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Why are literary translators so poorly paid?
Thread poster: isabel murillo

isabel murillo  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:33
English to Spanish
+ ...
May 5, 2011

I've decided to open this post as a consequence of yesterday's Proz poll on the rate range in which we would include our average per word translation rate.

I posted my reply with an explanation that goes more or less as follows:

"Although I work for the most reputed publishing houses in Spain, and although I have nearly 20 years of experience as a translator, and although I have translated around 200 titles, some of them from authors reputed worldwide... the fact is th
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I've decided to open this post as a consequence of yesterday's Proz poll on the rate range in which we would include our average per word translation rate.

I posted my reply with an explanation that goes more or less as follows:

"Although I work for the most reputed publishing houses in Spain, and although I have nearly 20 years of experience as a translator, and although I have translated around 200 titles, some of them from authors reputed worldwide... the fact is that the rates for the literary translation in Spain have nothing to do with a price per source word.

Current maximum maximum rates, for a translator with my background, are 12/12,5 euros / 1800 translated characters; however the standard rates run between that and 9 euros /2100 characters. (With characters I mean characters+spaces in a Word file).

I don't dare to translate this to the standard word rate that applies to the technical translations... I am afraid I would die ipso facto!

For tell you the truth, I can't envision a way to solve this tremendeous gap. We are all translators, and everybody faces his/her own particular challenges. I assure you one thing: doing a quality translation of a book is not easy at all! To understand the feelings and nuances of the author, his style and his characters is tricky, at best."

I received several responses, going from the understanding to "Don't complain, Why do you do it" or "This is a job, not a hobby". Sometimes I feel that we are 2nd category translators...

Seeing the different opinions and feelings around this tough matter, I would like to ask your inputs for a better understanding on the situation as well as which solutions do you suggest (please, no more: price your services accordingly, ask your customers to pay you more...). I have already tried a lot of things and I consider myself "well paid" in this sector and in my country.

My solution: I make my comfortable living in a job I love, working long hours, 6 days a week and alternating the translation of fiction and essays (more time consuming, more fun, more creativity) with self-help and marketing books (bored, repetitive, but fast and profitable).

Thanks colleagues for your contributions!
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Anna Rioland  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:33
English to Russian
+ ...
Publishing industry May 5, 2011

It is well-known that the publishing industry does not pay well, especially in the domain of fiction. Having worked in publishing for years, I know that the profits from publishing fiction/children's books/art books are quite often low (except for some rare best-sellers, of course).
When a company publishes a book for a very specific target audience (e.g. bankers, dentists, marketing specialists), it takes far less risks, because if the product is good and innovative, it will be sold - at
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It is well-known that the publishing industry does not pay well, especially in the domain of fiction. Having worked in publishing for years, I know that the profits from publishing fiction/children's books/art books are quite often low (except for some rare best-sellers, of course).
When a company publishes a book for a very specific target audience (e.g. bankers, dentists, marketing specialists), it takes far less risks, because if the product is good and innovative, it will be sold - at least, in most cases.
Publishing a novel (especially if the author is not well-known) is a real gamble, so the company tries to limit the costs. Also, there are very few jobs in literary translation compared to commercial translations, so quite a lot of translators are keen on taking them on. I know some colleagues who translate literary texts just for pleasure (I know someone who translated a classical novel during 10 years!), and also because it is prestigious to be a published translator (especially if the publisher is a household name). As long as it is a win-win situation, I don't see any problems. But of course, it is impossible to make a living of literary translation...

I think that you have already found a good solution: a mix of literary and technical translation.

[Edited at 2011-05-05 09:07 GMT]
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Harry Bornemann  Identity Verified
Mexico
Member (2002)
English to German
+ ...
Because you are happy with it May 5, 2011

isabel murillo wrote:
Why are literary translators so poorly paid?
(please, no more: price your services accordingly, ask your customers to pay you more...). I have already tried a lot of things...

