Translators say, “Show Me the Monnaie

In Europe by Siobhan O'Leary

By Siobhan O’Leary

translation dictionaries

BERLIN: Thousands of translators across Europe and the rest of the world spend their days and nights scanning their dictionaries and thesauruses for le mot juste, making their living working on everything from novels to air conditioner repair manuals. And while translators, particularly of literary texts, are ultimately tasked with the responsibility of matching the precision and creativity of the original author — no easy task — their compensation is often so paltry, it’s a wonder anyone gets into the profession.

German translators, however, received a bit of a financial boost a few months ago when the German Federal Court of Justice ruled that literary translators are now entitled to claim a percentage of the proceeds of books that sell more than 5,000 copies. As we reported earlier, translators will continue to receive a guaranteed fee — an advance of sorts, usually calculated per page — and when a title sells more than 5,000 copies, the translator will also be entitled to 0.8% net receipts for hardcover books sold and 0.4% for paperbacks sold. Judges also awarded German translators 50% of net revenue on all subsidiary rights sales of their translations (for paperback editions, film rights, audio books, etc.).

Translator Sues for More Pay

The ruling came about after a translator sued a German publishing group for paying her 15 Euros per page to translate two novels from English into German, a fee she felt was inadequate. But according to Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel, chair of the Association of German-Language Translators (VDÜ) — the largest organization of literature translators in Germany, which played a major role in the matter — the court’s decision doesn’t expressly address the issue of page rates, which are notoriously low. And this, he feels, is a huge oversight.

“The Federal Court of Justice verdict sets a legal framework…and it is now up to the translators and publishing houses to reach an agreement,” he said. “It is the mutual task — and I believe in the mutual interest — of the publishing houses and the translators’ association to conclude a remuneration agreement acceptable to both sides.”

As the German translator of the Twilight series, among other texts, and director of the literature program for German publisher Eichborn Verlag, Karsten Kredel certainly sees this development from a very unique perspective. Overall, he is pleased with the court’s decision.

“I do think any legally binding agreement of this sort is a good development for translators,” said Kredel. “While not every publisher (and not every translator in need of a job!) will follow suit, the overall payment for translators will, in my estimate, increase.”

However, Kredel voices concern that translators of highly literary texts (which rarely become bestsellers and which often require a lot more time to translate per page) could be at a relative disadvantage given the standard terms put forth. “I hope there remains room for negotiation with regard to the character of a particular project,” he added.

Schmidt-Henkel echoed that sentiment, noting that translators of difficult works of world literature with small print runs (and less of a chance of selling over 5,000 copies) should not be penalized.

But what does this mean for German publishers, who release over 7,000 books in translation each year? Lübbe — which, as the German publisher of Dan Brown, might have been one of the publishers most affected by this ruling — has actually had translators on staff since 2007.  In an interview with Buchreport, Lübbe’s Sales & Marketing Director Klaus Kluge asserted that this stability is a plus, both for the publisher and for the translator (and Lübbe does still work with freelancers as well).

It’s difficult to say whether other publishers will consider hiring full-time translators (or whether it would even save them any money in the long run) but Kathrin Harlass, an advisor to the BDÜ — Bundesverband der Übersetzer und Dolmetscher (the German Association of Professional Interpreters and Translators) — admits that she would not be surprised if publishers tried to find ways to get around the ruling. “It may well be that publishers try to lower the base fee as a compensation for granted royalties,” she said. “No one can tell yet.”  The BDÜ is focused first and foremost on technical translators and interpreters and, thus, will play a much smaller role than the VDÜ in the proceedings going forward.

The Dutch Model

German translators and publishers might want to consider looking to one of their neighbors to the west — the Netherlands…

Dutch literary translators have long worked for royalties (usually for any book selling over 2,500 copies), though some actually choose to forgo royalties in favor of translating more commercial projects (which tend to be negotiated on a flat rate per word basis). Why is that? According to Unieboek publisher Frederika van Traa, Dutch translators “often like doing commercial books. They’re usually quicker to translate and, very important, there’s more income from the libraries.” Yes, Dutch translators also get a cut from the libraries each time “their” book is borrowed.

On the other hand, literary projects do pay slightly more and there is one clear incentive for translators in the Netherlands to take on literary translations. As Caroline van Gelderen of the eponymous literary agency notes, “[commercial] translators hand over all rights to the publisher” while “literary translators are the copyright holder of the actual translation.”

For each country in Europe that has translators, there is yet another compensation model, another set of copyright laws, another definition of what it means to be a literary vs. commercial translator. The Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires (European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations) (CEATL) — the main European interlocutor in the field of literary translation — has put together a survey of the comparative income of literary translators in Europe. It’s nearly two years old now, but worth a look to see just how vastly differently translators are compensated all across Europe.

READ: The CEATL report

DISCUSS: Tell Us Translators, Are You Underpaid?

About the Author

Siobhan O'Leary

Siobhan O’Leary is a literary agent, translator and writer based in Berlin. She previously worked in the Foreign Rights department of the Crown Publishing Group (Random House) and at the publishing consulting firm Market Partners International.