9 March 09 | Chad W. Post

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.


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