Thursday, December 15, 2016

Department of Translator Advocacy, Part 2

After publishing my previous post, I shared it in the Literary Translation group on Facebook, where Margaret Carson made some comments that I thought warranted a follow-up. Carson served as PEN America Translation Committee cochair in 2014–15 and has been involved in the committee’s work for years. Here’s what she wrote:
This is great-- thanks for providing a transcript of the panel and sorry I couldn't make it to ALTA this year (ironically, a question of money; I'm only covered up to $450/year in travel reimbursements). Quickly: I don't believe it's an either/or question, though #namethetranslator is a much more straightforward advocacy: 1/ most reviews are online, many reviewers have Twitter accounts. Tweet the reviewer, tweet the publication, email the publication. Pick egregious lapses (the translator is not mentioned in the bibliographic headnote, there are quotes from the translation and the translator is not mentioned), not non-mentions in puff pieces about translations or publishers of translations in general. No attack mode while doing this. I've had some success with this. 2/ the underlying contract. I also mentioned to you in an email before the panel that there was a subsequent step by the PEN Translation Committee after the Watchdog Committee. In that iteration we thought translators would stand a better chance at being mentioned if the publisher's press materials named the translator, if the translator had an intro or note in the book, if the translator's name were required to be on the cover b/c that clause was in the contract, etc. And we collected a few "model" reviews in which the translator was named and the work praised in an interesting and non-formulaic way, with the idea of creating a Reviewer's "Hall of Fame" (as opposed to a Watchdog-like Wall of Shame). Lots more to be said on this, lots more to be done, yes, time-consuming, and one is tempted to let it go when yet another review fails to mention the translator. But it seems to me that if you're a full-time freelancer, you'd benefit the most from having your name mentioned whenever you work is reviewed because it's a selling point to publishers for future projects. 
On the issue of money, I noticed that no one actually said how much they were paid for specific projects or how much (as a publisher) they paid translators. An elephant in the room for sure. There's a misperception that translators cannot talk about rates, because of that FTC investigation of the ATA in the 1990s, which enjoined the ATA, as a professional organization, from posting suggested rates. Translators can definitely talk to one another about fees, past, present and future. [Editor’s Note: See the ATA’s own explanation of why it’s OK for individual translators to discuss their rates. For more background and documentation, see here, here and here.] Marcia Lynx Qualey talked about sharing information-- yes. But I also think this is not a traditional supply/demand kind of market. There are different kinds of publishers (for-profit, public corporations; private corporations; non-profits). Has anyone had any luck in getting a business model from any publisher about a translation they've published? It would be useful to know what the numbers are like. I used to be under the impression that translations were costly for publishers. But then I also heard that publishers liked translations because they didn't have to pay authors; they only had to pay for the rights and then pay the translator, a cheaper proposition. 
One more point about money: as cochair of the PEN TC I contacted the NEA Literature Director about tying a base rate to translators to subsidies received by non-profit publishers. Non-profit publishers who are awarded subsidies have to provide financials to the NEA. They could be required to provide as a line item their fees to translators and the rate they paid. They could be held accountable. There was no resolution of this at the time. If we had some data on translator compensation, I believe a case could be made for making sure translators got a minimally acceptable rate. Follow-up is needed, but now with the change in administration, who knows what will be left of the NEA? But any government agency (federal, state, local) that provides subsidies to non-profits can require that a minimally acceptable compensation be provided to those who are hired to carry out the projects that are funded.
Much more that could be said. There's always a lot of tiptoeing around this issue. Literary translation is a genteel business and there's always a danger that raising issues like this in a sustained way will get you sidelined. Thanks again, Alex, for making this available and for keeping the conversation going.

A few notes and additional comments from me in response:
1) Re: publishers’ business models: Here is the transcript of an interview I did, in January 2015, with Chad Post of Open Letter Books and Tom Roberge of Albertine bookstore and New Directions press, in which Post goes into detail on the numbers for Open Letter. Here is the video of a panel discussion on translator contracts, in April 2016, in which two translators, a publisher, and a literary agent talk numbers on both rates and royalties. 
2) Re: data on translator compensation: Over the past six months, Jessica Cohen and I have been working with the Authors Guild on a survey to collect data on compensation and contractual terms for literary translators in the United States. We hope the survey will be going out in January 2017.
3) Re: the October roundtable at ALTA: In fact there was some discussion of rates, but it wasn’t reflected in my original blog post, because what I shared wasn’t a transcript of the discussion, but just the notes sent to me by my fellow participants, which they fleshed out during their comments. Deborah Smith, for example, stated that her press, Tilted Axis, pays the TA rate. The TA (Translators Association) is a group within the Society of Authors, and on their web page it states: “In the SoA’s experience, we have found that UK publishers are prepared to pay in the region of £90 per 1,000 words.” So I edited my initial blog post to reflect that. In addition, though she didn’t specify the royalty, saying only that it was “small,” I went back to Deborah and she verified that it is 1%, which in my experience is a fairly standard translator royalty for small presses in the UK. 
There was also other rate-related talk during the Q+A, after we’d each said our bit. I mentioned Margaret’s contact with the NEA, for example, and Meg brought up the FTC investigation (though we didn’t go into it, since I was afraid it would swallow up what little time we had left), and I shared one translator’s suggestion for a way around that, namely, for individual translators to post their rates on their websites, which, again, is totally legal. 
One reason we didn’t dwell on the question of pay itself was that the roundtable, as indicated by its title, was aimed more at presenting new forms of translator advocacy, especially since the question of pay has been discussed in detail at previous ALTA panels—for example, one I was on in 2014, “Professional Literary Translators: Do They Exist and Can They Pay the Bills?” With Jessica Cohen, Ezra Fitz, Edward Gauvin, and Anna Rosenwong, moderated by Katie Silver (the answers to those questions, by the way, were yes and no). The starting point for our discussion was the 2008 CEATL report, “Comparative Income of Literary Translators in Europe,” which I highly recommend. Lisa Carter, as usual, is also worth a read on the topic; see for instance this
One of the issues that keeps coming up repeatedly as an obstacle to translator organizing for better pay in the United States is the fact that, under U.S. labor law, as independent contractors, translators cannot engage in collective bargaining. There are challenges to this idea now, particularly in light of the “gig economy,” but leaving that aside here as a complicated can of worms involving legal issues beyond my ken, both Meg Berkobien’s Emerging Translators Collective and the Cedilla & Co. agency, presented in Oakland by Sean Bye, offer original thinking about how translators can organize themselves to do their work and be paid what they consider a fair wage for it.
Marcia Lynx Qualey conducted interviews for her blog, post-roundtable, with Meg, about the Emerging Translators Collective, and with Sean, Julia Sanches, and Jeremy Tiang, about Cedilla & Co. I recommend everyone read them. 
Not the end of the story, by any means, but that’s all for now.