14 May 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation, but just today the final summary and recommendations was released and mailed out to a number of “shareholders.”

Click here for a pdf version of the final report, which includes recommendations in four areas:

  • How is it possible to influence the publishing world?
  • How can we make the case for public and private sector funding?
  • What is the role of literary translation in the educational process?
  • What can translators and their associations do to promote literary translation?

Susanna Seidl-Fox, Michelle Gross, and Daniel Hahn did a fantastic job putting this all together and distributing it to all the right people. It was a very interesting experience (I’m sure my fellow morons—long story, but you know who you are—would agree) that will hopefully have a lasting impact on the perception, production, and promotion of literature in translations.

9 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

Continuing my series of posts about the Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation (earlier posts available here) I wanted to share the most depressing study about translation I’ve ever heard about—the CEATL Survey of Translator Working Conditions.

CEATL—the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires—decided in 2007 to do a survey of literary translators’ income across Europe, combining information from various member associations, and working out a way in which data from different countries with different situations can be compared.

Anyone interested in the methodology of this survey should take a look at the opening section of the report—a lot of thought and care went into producing this study. I’m just going to skip to the really depressing parts . . .

To determine the average amount paid to a professional translator, they standardized all fees in various countries to the amount paid per 1,800 keystrokes. Then, using data from various translators’ organizations they decided that the average professional translator working full-time could translate 1,056 pages of 1,800 keystrokes per year. Then multiplying that figure by the rates paid in various countries (they include minimum, average, and maximum amounts), they calculated the average income for a professional translator. (Note: the study also includes money earned via royalties, collecting societies, and grants.)

On page 56 of the survey, you will find the minimum, average, and maximum levels for average annual income, average gross income (minus 25% for business expenses), and average net income (minus additional 15% for social security/tax).

Even without a context, these numbers are disturbing. Using the average level of average net income, here’s what a full-time professional translator can expect to make in a variety of countries (all in euros):

Catalonia: 8,290
Croatia: 5,920
Czech Republic: 3,200
Germany: 12,530
Ireland: 28,725
Netherlands: 14,370
Norway: 20,260
Switzerland: 17,705
UK: 23,360

In isolation, these numbers look pretty bad. But looking at how these figures measure up against the average gross income in the “manufacturing and service sectors” is horrifying. Using the same countries as listed above, below is listed the percentage of a translator’s annual earnings compared to the average manufacturing/service employee:

Catalonia: 65%
Croatia: 77%
Czech Republic: 53%
Germany: 44%
Ireland: 71%
Netherlands: 61%
Norway: 62%
Switzerland: 52%
UK: 72%

Granted, in a few instances (Catalonia, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain), the maximum amount earned by a professional translator exceeds the average amount earned by someone in the manufacturing and service sector, but only a very few professional translators are able to command that sort of pay rate.

One of the other very interesting things about this survey are the charts comparing practices in various European countries. There’s information about standard rates recommended by translators’ associations, information about rates agreed upon with publishers (only a few select countries have reached agreements of this sort), information about recommended royalty rates, and information on health, pension, and income tax rates.

Obviously, since this was a European study, there’s no information on full-time translators in the U.S., but I’m pretty sure the numbers are equally shocking. (As Damion Searls pointed out in a comment last week, the most an average translator could expect to earn is in the $28,000 range, which I suspect is 80% or less than the average American manufacturing/service worker earns.)

So this is obviously a problem. Why would someone become a literary translator, knowing full well that it will be a struggle to find publishers willing to publish the books you want to translate, and even if you do find steady work that you enjoy, you’ll be earning less than a good proportion of your friends.

In the European countries where full-time professional translators do exist, there is (or should be) a very lively discussion about workers’ rights, about how translators are providing a clear service that publishers are benefiting from (see sales levels for Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.) and should be duly compensated. I suspect that in a lot of these countries the transaltors’ associations push for minimum fee agreements with publishers, better health care options (in countries without universal health care), etc.

American translators deserve the same benefits, but I think the situation is a bit murkier here. First off, since we’re such a die-hard capitalist country, there never will be an agreed to “minimum rate” because that could be considered price-fixing. So translators have to try and function within a free market in which there is little demand for translators, and a much larger supply of adequate translators.

(I’m of the mind that publishers should only use really good, really talented translators who deserve a higher rate of pay, but for the sake of argument, this post is only looking at this situation from a purely corporate point of view in which cost takes precedent over art.)

