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Transcript of Three Percent #91: "Translators, Rates, Money, and Unions"

A couple months back, for the 91st Three Percent podcast, Tom and I invited Alex Zucker (translator, co-chairman of the PEN Translation Committee) on to talk about the idea of a translators guild, PEN’s model translation contract, how much translators get paid, etc.

It’s one of our most listened to podcasts ever, and even as we were recording it, it had that feeling of being an “important” episode.

That said, I was really pleased when I found out PEN America was transcribing the whole podcast. It’s one thing to have a recording out there, but quite another to make it available in print.

So, go here to read the whole thing. And as a bit of a teaser, here’s the bit that I think is most valuable:

CP: Yeah, also the people working in publishing aren’t making a ton of money either. [laughs] Which was going to be my next question, to continue to contextualize this for our listeners: With one of these books, how much money are we really talking about? We’re looking at it from the individual perspective of the author and of the translator, and even of the employees who are involved with it, you could get into that. But if we’re talking about, say, a Czech book that’s 300 pages, that’s relatively well-reviewed, what is our range of copies that we’re actually going to sell of this?

TR: Twenty-five hundred?

AZ: That’s how many would get printed maybe.

TR: You can expect to sell those over a five-year period, let’s say.

AZ: If the publisher’s doing a good job of it, yeah. It depends.

CP: We’ll qualify that statement by saying not all publishers will be able to sell 2,500 copies with all books they do. But we’re just going to use this number for fun here. How much is that book going to cost? How much are you list-pricing it at, Tom? Are you saying it’s a paperback?

TR: Yeah, how many pages did you say? Three hundred? That’d be $16.95, I guess.

CP: You want to go up to $16.95? Okay.

TR: I think that’s the trend.

CP: That’s fine. That works for me. If it ends up with decimals I’m rounding it. So, with that, if we sold 2,500 copies of that book at $16.95, that is $42,375 before anything. But wait. That 42,000 is a bullshit number, because half of that goes away in the discount—at least half—to booksellers. I’ll just keep doing it as half, just because that’s easy, Tom. That brings it down to $21,187.50.

AZ: Give it to me. [laughs]

CP: So as the translator, you’re going to get $12,000, right? So your $12,000 brings us down to $9,187.50. Tom, how much would it cost to print 2,500 copies of this book, do you think?

TR: About $6,000? $7,000?

CP: We’ll say $6,000. Just say we got a good deal. That’s $3,187.50 that’s leftover, and we haven’t paid the author, our distributor, or our employees yet.

TR: Yeah, it’s a losing proposition.

CP: Yeah. I just want to bring that one home really hard for anyone listening. Then you end up paying your distributor in the range of 20+ percent of your net receipts, so that automatically takes out a chunk. Your author is going to get some thousands of dollars. And then if we do get a grant—you generally get grants if you’re a nonprofit—[but] you guys, New Directions, would be screwed under this as a losing proposition. You could get a grant from the Czech government, say, to offset some of Alex’s costs, but that’s usually like half of it. So, say, you get $6,000 back—you’re still having to pay for your office, your employees, your everything. The point that I was thinking about is that it is dismal, and I think it’s important to have the work that the PEN Translation Committee is doing with the contracts, the awareness of it. But I get the feeling sometimes that there’s this underlying, unspoken thing that someone’s making off with a lot of money. And no one is making off with a lot of money here.



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