Contracts: The Third Bridge Series Panel on Translation
Last Tuesday I returned to the Center for Fiction for the third panel on the Bridge Series on Translation. (In case you missed them, here are my first two reports, on breaking in and editing.) This one dealt with contracts, a regular topic in our discussions at meetings of the PEN Translation Committee, which co-sponsored the panel along with the Center for Fiction. Translation Committee co-chair Alex Zucker moderated this panel, which included translator Shelley Frisch, editor Juliet Grimes, and agent Jacqueline Ko.
As Zucker introduced the panel, the audience members passed around the PEN Model Contract for Literary Translations. This is an important document for anyone pursuing literary translation, addressing the translator’s and publisher’s roles, advances and royalties, credit and copyright, complimentary copies, and reversion of copyright when the work goes out of print. Check out the model contract and additional information/frequently asked questions, available on the PEN website.
Zucker described the model contract as a starting point, a statement of what the translator would ideally receive. He pointed out that none of the organizations for professional translators in the United States — ATA (American Translators Association), ALTA (American Literary Translators Association), or PEN — has a legal staff. (The situation in the U.K. is somewhat better.) Although the Authors Guild offers legal advice, translators typically have not joined that organization. He encouraged translators to join. The other challenge he pointed out was that most translators don’t have agents and thus must negotiate fees, royalties, copyright, and visibility directly with their editors.
Shelley Frisch, who primarily translates complex nonfiction tomes from German to English (she said translators gets typecast quickly), emphasized the importance of picking one’s battles. For her, ownership of the copyright is less important than the payment and how it’s disbursed and having generous deadlines to give sufficient care and attention to the translation. Payments can be complicated. Generally, publishers pay half on signing the contract and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, but some only pay the second half on publication. That can be a big financial setback for the translator (or author) if the publication date is pushed back. Other issues include royalty splits for hardcover, paperback, and ebooks, and what happens when part of the translation cost is funded by a foundation or organization in the country of the book’s origin. Some publishers will try to get away with paying nothing and letting the grant cover the entire fee for the translator. That is not good. Neither is making concessions for the dreaded word “exposure.” Frisch urged translators to have “nerves of steel” when negotiating, because we want to enjoy our project and our relationship with the editor and not feel ripped off. Zucker added that a contract is a negotiated document and one should never sign something that he or she does not understand.
A longtime editor and the Associate Publisher of Soho Press, Juliet Grames began by saying she wants to be “on the right side.” She explained from her perspective why it’s important to have the English-language copyright in the name of the translator. “You want the translator to have a stake,” she said, and added that “The translator is the author’s face on the ground.” With a stake in the final work, the translator won’t walk away when the job is done, but rather use his or her social media presence to promote the work. Small presses are interested in a translator’s promotional efforts and authenticity — that is, how we care about the original work and the process of translation. Grames encouraged translators to obtain copyright for the translated version because publishers can go out of business, and under those circumstances, it’s very difficult to find and transfer the rights. Royalties are also important in giving translators a stake in the book, Grames said. She detailed the industry standard for royalty shares — 10% of the cover price to the author for the hardcover; 7.5% of the cover price to the author for the paperback; 25% of the net price for the ebook. A typical author/translator split is 80/20.
Jacqueline Ko from the Wylie Agency offered the agent’s perspective, the “light side” and the “dark side.” The light side — the advantage of translating an agented author — is that the agent can help with the contract. Agents sometimes pay for sample translations, especially if no one at the publishing house can read the source language. Agents can find the best publisher for both author and translator. The dark side is that the agent represents the interests of the author, which can sometimes run counter to the translator’s interests, both financially and in terms of control. Ko told the audience that translators have to understand their role in relation to the agent and the author.
Zucker had a few follow-up questions for Ko. How would a translator establish a relationship with an agent? Would an agent intervene on behalf of a translator? Can an agent suggest to a publisher that the publisher set aside a share for the translator so it doesn’t come out of the author’s share of the royalties? These issues, Ko said, are tricky because the agent doesn’t want to go against the interests of her client. But the author may have to give up something if the alternative is not having the book published in English at all.
The time passed all too quickly, but the audience members were able to ask a few questions. One asked Frisch if she had to edit books down, and if so, was she paid for the original word count or for the final count of the English edition. She said the easiest way to calculate a payment is to use the word count of the source text. In her case, that’s a disadvantage because she tends to add words — her translations are 12% longer than the original, to be exact. Grames has offered payment based on an estimate that includes word count and some editing. She pointed out that some languages are wordy, so the English version is usually shorter.
A second question to Frisch dealt with how to handle an editor that will only pay the amount of a grant, and no more. Frisch didn’t answer the question directly, but she urged translators not to accept a contract without adequate pay. She said that fees for translators over the decades of her career haven’t kept up with the cost of living.
Final comments had to do with the Man Booker Prize for international fiction and the recognition and prize money given to the translators as well as the authors. Hopefully, more awards will offer both recognition and prizes to translators in the future.
Next month is the final session of the four-part series, and it will focus on Booksellers. Stay tuned!