If I understand supply-demand economics right, what would happen is that there’s a solid number of potential translators for any job, so the publisher can find someone willing to agree to its (unfavorable) terms. Over time, because of this situation, the supply of translators will dry up, changing the power structure slightly, although publishers could easily regain control by further cutting back on the number of translations being published.

This is one reason that I think it’s important for the industry to focus both on promoting the translations that do make their way in English, and work to increase the number of titles that are published in translation. By reaching a critical mass that could support a healthy number of professional full-time translators, this situation could improve.

(Here’s where I start espousing my quasi-socialist beliefs.) This is one reason why translations need to be better subsidized. In my opinion, it would be best if the federal/state/foreign government (or private donor/foundation) better subsidized both the production and promotion of international literature. This could take the form of paying translators directly (anyone with a contract could get an few thousand dollars in addition to the amount paid the translator by the publishing house) and/or providing grant monies to publishers/organizations enacting marketing efforts directed at increasing the audience for literature in translation. (It’s probably not advisable to enact a marketing strategy that only targets international literature, but there are ways—like PEN World Voices—of doing something that impacts the audience for translations.) By somehow increasing the reader demand for international, literary works, the above scenario can be altered, and there would be a greater possibility that more professional full-time translators could survive in America.

All of these sentiments run counter to the beliefs of the Chicago school of economics (which dominate economics departments across the country, regardless of any negative impact of their theories on the real world ), but for the benefit of our literary culture, I think something needs to be done to ensure a place for translators to live and work. I have more to say about this in terms of translation and the academy (where a good percentage of translators exist), but I think it’s also important for now to recognize the need of book culture for full-time, professional literary translators.

4 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

Continuing my random recollections of last week’s Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation in a Global Culture, I thought that today I’d write about Anuvela, a really interesting “translation collective” that I learned about at the seminar.

In brief, Anuvela is a collective of seven translators (six women and one man) who work together to produce translations into Spanish of best-selling English works. (For example, one recent project Ana Alcaina talked about was Anuvela’s translation of Ken Follett’s World Without End.) This is a pretty interesting work model: they negotiate the contract as a group, they split up the text itself, they use a Google doc spreadsheet to share info about how they’re translating particular terms, and they share the financial benefits and copyright recognition. (It’s worth noting that for each group translation, the person designated as the manager and contact person is responsible for working with the publisher and making sure the end product is consistent and smooth.)

As demonstrated in yesterday’s post about translation statistics, books written in English dominate the global marketplace, especially in West European countries such as Spain. Which is why the idea of Anuvela works. As an American translator, can you imagine being in a situation where your skills are in such demand that you have to form a collective to take on all the work being made available to you?

This presentation was one of the moments during the seminar that we started to see all the different bifurcations that separated both the participants and the various markets we represented.

Although Bolano’s 2666 has sold tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of copies, and although The Kindly Ones (as described in today’s Times article by Motoko Rich) is primed to do the same, best-selling translations are a real anomaly in America. Which is completely the opposite in other countries throughout the world where translations of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo dominate the bestseller lists.

This difference played a significant role in shaping the conversation of the small work group that I was a part of. We were assigned to talk about “how to influence publishers”—an interesting topic, and one that has a variety of answers depending on which market you’re looking at.

Here in America (or even in the English-speaking world in general), we tend to focus on the severe lack of translations being done these days. So our response to such a topic is to try and find ways to get publishers to do more books. But in Europe, the issue isn’t necessarily the production numbers (although there could always be more translations among non-English languages), but on the work conditions of the translator.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow, but CEATL studied pay rates for translators across Europe and found that in almost every single country, full-time translators earn less than your average manufacturing or service worker. Usually in the range of 80-85% of what these workers make. Which is incredibly disturbing and discouraging—what is the future of translation when you’re better off learning to drive a truck than learning the art of translation?

But this divide between the situation in the English-speaking market and the European market (not to mention the Arabic market, African market, Asian market, etc.) is only one of the divides that molded our general conversations. Sticking with markets for a second, the other rhetorical/philosophical divide that I picked up on was the difference between leaving translation to the marketplace and the nonprofit tendency.

I think I’d need a few blog posts to really work out all the intricacies of this, but when talking about literature—especially literature in translation—we tend to look to marketplace successes (like the Bolano or The Elegance of the Hedgehog) as inspirational models, while at the same time, employing the rhetoric of the nonprofit and the need for most translations to be subsidized in some way.

