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Two Industries, One Job Market: Book Translation in the US vs. UK

Lower rates and a the lack of royalties make the US a less appealing market for UK translators, but there are some advantages.

By Daniel Kalder

international booksToday’s web-connected world has changed the business of translation for the better. UK translators now work directly in the US and vice versa, but even as the job market merges, conditions in the two book industries remain very different. This will be a topic of discussion at the LBF this year, but prior to that open panel, a “summit” of twelve individuals working in translation on either side of the Atlantic will meet to discuss the matters that affect them. Among them will be Daniel Hahn, a UK-based translator who works in French, Spanish and Portuguese and who has worked on everything from The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa — winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award — to Pele’s autobiography.

Translation Rates Differ

So what are the issues facing translators working in both markets? As in all areas of work, money comes at the top of the list:

“The US definitely pays less. And it’s hard to get paid better when working over there because the precedent has been set that the fees are lower. The big difference in the situation over there is that a high proportion of American translators are affiliated with academic institutions and so have income from elsewhere; in the UK however that’s rarely the case. Here, translators do it for a living.

US translators cannot band together to set an official rate and so it is much easier to be undercut.

“The risk for a UK translator working in the US market then is that if I ask for, say £80, and all the others are asking for $80, it’s a more difficult sell. The rate here, set by the Translator’s Association is £88.50 per 1,000 words. In a first contract in the US it’s usually $100, which is at least 25-30% lower. But there are ways around that, for instance by encouraging the publisher to seek additional funding. If the translation costs are met by someone else, say a national cultural institute, then publishers don’t mind if the fee is slightly higher.”

Another stark difference between working in the UK and the US is the presence of strong anti-trust laws in the latter market. US translators cannot band together to set an official rate and so it is much easier to be undercut.

Meanwhile, says Hahn, “in almost every way funding works differently in the US. I’m curious to hear about the challenges my American colleagues are facing, things the NEA could be doing, perhaps, or whether we should be trying to get, for example, the Goethe Institute in London and the Goethe Institut in New York to collaborate on projects.”

“There’s also a flimsier sense of moral rights in the US. Some publishers want you to sign away copyright and moral rights. They’re not bad people — it’s just a habit. It’s in the standard contract. Usually though if I say ‘I won’t sign that’ then almost every publisher agrees. So like I said, it’s a habit, but for me the symbolism of not agreeing to certain terms is important.”

No Royalties in the US

Another difference between working in the US and UK publisher concerns translator royalties. “In the UK, contracts state that you get them. In the US, in most contracts, the translator doesn’t get them. I usually ask and get one, but that’s not standard. As it is, it’s very unusual for a translation to earn out its fee and make royalties but even so I insist on that clause in the contract out of principle. Really the habits of thought in the two markets are different. Basically in the UK, when I get the first draft of a contract and read it I say ‘OK.’ In the US I usually ask for changes. Generally speaking, as far as conditions and rights go, you get a better contract in the UK. One advantage for translators working here is that it’s easier to get all the major players in the room together — it’s a small country. So we can coordinate more easily.”

America Has Its Advantages

In spite of the obstacles however, Hahn enjoys working for the US market.

Translator Daniel Hahn

“The main advantage is that the total number of books published is much larger than total number of books that are published in the UK. So we get to translate different things for a different market, and America has a very dynamic publishing culture. If a book is received well, then the critical, review and blog coverage is very exciting. It’s huge.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Hahn says the entire UK versus US English issue rarely if ever raises its head.

“Normally it doesn’t matter. Usually the books I translate are set in Brazil, Spain, Guatemala, Angola…So the environments are different. If I were writing American about characters and settings, then it would be harder to fake. Because my settings are neutral it’s not so problematic. If I unwittingly slip in a British phrase, then the American copy editor will clean it up. It’s not a new issue- since in the past British publishers would often sell UK translations on to the US, then the US publisher would do a copy edit. Now it’s the same, only I translate for the American Simon & Schuster directly.”

Hahn also suggests that changing demographics have changed the situation at American publishers, as bilingual editors can read books in the original languages and buy them without fear.

“In America I’ve translated Spanish books which the editor could read in the original. So it’s easier for the publisher to make a decision. And if they can read Spanish, then they can read books from other languages which have been translated into Spanish. In the UK, some editors read French, and I’ve done books for those who’ve read in that language. They have no anxiety about what they’re publishing. Otherwise they have to translate a part of it, or get reports.”

Hahn views the upcoming summit and panel at the LBF as the beginning of a conversation, about the differing conditions when it comes to pay, status, rights — in short “steal ideas from each other.”

“Lots of us know each other, but there’s never been a mechanism for communicating regularly. There are informal channels yes, but we’d like to do things in more systematic and regular way. We want to learn from what each other is doing. It’s about us taking their stuff, and them taking ours, and collaborating in the future.”

The panel discussion, “A Common Language: Literary Translation in the UK and US,” will take place during the London Book Fair, April, 17, 10:00–11:00, Literary Translation Centre, EC2.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted March 29, 2013 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    Apart from money, quality too matters the most especially when it comes to translating research books, documents etc. since it involves subject matter expertise.

  2. Doreen
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    Just for the record, UK-based translators cannot band together to fix rates, either.

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