Richard Charkin: A Publisher on the Translators’ Debate

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin11 Comments

The view from Richard Charkin on issues of translators’ credit and compensation is that translators ‘should be careful what they wish for.’

A sign in Amman for a cultural center among shops and cafes on the Al Kalha staircase, September 2, 2021. One translation of the term ‘jadal’ is ‘controversy.’ Image – Getty iStockphoto: Cristi Croitoru

Editor’s note: In recent months, there have been growing calls for more visible credit for translators on book covers and for a reconsideration of how translators are paid for their work by publishers. Leading translators in these issues are Jennifer Croft and Frank Wynne, who recently chaired the International Booker Prize jury. Because we hear less from publishers than from others in these discussions, we asked Richard Charkin to give us his thoughts for today’s column.–Porter Anderson


By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘The Role of the Translator is Crucial’
I was fascinated by the call from the chair of the International Booker Jury, Frank Wynne, for translators to be recognized as equals in terms of cover placement and royalty share.

Image: Richard Charkin

More or less the first book I published was a translation. I was relieved to discover that the translator was identified on the title page, but not on the jacket.

But before that, I was addicted to translated works, usually in the black Penguin livery reserved for “foreign classics”—Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Tolstoy, even Machiavelli, although I don’t think I learned  from him as much as I should have. And then to the racier Alberto Moravia and the ever-entertaining Don Camillo series by Giovanni Guareschi. Not to mention the fantastic Asterix and Tintin series.

I think translated books play an enormously important role in furthering our understanding of other countries, other systems, other geniuses.

It’s, therefore unsurprising that the role of the translator is crucial. A bad translation can ruin a book. A great one can allow an author’s words to reach out to a new and bigger readership.

Rewarding translators is a given, as is giving them credit. But this particular announcement got me thinking.

The Payment Question

From Publishing Perspectives‘ coverage of the issue, Booker Foundation says: “The European Council for Literary Translators Associations (CEATL) recommends that translators share in any profits from the sale of the books they’ve translated.”

Richard Charkin

It’s not my job to work out what would be best for literary translators, but it would be my strong recommendation that they should avoid sharing any profits from the sales of the books they’ve translated. There may be a few titles for which this would make sense but, at least in the world of translations into English, the translators would find that this would result in having to pay out quite substantial sums to publishers for their share of the losses.

Most translations into English are lucky to cover their real costs, at least in the short term. In fact, most books find it difficult to cover their costs, and translations even more so.

However, it could be that the translators were really asking for a share of the revenue rather than the profit generated. This would make more sense, but I fear that the income from this would in most cases be lower than a typical flat fee and, of course, a lot less certain. It would also lead to translators having to make decisions about which book to translate based on likely sales rather than importance.

In addition, and from the publisher’s point of view, where would this additional royalty come from given the low profitability of translated books in general?

Higher prices for translated books would probably reduce unit sales further. Lowering the royalty to an original author would not go down well with the author, the agent, or the sub-agent. The effect would be to reduce further publishers’ attraction to translated works and thus reduce the number and diversity of such titles. An unintended consequence.

The Credit Question

The other request is for equal credit to authors and translators by naming the translator on the cover of the book.

In some instances, notably Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the translator deserves equal credit with the original author and indeed creates additional sales for the author, although in this case it won’t do the anonymous author much good as he died at some time in the eighth century AD.

In most cases, of course, the author is far more important than the translator. Harry Potter is translated into a huge number of languages but sells because of the brilliance of the author and her creation, not the name of the translator. And that goes for just about every major author, commercial or literary, adult or children’s.

As with most cover designs there will be multiple opinions.

Translators maintain that carrying their name on the cover of a book enhances sales. Every publisher I know (and I include myself) thinks this is nonsense. Nobody I know has ever bought a book because it’s a translation but there are people who are less likely to buy a book if they think it is a translation. I am sorry about this but I believe it to be true in nearly every case.

Finally, I find myself asking why translators should be singled out for credit and a royalty share. Could the original editor who shaped the book to make it a success ask for similar respect and reward? Or the jacket designer who came up with such a creative idea that it transformed the book from ho-hum to must-have?

I believe that there should be more translations from and into all languages. Technology allows us to do this more efficiently. I also think translators deserve credit and a fair reward but they should be careful what they wish for. They may end up pricing themselves out of the market and erecting barriers to the publication of the very books they work on and love.


Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s views are his own and may not reflect those of Publishing Perspectives or its staff. More from us on translation issues is here, and more on the work of translators Jennifer Croft and Frank Wynne is here and here, respectively.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the IPA and the UK PA and for 11 years was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is former president of The Book Society and non-executive director of Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the International Advisory Board of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Bonnier Books UK’s Advisory Board and is a senior adviser to nkoda.com. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd as well as founding his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Richard has an MA in Natural Sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a Supernumerary Fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London.

Comments

    1. I find it a ghastly comment by an academic Italian publishing house. That il Mulino doesn’t stand or even care for translation tells the sad situation of Italian studies and scholars.

  1. You’ll soon get to know quite a few people that do and you’ll better adjust or your publishing house is bound to fail. Best.

  2. “In most cases, of course, the author is far more important than the translator. Harry Potter is translated into a huge number of languages but sells because of the brilliance of the author and her creation, not the name of the translator. And that goes for just about every major author, commercial or literary, adult or children’s.”

    I have to disagree. A new translation of The Lord of the Rings was recently published in Italy, and it received very negative reviews by book fans as well as people in the industry, including fellow translators. It was a fiasco, especially in terms of sales, which is what you as a publisher are likely to be interested in. The same can be said for many new translations of Jane Austen or other English classics. I’m sure that’s true for English translations of the Divine Comedy or Don Quixote too.

    If the translation is dreadful, you may have the best world-renowned author in your catalogue, people won’t buy it. So you may just as well give the good translators the credit and money they deserve. How to separate the wheat from the chaff is part of the publishers’s job, isn’t it?

  3. Glad to hear someone voice out genuine worries and fears succinctly. Your point about the editor is even more relevant in translated material. The volume of revisions done by someone else other than the translator have led to some very aggrieved parties. I have been at the short-end of this and trying to be magnanimous at times may not be the best solution.

  4. Tell JK Rowling to translate her Harry Potter into 80 languages and reap all the extra royalties by herself then.

    1. All the translators of Harry Potter around the world have been paid and, in all the cases I have seen, acknowledged. I am not sure what you are trying to say.

  5. This article raises a great number of important points.
    I very much agree that editors, designers and copy-editors would often deserve a share of royalties, but don’t envy the publishers their task to allocate their portions fairly. When I think of how brilliant the copy-editor of my translations was, amazing. She made sure that bilingual readers could not, and would not, try to guess from the translation what the original said. As far as authors go, occasionally their texts are improved when good translators make slight adjustments — more often, though, one can only be in awe of a brilliant author’s language (not only so-called ‘classics’ like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Asterix’, but also contemporary works, like Seethaler’s ‘A whole life’). That is the moment when a publisher will, I trust, acknowledge and recognise the true value of a translation. Submitting it for a prize?

  6. I agree with all you say. You have hit the nail on the head over royalties for all who contribute. We already have a hugely overcomplex system for paying royalties. this would exacerbate that problem. In particular, and the thrust of my article, making translated works even more difficult to fund and manage might have the opposite effect to that desired, more translations. Of course translators should be recognised, rewarded, respected, and entered for prizes but let’s remain realistic.

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