Literary book translation w/o advance - is this normal? or just in Italy?
Thread poster: Isabel Cole
Isabel Cole
Local time: 21:00
German to English
Nov 23, 2004

I was asked to translate a literary work by a very well-known German author into English for a new publisher that is starting up in New York. This publisher is a new branch of an Italian literary publisher with a very good list. They're taking the admitted risk of starting up a new publisher in the States focussing on literary translation.

So I was excited - until I saw the contract. They offered me a good rate (for lit.): $100/1000 words, but no advance. They offer to pay half 60 days after delivery of the translation and the remaining half 120 days after delivery.

The book is 650 pages long, with sophisticated language, and will require a lot of research - at least a year of full-time work! I had initially said I could deliver in about 15 months, and they were happy with that. That was when I was reckoning with an advance.

I told them I literally couldn't do it without an advance, and they said, sorry, we don't give advances in Italy, and we can't afford to give you one anyway, with the "economic effort" of opening our new branch, so we'll have to look for another translator.

Is it actually true that advances aren't the norm in Italy? Or elsewhere? I've only done one book-length literary translation so far (with advance, albeit not so well-paid), so I'm not so sure what's normal... I can't imagine anyone taking on a job like this in this time frame without an advance, unless they're independently wealthy.

I'd be grateful for any advice and insights!


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Özden Arıkan  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:00
English to Turkish
would Turkey do? Nov 24, 2004

I don't know how representative this example would be for you, but advance payment is no way near the norm, in Turkey. (In my 10+ years' book translation experience I received it only once, but that was due to friendship.)


So I was excited - until I saw the contract. They offered me a good rate (for lit.): $100/1000 words, but no advance.

... the rate is super!

But payment time, too long.

They offer to pay half 60 days after delivery of the translation and the remaining half 120 days after delivery.

In my experience, the total is paid within one month after publication.

Best of luck

PS Don't miss it

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Laura Gentili  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:00
Member (2003)
English to Italian
+ ...
No advances Nov 24, 2004

I worked in the publishing field for 10 years and I know very few translators get advances. So what they propose is standard in Italy. In general, literary translators have other jobs (teaching, translating other stuff, etc.) and they don't live on literary translations. It's sad, but that's the way it is.
I even know people who are willing to translate literature for free, here in Italy.
The rate they offer seems quite high to me, at least according to Italian standards. If you write to me privately and tell me which publisher you are dealing with I will try to collect more info in order to see if they are reliable payers.

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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:00
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Usually advance in Northern Europe Nov 24, 2004

I asked Finnish colleagues what they think, and I got the impression that publishers here (and in Germany) pay advances (at least half of the book) or "as the work proceeds".
Many projects get also public money in the form of stipends.
But these are welfare states, probably its different in the anglosaxian world. I understand they are not very eager to publish anything of foreign origin.

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Spiros Doikas  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:00
Member (2002)
English to Greek
+ ...
Greece Nov 24, 2004

In Greece it is extremely rare to get an advance for book translation. Quite often you get a six-month post-dated cheque once the job is delivered. The rates are really poor too. For literary translation you get 0.01-0.03 eurocents per word. The 0.03 is rather rare too!

[Edited at 2004-11-24 17:25]

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xxxHirschmann  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:00
English to German
+ ...
Be aware of Italian publishers! Nov 26, 2004

One of the 3 books I wrote about electronics in the mid 70's was translated from German to Italian and published by a renowned Italian publisher in 1979 without me even knowing that:

When I lived at the Lake of Garda in Italy from 1983 to 1987, a nodding acquaintance came to me, asking me if my surname was Hirschmann. When I confirmed, the guy pulled a book out of his briefcase telling me that he worked as an electronic technician with the Italian railroad company at Verona and had bought this book that he had found in the show window of a book store in Verona's central station. This was the first instant I got to know that my book had been translated to Italian and published there.

To date, I didn't receive a single centesimo from this publisher. These people claimed to not have sold a single copy of the Italian version although it is obvious from the entry under the link above ("2 ed.") that at least 2 editions have been published in Italy.

Well, I'm myself of Italian origin (on the paternal side), love Italy as a country being extremely rich of cultural treasures and beauties of nature but I definitely dislike the dishonesty of relatively many Italian businessmen who, in average, seem to be somewhat greedier than in other countries that I know rather well.

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Isabel Cole
Local time: 21:00
German to English
Oh dear... Nov 27, 2004

I'm sorry to hear this is actually the norm for many people... I don't get it: everyone else involved in publishing a translation gets a steady wage (the editors), or gets paid up front (the original publisher), except the translator who does most of the work!

Laura was nice enough to look into the publisher (thanks again!) and tells me they are said to be reliable - so I am trying to negotiate with them. Maybe we can work out a different time frame and/or find me some grant money or something...

But I really don't see how people can work, and work well, under these conditions!

And the publisher is going to have to pay me the money anyway - so why can't they pay me when I need it (and the translation needs it) the most?

Have a nice weekend!


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Literary book translation w/o advance - is this normal? or just in Italy?

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