German Translators’ Survey of Contracts Cites Low Pay Levels

In News by Dennis Abrams

In its first such report in 15 years, Germany’s translators’ association asserts ‘the weak position of literary translators in negotiations with large publishing houses.’
This graphe from the VdÜ shows the breakdown of translation contracts in Germany in 2015

This graph from the VdÜ shows the breakdown of translation contracts in Germany in 2015

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘Appropriate Compensation Remains Elusive’
Writing at Slator, the site’s co-founder and Managing Director, Florian Faes, reports that the German Association of Literary Translators (VdÜ) has released the findings of its first compensation survey in 15 years.

He writes, “The survey provides an interesting look into the world of literary translation,” based on a sample of 644 contracts for book translations into German.

Among the survey’s results:

  • A total 390 contracts (more than half) were for books translated from English into German, followed by French (116); Italian (34); Dutch (28); Spanish (20); and Swedish (16)—with Polish, Norwegian, Russian, Icelandic, Danish, and others following. When participants were asked to “rate the level of translation difficulty,” 22 percent rated them difficult, 57 percent “medium,” and 21 percent easy.
  • Fifty-three percent of all contracts surveyed were for fiction; 22 percent nonfiction; 18 percent for children’s and YA; with the final 7 percent divided between what Faes reports to be “academic publications, poetry, comics, and visual novels.”
  • In addition, in Germany, women lead in literary translation. All told, “465 of the respondents checked off the ‘female’ box on the survey, as opposed to 124 men–the rest did not answer, either way.
  • It’s apparent that in Germany at least, “Being a literary translator is no shortcut to riches,” Faes writes. According to the survey, the average rate for a standard page of 1,500 characters (around 250 words) is €18.91, which works out to an average price per word of around €0.07 (US$0.08).

Literary translators do have an added bonus, however, in addition to the rate paid per page: commissions on sales. Of the 664 contracts included in the survey, 504 of them included a commission “on net sales in bookstores and other derivative sales.”

Faes writes:

Florian Faes

Florian Faes

“The level and structure of commissions is a hot-button issue among German translators.

“In 2011, the German Federal Supreme Court clarified an earlier 2009 ruling and set minimum commissions at 0.8 percent of net sales. The commission only applies, however, once a book passes the threshold of 5,000 copies sold, which, according to the VdÜ, is the case for less than 50 percent of all translated work.

“The VdÜ’s own compensation standards call for commissions of 1 percent from the sale of the first copy, 0.8 percent after 5,000 copies sold, and 0.6 percent after 10,000 copies sold.”

At the same time though, the survey reveals that “compliance with the Supreme Court ruling among publishers is surprisingly low”—only 46 percent of contracts are in line with the Court’s standards. In 53 of the contracts, Faes writes, commissions were at 0.3 percent and only became applicable after 8,000 copies.

Faes also reports that tiered arrangements are common, with levels of 5,000, 75,000 and 500,000 paying commissions of 0.4 percent, 0.3 percent, and 0.2 percent respectively. Even so, if a book sells 1 million copies, under the terms of this agreement, the translator could earn “less than €2,500 in commissions,” he writes.

Faes concludes:

“In a commentary to the survey, the VdÜ regrets that, despite intense political and legal lobbying spanning several decades, ‘appropriate compensation for the demanding work’ of literary translation remains elusive. According to the authors, the survey once more highlights the weak position of literary translators in negotiations with large publishing houses.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.