Making Translation Contracts Understandable: The Bridge Series

In News by Guest Contributor

Part of ‘The Bridge Series’ of events relating to translation in the industry, this month’s session in New York City looked at translators’ contracts, and what to expect.

The Bridge - PEN

By Lena Prisner

Not the Stuff of Public Conversation
The discussion program called The Bridge Series is dedicated to literary translation, and is a collaboration with the PEN America Translation Committee. Its presentations are intended to promote public awareness of the art of translation. On April 19, a program at the Center for Fiction in Manhattan focused on translation contracts.

The panel comprised:

  • Shelley Frisch, translator;
  • Soho Press associate publisher Juliet Grames;
  • Literary agent Jacqueline Ko of the Wylie Agency; and
  • Moderator and translator Alex Zucker.

Zucker opened the evening by pointing out that talking about translation contracts is especially important precisely because it’s rare: we don’t hear the details of translation contracts discussed in public. Translators struggle with contractual issues because they frequently don’t have the expertise to handle their own negotiations. Just as early-career authors can be at a severe disadvantage in contract negotiations without representation, translators new to the business are largely unprepared to handle negotiations.

Neither the American Translators Association, the American Literary Translators Association, nor the Translation Committee of PEN America, Zucker said, employs legal staff to advise translators on contractual matters.

Shelley Frisch

Shelley Frisch

Beware the ‘Second Payment’

Translator Shelley Frisch shared some of her experiences with translation contracts, saying that none of the contracts she has signed so far looked the same. “They can range from three pages to twenty pages,” she said, and her first contract turned out to be her best.

Frisch said that her most frequent problem with understanding contracts is often their unusual wording. As a translator, she said, you’re often unsure what you can ask for. It’s crucial, she said, not to agree to conditions you don’t feel comfortable with; doing that not only devalues you as an individual but also the profession of translation as a whole.

Frisch left the audience with a bit of advice on translation contracts.

  • Have someone look over your contract before signing it.
  • “Pick your battles. You can’t negotiate over every single thing in the contract.” Insteaad, figure out your priorities and get them across. “In my experience, publishers will say something can’t be done in the beginning. But if it’s important to you, chances are they will come up with a solution.”
  • Concerning payment, Frisch advised her colleagues to watch out for the passage describing the “second payment.” The contract may say that a second payment is due on the publication of the book, but insist there be a deadline for that, she suggested, because publication dates can change. The key phrase is “no later than.”
  • Frisch talked about the author’s relationship to the translated text. “Some authors will try to alter the wording of the translation,” she said. “Make sure you come to an agreement that puts a limit on that.” Frisch also emphasized the importance of the copy editor. “If you can, agree with their suggestions. Give them some credit.”
  • Finally, she advised translators to have patience with a contract. It may be something you want to be done with as soon as possible, but it gives both sides the chance to see what is the best fit.
Juliet Grames

Juliet Grames

‘Have a Stake in It’

Juliet Grames, associate publisher at Bronwen Hruska’s Soho Press, spoke of Soho’s view on the subject:

“The translator is a face to the book,” Grames said, “so it’s very important for us that they have a stake in it.” In the time of the Internet and social media, she said, it’s all the more important for a translator to get a say in how the book is promoted, to make sure that he or she is included in that plan.

She listed Soho’s standard royalties and encouraged translators not to settle for a stake that strongly differs with these numbers. [Editor’s Note: We list here corrected figures from Juliet Grames, with thanks.] Grames cited 10 percent of the price for hardcovers; 7.5 percent for paperbacks; and 25 percent for ebooks. In terms of what the author and translator make, Grames clarifies: “We split this royalty between authors and translators.”

‘A Light Side and a Dark Side’

Lastly, agent Jacqueline Ko of The Wylie Agency summarized her relationship with the translator this way:

“There is a light side and a dark side to it.”

Ko encouraged translators to maintain a good relationship with the original author’s agent, because that agent’s presence in the negotiation of the translation contract could work to the translator’s advantage – even if the agent is not actually involved in the process.

However, the publishing business is set up as a capitalist system, she added. As an agent, it’s her job to represent the author’s interests.

“Sometimes, translators don’t understand the process,” Ko said, “and it can be difficult and awkward.”

Often, authors are sympathetic to their translators. “They’re on the translator’s side, really,” Ko said.

The next session of The Bridge Series is to take place on May 17 and will focus on bookselling.

Lena Prisner holds a BA in English and American Studies and Cognitive Science. She has written for the Badische Zeitung, the online magazine and Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk in Germany. She also blogs about films on High Noon, the online film magazine of the student’s cinema in Freiburg, Germany.

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