An editor on the translators’ debate
Editor’s Note: In recent months there have been growing calls for more visible credit for translators on book covers and for a re-examination of how translators are paid for their work by the editors. The main translators of these questions are Jennifer Croft and Frank Wynne, who recently chaired the jury of the International Booker Prize. Because we hear less about editors than others in these discussions, we asked Richard Charkin to share his thoughts with us for today’s column.–Porter Anderson
By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin
“The role of the translator is crucial”
I was fascinated by International Bookers Jury Chairman Frank Wynne’s call for translators to be recognized as equals in terms of cover placement and royalty sharing.
More or less the first book I published was a translation. I was relieved to find that the translator was identified on the title page, but not on the dust jacket.
But before that I was addicted to translated works, usually in the black penguin livery reserved for “foreign classics” – Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Tolstoy, even Machiavelli, although I don’t think I learned as much from him as I would have. from. And then to the more racy Alberto Moravia and the always entertaining Don Camillo series by Giovanni Guareschi. Without forgetting the fantastic Asterix and Tintin series.
I think translated books play an extremely important role in deepening our understanding of other countries, other systems, other geniuses.
It is therefore not surprising that the role of the translator is crucial. A bad translation can ruin a book. A great one can allow an author’s words to reach a new and wider readership.
Rewarding translators is a no-brainer, as is giving them credit. But this particular announcement got me thinking.
The issue of payment
Of Publication prospects‘ coverage of the issue, the Booker Foundation states: “The European Council of Literary Translators Associations (CEATL) recommends that translators share the profits from the sale of the books they have translated.”
It’s not my job to determine what would be best for literary translators, but I would strongly recommend that they avoid sharing profits from the sale of books they have translated. There may be a few titles where this would make sense but, at least in the world of English translations, translators would find that this would result in the publishers being paid quite large sums for their share of the losses.
Most English translations are lucky enough to cover their real costs, at least in the short term. In fact, most books struggle to cover their costs, and translations even more so.
However, it could be that the translators were actually asking for a share of the revenue rather than the profit generated. That would make more sense, but I’m afraid the income from it would in most cases be less than a typical package and, of course, much less certain. It would also force translators to make decisions about which book to translate based on likely sales rather than importance.
Moreover, and from the publisher’s point of view, where would this additional royalty come from given the low profitability of translated books in general?
Higher prices for translated books would likely further reduce unit sales. Lowering the royalty to an original author would not sit well with the author, agent or sub-agent. The effect would be to further reduce the attractiveness of translated works to publishers and thus reduce the number and diversity of such titles. An unintended consequence.
The credit issue
The other request is to give equal credit to authors and translators by naming the translator on the cover of the book.
In some cases, notably Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the translator deserves the same credit as the original author and in effect creates additional sales for the author, although in this case it won’t do the anonymous author much good as he died sometime in the eighth century AD.
In most cases, of course, the author is much more important than the translator. Harry Potter is translated into a large number of languages but sells because of the genius of the author and his creation, not the name of the translator. And that goes for just about every great author, commercial or literary, adult or child.
As with most cover designs, there will be many opinions.
Translators argue that putting their name on a book cover increases sales. Every editor I know (and I include myself) thinks that’s nonsense. No one I know has ever bought a book because it’s a translation, but there are people who are less likely to buy a book if they think it’s a translation. I’m sorry but I believe that’s true in almost all cases.
Finally, I wonder why translators should be singled out for credit and a royalty share. Could the original publisher who shaped the book to make it a success demand similar respect and reward? Or the jacket designer who had an idea so creative it turned the ho-hum book into a must-have?
I think there should be more translations from and to all languages. Technology allows us to do this more efficiently. I also think that translators deserve to be recognized and fairly rewarded, but they have to be careful what they wish for. They can end up shutting themselves out of the market and erecting barriers to publishing the books they are working on and love.
Join us each month for the latest Richard Charkin column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. To read more about translation issues, click here, and to read more about the work of translators Jennifer Croft and Frank Wynne, click here and here, respectively.
To learn more about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and its impact on international book publishing, click here.