Translator Frank Wynne Responds to Richard Charkin’s Column

In News, Opinion & Commentary by Porter Anderson

Following the publisher Richard Charkin’s column for us on translators and translation, Frank Wynne offers his considered reaction.

Frank Wynne

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Landscape for Translators’
You may have noticed that our June 16 column by Richard CharkinA Publisher on the Translators’ Debate—has prompted quite a bit of discussion, both in comments on the page and in social media.

We’re pleased to have today (June 23) a response from Frank Wynne, the prolific Irish translator and writer who recently chaired the International Booker Prize jury.

In May, Wynne won his second Dublin Literary Award with Alice Zeniter for his translation of her The Art of Losing (Pan Macmillan/Picador, February 2021). His first Dublin Prize was won in 2002 with Michel Houellebecq for Atomised (Penguin Random House/Vintage, March 2001).

For the record in this discussion, we see Wynne credited on the cover of neither book, not even on the cover of an edition of the Zeniter that carries a badge for its Dublin honor. (That accolade is won jointly by author and translator, and the €100,000 purse is divided with €75,000 for the author and €25,000 for the translator.)

There’s a list here of many other awards Wynne’s work has earned.

Richard Charkin

Charkin, of course, is well known to our readership for his background as a longtime publishing executive with Bloomsbury, Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Elsevier, and he currently is the founding publisher of Mensch Publishing, his independent press.

He’s a former president of the International Publishers Association (IPA), the president of The Book Society, and a member of the International Advisory Board of Frankfurter Buchmesse.

These and many other aspects of the careers of these men make them highly experienced practitioners and commentators in the world industry. And they’re respected and respectful professionals who know how to differ earnestly and yet amiably.

We’re particularly taken with Wynne’s last line in which he talks about the relationship of translators and publisher: “not adversarial but symbiotic.” Could we just get this exchange right over to some politicians we all know as a guide to collegial disagreement and debate?

He Said, He Said

To get into Wynne’s comments, let us remind you that Wynne spoke with BBC 4 Radio’s Tom Sutcliffe on March 15 about translators’ compensation, appearing with translator Jennifer Croft, who together with British author Mark Haddon and the Society of Authors last autumn launched the #TranslatorsOnTheCover campaign, urging publishers to offer credit to translators and authors (as the International Booker does), by publishing both authors’ and translators’ names on the covers of translated works.

We asked Charkin for his views on the issues. Subsequently, Wynne contacted us to offer this response. Frank Wynne writes:

I was interested to read Richard Charkin’s contribution to the ongoing debate on the recognition and remuneration of literary translators. However, I feel certain errors and strawman arguments require correction and clarification.

Firstly, contrary to Mr. Charkin’s assertion, I have never called for translators “to be recognized as equals in terms of cover placement and royalty share.” Advocating for translator royalties for does not imply royalties equal to those received by authors; proposing cover credit for translators does not mean equal credit. A cursory look at other media–theater and film posters, DVD and classical CD covers–demonstrates that it is possible to credit multiple creators of an artistic work while respecting their individual roles and contributions.

The article evokes a “profit-sharing model” that no one has ever proposed. Trade publishers pay advances and royalties to authors; the majority also pay fees/advances and (much smaller) royalties to translators. Authors are not required to repay unearned advances, nor are translators. True, most translated books struggle to cover their costs, but so do the majority of English-language books, as Charkin rightly points out. Since no one would suggest that authors forego eventual royalties because their books are statistically unlikely to earn out, why argue this in the case of translators?

“Where would this additional royalty come from?” Typical UK royalties on English-language books begin at 10 percent (hardback) and 7.5 percent (paperback); for translated works typical figures are 8 percent and 6 percent (paperback) leaving a 2 percent/1.5 percent margin which means that the 1-2 percent royalty already paid to translators by the vast majority of independent publishers and many major publishers is already covered by the lower starting royalty for these authors. Ebook royalties (typically 25 percent of net receipts) are routinely split 20 percent/5 percent between author and translator by many, though sadly not all, UK publishers.

Despite the many passionate readers of translated literature, few people truly believe that a translator’s name will increase sales. But this misses the point: authors are credited because the text is their work; with translations, the text is the work of the author via their translator. The two roles are by no means equal, but both are vital.

What is frustrating about the article is that, deep down, Mr. Charkin and I seem to be broadly in agreement. He concludes “I believe that there should be more translations from and into all languages. […] I also think translators deserve credit and a fair reward.” This is all that anyone is saying; but what constitutes “credit and fair reward” is a valid topic for reasonable discussion.

The landscape for translators has significantly improved over the past 20 years, in part through the advocacy and support of a host of organizations, and in particular thanks to the many, many publishers who support and value our work. I and my colleagues deeply value our working relationships with editors, publishers, agents, and rights managers. Ours is not an adversarial but a symbiotic relationship, one that has evolved, and will continue to do so.

Richard Charkin’s columns for Publishing Perspectives can be found here. Our coverage relative to Frank Wynne’s work is here. More from us on translation issues is here, and more on the work of translator Jennifer Croft is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s global media partner.

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

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.