Restricting this to America and the UK, it’s easy to think that in the post-_2666_ world, more commercial presses will be willing to “take a chance” on a translation, since it’s been proven that American readers will buy a really long, really complicated book in translation. Yet at the same time, a lot of discussion and programs center around the need for translation subsidies, since the additional cost of the translation is a deterrents to a lot of publishing houses. But are these $3,000-$7,000 grants that much of an incentive to a place like FSG or Random House? (Again, Harper paid almost $1 million for the rights to The Kindly Ones, and I highly doubt that the possibility of getting a grant for the translation was what convinced them to make the offer.)

So in this bifurcation, we have commercial presses that are totally beholden to the marketplace, and to impact them—to cause them to a) publish more translations and b) to do a more consistent and better job at promoting these books—the market itself has to change. There has to be more readers for literature in translation. But, as Harold Augenbraum pointed out in his recent Reading Ahead post, the question is larger than that. It’s not that we need to cultivate readers for literary translations, we need to cultivate more readers for literature as a whole.

Putting aside the commercial market for a minute, we know that the independents and nonprofits and university presses are publishing 80%+ of all works of literature in translation. And for these presses, that $3,000-$7,000 grant makes a world of difference. Although these presses are also subject to the whims of the marketplace (at least on some level), the stakes aren’t nearly as high, and they can survive on some grant money and sales of 3,000-5,000 copies. This isn’t to say that these presses don’t want to sell 75,000 copies, but the imbalance of the marketplace (except in a few instances, these presses don’t have the means to be distributed to all bookstores and WalMart stores like Harper or Penguin or whomever) makes it extremely unlikely that sales like that will ever happen.

But for all sorts of obvious reasons, the big commercial successes are the books that dominate the media, are stacked up on bookstore tables (again with The Kindly Ones — why doesn’t Stan Hynds order a “stackable quantity” of one of our translations? I’m not convinced that there’s something intrinsically more “readable” or “appealing” or whatever in a literary translation coming from Harper as one from Open Letter—this is a function of the marketplace not of the quality of the work itself), that will sell googles of copies and will serve as the template for how to “successfully publish” a work in translation. Meaning that the bulk of publishers doing literature—and literature in translation—should emulate this model?

I really don’t have a clear point here (sorry to both of you who are still reading this), but it seems to me that when we talk about translation (or literature) we’re looking at one big, messy picture of the market, one that’s filled with compromises. (Translators do some schlock to pay for the right to translate a book they love, publishers do some more commercial titles to make up for the literary ones that won’t sell, etc.) So in trying to come up with recommendations on how to “influence publishers” or maybe how to influence the publishing landscape as a whole, it seems worthwhile to consider whether we want to push the indie/nonprofit/university presses into a more commercial model (grants to help them market and distribute their books to better “compete” with the commercial presses) or ignore the conventional marketplace entirely and look for new systems of support and audience development that will allow publishers to survive by doing literary translations without holding them to the same standards as more commercial presses.

Anyway, looking at it in this way, it seems next to impossible that we were able to come up with any suggestions/recommendations for how to influence publishers. But we did, and I’ll share some of our ideas later this week . . .

3 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

One of the interesting people I met at the Salzburg Seminar last week was Ruediger Wischenbart, who now runs a consulting firm, analyzes the global publishing market, and is working with Three Percent favorite Lance Fensterman on developing the program for the Arab World to be Guest of Honor at this year’s BEA.

Admittedly this sounds a bit dorky, but I was thrilled to find out that Ruediger was going to share his report on global translation statistics, complete with line graphs and percentage breakdowns. (He even ended up showing some of us his Access database for tracking European bestsellers, which was super-cool, and much more advanced than anything I’ve been able to put together . . . In comparison, our translation database looks like a crayon drawing.)

Ruediger spent a lot of time researching translation statistics and flows of books across languages, and as a result, wrote a Diversity Report, a draft of which is available in full at the link above.

In this study, Ruediger looks at two different translation statistics from 1979-2006: translations out of a particular language, and translations into a particular country. There’s a ton of information in this report—way too much to summarize here—but there were a couple of points/statistics that caught my eye and that I think are worth pointing out.

