely to translators. Who better than a translator knows what’s worth translating? Now, for the most part, publishers seem to choose the books they translate on the strength of the writer’s past reputation (what other reason, pray tell, could account for Peter Handke’s still being translated into English?), on the persuasiveness of agents’ pitches, or in return for favors done by the foreign publishers who buy them drinks at book fairs in Frankfurt or Turin. The work, both good and bad, is parceled out to the publisher’s stable of professional translators; the bad and the mediocre predominate, but who is the translator who can turn down an offer of work?

        Much better, for all concerned, including the publisher, would be for publishers to bring out only those translations proposed by translators themselves. Many of the bad or mediocre books would not be published, and the translator could–like the old dragoman of the East–become a trusted guide to unfamiliar territory. But for the moment, forced to take whatever they can get, professional translators squander the opportunity to earn the reader’s trust, trust that publishers could otherwise have harnessed to introduce readers to a great world of writing that simply isn’t getting translated into English.

        Since I don’t think publishers are going to change the way they go about acquiring the books they have translated, I can really say only one more thing. Long live the amateur translator! Long live the hobbyist!

  20. Oh man, you are really, I mean REALLY dumb. I am not a translator and have no personal interest in this, but why don’t you blog about topics where you are not completely clueless? I think this is the most silly blog I have ever read. You must be something like the Borat of publishing-blogs.

  21. Sorry, Luder, but on the evidence I’d say you are a Stakhanovite. More power to the Stakhanovites, and more power to the hobbyists – that’s what we all are, more or less. But I’d say that a model of cultural production that depends entirely on Stakhanovite hobbyists is unviable in practical terms. And even if it’s marginally viable, for all concerned it’s not desirable.

    For instance, as a publisher, I would be nervous about whether I could expect translators to produce on-time, quality work when they are entirely dependent on other work for their income. Whether I could hold translators to contracts when they would have nothing to lose, financially speaking, by not holding to them. Translator in insecure financial situations could well be forced to put their unpaid work on a back burner to take (for them) economically viable work. This would make it very hard for publishers to plan and market effectively. (Not like this doesn’t happen already…)

    Also, I doubt foreign publishers would be enthused about selling translation rights to a publisher with such an unprofessional setup. And yes, the foreign publisher has to be paid too… as does the staff of the US publisher, the editors, etc.. Or are they all going to work on a royalty basis? (Not that I don’t sympathize with the publishers, too.)

    A few more points. First, I would hazard that a majority of translations in the US are initiated by the translators themselves. In Germany publishers actively seek translations; they acquire the rights to a foreign book and commission a translator. There exists a mass, economically viable literary translation market, simply because German readers are more open to translations, and they are marketed aggressively. Which is great, but it also means that lots of mediocre bestseller literature is translated, and sometimes quite mediocrely (for instance, the latest Harry Potter is farmed out to a team of translators to be translated over two weeks), not that that particular readership cares much.

    Anyway, in the US very few publishers actively seek translations; it is largely the translators themselves who basically act as agents and seek publishers for projects they are passionate about. I have done plenty of this myself. It’s a great thing, but also, by and large, a hard and thankless task… and it doesn’t leave me more inclined, after having acted as an unpaid agent, to be rewarded by getting to spend a year translating the book unpaid.

    You are right that writers are also ridiculously underpaid. I write myself, and that even slower than I translate. I can only say that writing, and particularly publishing one’s writing, is rewarding in a way that transcends its economic nonviability for the writer. For one thing, a writer has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting some praise or recognition. Etc.

    In any case, I know plenty of (German) writers, and none I’ve ever heard complain, publicly or privately, about the fact that a translator may well get more money for translating their book than they earned themselves. Maybe it’s because lots of these writers are translators, or because they are happy to be translated at all, or because they have an interest in being translated properly.

    Basically, lots of creative (and other!) work is not economically viable. That’s why there are things like cultural funding… Germany has an interest in getting its literature translated, and in exposing itself to other literatures, so it has funding for that.

    Frankly, the entire mantra of “economic viability” and “value” makes me want to scream. We are living in a system which defines things from Peter Handke, to quality journalism, to humane working conditions, to an environmentally sustainable lifestyle as “inviable” or producing negligible “value”. Despite the incredible wealth in circulation, we’re told things like these are luxuries and can’t be afforded. At the same time, within this system, things from Viagra spam to brainless computer apps to junk bonds and derivatives are “viable” and produce “value”.

    Maybe the problem is with the system itself and not with the activities that don’t live up to its standards of value and viability. I don’t have the magic solution here, but it would help if, on an individual level (and ultimately on the level of society), we recognized and supported “values” other than quantifiable, short-term financial ones. The market doesn’t have to be God.

    But as long as economic interests reign supreme, I do have to defend my own economic interests as a translator so that it is viable for me to work as such. Ultimately, though, publishers, translators and writers are all in the same boat…

    However unhelpful that may be, I’d better leave this as my parting shot and get back to my other unviable activities.


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