Richard Charkin: A Publisher on the Translators’ Debate

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

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 International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he 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 a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the 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 Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin 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. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’