First of all, there’s no real surprise in terms of which languages are most often translated—looking at the global market, books originally written in English represent approx. 60% of all translations around the world. This number has increased dramatically over the past quarter century, rising from just over 50% of all translations in 1979 to almost 64% in 1999. When you look at the graph in the report, it’s almost shocking to see the English line rise and rise while all the other languages remain muddled at the bottom of the chart, fluctuating slightly, but not nearly as dramatically as English . . .

It’s also not that surprising, but the second and third most translated languages are French and German, respectively. Put together, these three top languages represent around 80% of all the translations published globally. The next five most translated languages are (in descending order): Italian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Dutch. And taken as a whole, the top 8 languages account for 90% of all translations. (It’s like a wealth pyramid!)

There’s a special section of the report on Central European languages, which is really interesting as well, and it’s from that research that Ruediger uncovered a very interesting correlation: aside from a select handful major political occurrences (e.g., fall of the Berlin Wall) the only identifiable event that directly impacts the translation statistics is when a country is the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. As you can see in his report, translation numbers for both Hungarian and Polish jumped when the two countries were chosen to be Guests of Honor (in 1999 and 2000, respectively) and translation levels from those languages are still higher than what they were pre-Frankfurt Book Fair.

The “translation into” section of the report is fascinating as well, looking specifically at trends in Germany, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Of course, translations from English into German, Polish, Czech, etc., dominate (usually around the 70% mark, although in the Czech Republic, translations from English only make up about 50% of the total), but when English is removed from the graph, it’s interesting to see how other languages have modulated over time. (Looking at Germany for instance, there’s been a slow but steady decline of translations from French into German over the past twenty-five years.)

There’s a lot more that can be gleaned from this report, but I’ll leave off with an interesting quote from the conclusion section about the leading country in terms of translations:

Solid indications have it that France has recently overtaken Germany as the world’s number one haven for translations. This change of guards has been reported in French trade media, but hardly anywhere esle. This however needs to be put in a perspective as China is catching up and has reached at least the group of the top 3.

France shows a remarkable continuity of growth as a nation of translation – and hence of welcoming literatures and books from abroad. More in depth analysis would be required to better understand the effects of both a very continuous cultural policy and a self confident industry, a development characterized by huge structural change among the largest companies, and strong medium sized or independent publishing ventures looking out for new perspectives, plus with significant new entrants recently.

27 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Feels like ages since I last posted anything to the blog . . . but at least I have a good reason. Following our Best Translated Book Award Party in New York (more on that later), I left for Salzburg, Austria to spend a week in the castle below talking about translation.

Seriously. And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is the same Schloss Leopoldskron from The Sound of Music. OK, so none of the scenes from the Sound of Music were actually filmed inside the Schloss, but the Venetian Room—where we had our final reception—was recreated in a studio for the movie’s ballroom scenes, and the film was shot in the surrounding area. Nevertheless, it’s not often that one gets to stay in a legitimate palace with the largest marble dining hall I’ve ever seen, a cathedral, and a library that looks like this (and includes a secret passageway):

(Hard to convey a sense of scale, but translator Daniel Hahn took that picture of me from across the library.)

Over the next week I’ll write a bunch of short pieces about the conference itself and the various ideas that came up. It was an extremely interesting, and productive conference that had the goal of establishing certain action plans to address the “critical role of translation in a global culture.”

I’m not going to list all 70+ people who attended, but I will say that it was a remarkable gathering of people from all aspects of the industry. From translators like Jason Grunebaum, Esther Allen, Michael Henry Heim, and Wen Huang, to representatives from cultural organizations including the European Commission, NORLA, International PEN, and the Ramon Llull Institute, to publishers like Dalkey Archive, Open Letter, and Hanser Verlag, to media folk like Boyd Tonkin, it was a truly global gathering of people interested in international literature.

The seminar was rather intense, beginning with breakfast at 8am and lasting until after 9pm with some time for lunch, dinner, coffee breaks, etc. But even though we paused to eat every three hours (in the most gorgeous room I’ve ever dined in), we never really took a break from talking about publishing, about books, about translation. (Although it’s worth pointing out that 90% of these conversations were filled with laughter—translation people are simply a lot of fun.) It’s incredible what can happen when you put a bunch of engaged intellectuals in a fairy tale setting for a week . . .

After traveling for 21 hours yesterday—from Salzburg to Frankfurt to D.C. to New York to Rochester—I’m not in the best of minds to break down all that went on . . . but starting on Monday I’ll start writing about some of the topics, ideas, and action plans that came out of this meeting. And I’ll try to include more pictures . . .

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Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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