Answer: because they agree with such rates. Full stop.

But why do they agree with it, while most other translators would rather read a book instead of accepting such rates?

Because literary translators do both at the same time.


 

ATIL KAYHAN  Identity Verified
Turkey
Local time: 07:33
Turkish to English
+ ...
... because they are so poor at advertising themselves. May 5, 2011

I think this is an all-too-common scenario. What you just described is also common in Turkey, at least my understanding is along those lines. I try my best to stick to a competitive but reasonable rate. My rate lies roughly at the middle of ProZ community rates. However, I do not get to receive a lot of job offers with this rate. Sometimes I get no job offers at all. I prefer that to working at outrageously low rates. I just wish everybody's preference was the same as mine.

 

John Rawlins  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:33
Spanish to English
+ ...
Not really a business as we know it May 5, 2011

I have always believed literary translation to be a labour of love and similar to a voluntary activity with expenses paid. In fact, I am not sure that it can really be described as a business activity. I have always imagined myself settling into literary work after winning the lottery or retiring on my pension.

 

Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 05:33
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
A question, if I may May 5, 2011

Anna Rioland wrote:
Publishing a novel (especially if the author is not well-known) is a real gamble, so the company tries to limit the costs.


That I can understand. If the client is paying up-front for a translation, without knowing if a single book will be sold, then that is an enormous risk.

That's why I imagined that literary translators always accepted a low per word (or equivalent) rate. But I also imagined that there was a royalties clause in the contract that meant that they would earn more over the years if the book was successful. Is that not the case?

I've always thought what a marvellous incentive that must be. Poorly-written translation = no royalties. Really well-written translation = possible goldmine with a trickly of income for a number of years, and with all future translation contracts taking account of this status when talking rates and percentages.


 

Anna Rioland  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:33
English to Russian
+ ...
Reply to Sheila May 5, 2011

Yes, some translators manage to negotiate royalties, but the book really has to be a best-seller in order to bring some serious money to the translator. I don't think that literary translation can ever become a lucrative business, given the amount of time necessary to produce a great literary translation!

 

Susana González Tuya
Spain
Local time: 06:33
Member (2010)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Supply vs Demand May 5, 2011

Sheila Wilson wrote:

But I also imagined that there was a royalties clause in the contract that meant that they would earn more over the years if the book was successful. Is that not the case?


That is what I thought, because it makes sense, but some colleagues told me that it´s not the case. They just get paid for the translation work.

Maybe they should negotiate harder but then, many translators (if not most) prefer to translate any novel to the handbook of the latest PC.


 

Giles Watson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 06:33
Italian to English
In memoriam
Non-monetary benefits and a less than buoyant market May 5, 2011

Some literary translators accept low-paid work because they are academics. They already have a steady income and are willing to work for very little because the translation beefs up their CV. There is nothing wrong with this. The often immensely profitable learned journals don't usually pay for original articles, either.

As Anna says, literary translations do not generally make much profit. If literary translators were always given a royalty on sales instead of a fee, however low, I
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Some literary translators accept low-paid work because they are academics. They already have a steady income and are willing to work for very little because the translation beefs up their CV. There is nothing wrong with this. The often immensely profitable learned journals don't usually pay for original articles, either.

As Anna says, literary translations do not generally make much profit. If literary translators were always given a royalty on sales instead of a fee, however low, I suspect many of them would be even worse off than they are now.

On the positive side, a book is a product like any other. If a translation sells well, the translator is in a strong position to negotiate a higher fee for subsequent work.
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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 07:33
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
You are famous, we are not May 5, 2011

In every book you translate your name is mentioned and every library has your name in their files.
Most literary translators love their work, that is the reason why they are content with low rates. In my country translators usually get stipends from various sources, otherwise they would starve. I don't know if Spain has any public funding for literary translators.

We technical translators never see our name published, and in fact I have never seen any of my translations, excep
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In every book you translate your name is mentioned and every library has your name in their files.
Most literary translators love their work, that is the reason why they are content with low rates. In my country translators usually get stipends from various sources, otherwise they would starve. I don't know if Spain has any public funding for literary translators.

We technical translators never see our name published, and in fact I have never seen any of my translations, except web-related material. Sniff!
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isabel murillo  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:33
English to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
royalties May 5, 2011

Yes, there are royalties of course, but....

In fact, as per the contract that always goes with a book (when you work for serious publishing houses, that is my case), the price you perceive for the translation is an "advance payment" of all the payments that you will receive in a future: royalties.

However, unless you translate a big big big best seller (Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code or something like this) you NEVER see a cent on this regard.

So, a good and
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Yes, there are royalties of course, but....

In fact, as per the contract that always goes with a book (when you work for serious publishing houses, that is my case), the price you perceive for the translation is an "advance payment" of all the payments that you will receive in a future: royalties.

However, unless you translate a big big big best seller (Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code or something like this) you NEVER see a cent on this regard.

So, a good and/or difficult translation has nothing to do with the money you perceive at the end. As per my experience (there are always exceptions to that rule) a best seller is not necessarily a difficult or a tricky book to translate, but an accident or a result of a great and big marketing investment.
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French Foodie  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:33
French to English
+ ...
marketing May 5, 2011

isabel murillo wrote:

As per my experience (there are always exceptions to that rule) a best seller is not necessarily a difficult or a tricky book to translate, but an accident or a result of a great and big marketing investment.


EXACTLY. I do literary translation as well, and it irks me when publishers say "We love it, but we can't take the risk because translations don't sell." Well, if that is true, then it may have a lot to do with the fact that they are not marketed properly! The translation isn't the problem, it's more the publisher lacking the marketing budget or skills.


 

John Rawlins  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 06:33
Spanish to English
+ ...
Risk not relevant May 5, 2011

I cannot believe the low rates literary translators receive are because translations represent risky commercial ventures for the publishers. No, these publishers pay low rates because they can - literary translators are simply cheaper than other translators. Does anyone believe that publishers are able to persuade printers, binders, and booksellers to accept reduced rates because 'translations are risky'?

 

Anna Rioland  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:33
English to Russian
+ ...
Marketing and risk May 5, 2011

Re marketing:
most publishers invest a lot of money and efforts in the marketing campaigns for those books which are likely to become bestsellers (e.g. crime novels by famous authors, celebrities' biographies etc.) Most serious publishers also try to enlarge their catalogues and to discover new authors, or to publish "long-sellers" - these books won't be advertised by the publisher, but a good book will become know through word-of-mouth, press and booksellers' recommendations.

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Re marketing:
most publishers invest a lot of money and efforts in the marketing campaigns for those books which are likely to become bestsellers (e.g. crime novels by famous authors, celebrities' biographies etc.) Most serious publishers also try to enlarge their catalogues and to discover new authors, or to publish "long-sellers" - these books won't be advertised by the publisher, but a good book will become know through word-of-mouth, press and booksellers' recommendations.

Re risk/costs
There is a lot of pressure to reduce the production costs, and publishers do ask printers and other suppliers for discounts. Many publishers already print and typeset their publications in Asia.
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Bilbo Baggins
Catalan to English
+ ...
Royalties May 5, 2011

isabel murillo wrote:

Yes, there are royalties of course, but....

.... you NEVER see a cent on this regard.



Part of the reason why rates are low are surely because you have a theoretical right to royalties. However, you have to chase up on the royalties - apparently publishers don't worry too much about whether you get paid your share. That means you need to obtain (honest) details of unit sales from them so you can claim whatever they owe you. You would possibly need a lawyer or an agent to do that.

Spain is apparently one of the worst offenders in terms of pay for literary translators. By literary I means "book", by the way, as many books are published that are not literary in the least:-)


 
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