Czech translator and PEN Translation Committee cochair Alex Zucker sits down with Three Percent to discuss the business side of international literature in English. They break down pay rates for translators, the funding of small presses, and ways to keep literary translation alive and thriving. Listen to the original podcast (recorded Jan. 26, 2015) here.
Chad Post: Hey, welcome to the Three Percent podcast. This is Chad Post from Open Letter, and I’m here with Tom Roberge from Albertine and New Directions, and our special guest this week is Alex Zucker, translator from the Czech and the cochair of the Translation Committee at PEN. Alex, I’ll let you talk in a second and explain a bit about the Translation Committee, but in brief, this is in reference to one of our episodes three or four ago, in which we talked about translators not being dockworkers. Do you want to take it from there, Alex? Tell us about the PEN Translation Committee and tell us about your grand plan for reviving and revitalizing the way that translators are treated and paid in America.
Alex Zucker: Sure, that’s very well said. My cochair, first of all, on the PEN America Translation Committee, is Margaret Carson, and we’ve been serving together since June. I’m just going to read you what it says here from the pen.org/translation site, which is where people can go to find out more about our work. “The PEN America Translation Committee advocates on behalf of literary translators, working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, bloggers, and others with an interest in international literature.” One of the most important and unique things that the Translation Committee does is that we have a model contract on the website. It’s pen.org/model-contract. It’s also linked to off the pen.org/translation page. The model contract is a project that originated back in 1971. I’m sorry, 1981.
CP: We don’t have a lot of abiding by facts on this podcast, so you can make that year whatever you want it to be.
AZ: [laughs] Yes, but the fact checkers—I used to work at magazines and I know the fact checkers are out there right now, Googling as I speak. 1981 was the first model contract that the Translation Committee put together, which is our idea of what a contract should look like for literary translators. Some of the things that we consider most important are that the copyright belongs to the translator; that the translator’s name appears on the title page, on the cover; that translators receive the royalties that they’re due; that there’s a reversion clause on the copyright so if the book goes out of print the copyright reverts to the translator. This is important: A lot of us are discovering authors earlier in their career and they may not be big the first time a book is published, but then they get rediscovered and their later books come out, but the first book can end up dead with a small publisher that doesn't exist anymore because the rights didn’t revert to the translator. These are details, but these are the kinds of things that are important to us as translators.
The podcast that I commented on—I was trying to be sort of a provocateur, but I just thought it was funny that the two of you were responding to this article, or this comment by John O’Brien in an article, and Tom was saying how it wasn’t right to compare us to dockworkers; translators weren’t dockworkers. And I said, Well, maybe we should be, because they get paid more than we do. So I just, as a little example, did a blog post where I said if I figured out what my hourly rate would be for a typical project that my pay would end up being less than a dockworker’s. And what is the difference between translators and dockworkers, and that’s that dockworkers have a union and we don’t.
Again, I was just trying to be sort of a provocateur. We have a couple of associations that we can belong to as literary translators. There’s the American Literary Translators Association; there’s the American Translators Association, which has a Literary Division; and there’s the Authors Guild. And then there is PEN, of course, although PEN was founded in defense of free expression—in 1921, I believe—so it’s initially a human rights organization, but in this country the defense of translators’ contract rights up until now has so far fallen mainly to the PEN Translation Committee. But—we don’t have lawyers at our disposal. The Authors Guild does, so if you want a contract to be reviewed in advance of signing it to see whether it works in your favor or not, if you’re a member of the Authors Guild they’ll do that for you for free. PEN doesn’t offer that service to any of its members, whether you’re a translator or other type of author.
There was one other point that came up on the podcast that I thought was important to address, because it’s become sort of an urban legend in the world of literary translation, and that’s this idea that we can’t discuss rates with each other. This dates back to a case in the early ’90s. The American Translators Association was actually investigated by the Federal Trade Commission because of discussions on their listserv about translation rates. The investigation went on from December 1990 to sometime in 1994. There was never a finding in the investigation, but it cost the ATA an arm and a leg—or maybe a couple arms and an eyeball—in legal fees. It was apparently about a quarter of a million dollars.
CP: It cost them like seven translators.
AZ: [laughs] I mean I don't know what the ATA’s budget is, but I can imagine that must have been pretty crippling. So as a result the ATA became very conscientious and they issued a policy statement, and all the members were warned against talking about rates on their listserv, but of course there’s a difference between mentioning rates and fixing prices: Fixing prices is illegal; talking about rates is not illegal. You know, I’ve heard people at ALTA conferences on a panel and somebody says, “Well, I make this much.” “Oh, you can’t talk about that.” Of course we can talk about that. There are many translators out there who post their rates on their websites. The FTC is not out there snooping around trying to find translators sitting in a coffee shop at an ALTA conference talking about how much they make. So I think it’s really important for translators not to be paranoid. But, to me, the main protection of a guild is not so much in the rates but in the types of contracts that are offered to us initially. A lot of publishing houses have a really basic contract that they come out with, and often the editor is bringing it out and doesn’t even know that there are other versions of it. The editor is not a legal person. But the main thing is, as a translator, I want other translators to know that these are negotiable documents and we have a right to negotiate them. There are other issues besides the amount of money. There’s the issue of royalties; there’s the issue of whether the copyright is registered in our name; there’s the issue of whether our name is on the cover, whether it’s on the title page. Is it mentioned in the copy that goes along with a book when it’s publicized? These are all contract issues.
CP: I’m going to interrupt you for two seconds just to read my favorite part of this. This is from the PEN model contract: “The translator’s name shall appear on the cover and title page of all editions of the book and in all publicity and advertising copy released by the Publisher, wherever the author’s name appears.” That all is what you just said, which is fine. This is the part that I like: “In a type size not smaller than sixty (60%) percent of that of the author’s name.”[laughs] How did you get to 60 exactly?
AZ: I wasn’t around when that was negotiated, but I have sent it to publishers, and they have agreed.
CP: I’m just trying to look at a book here to see if I can even judge if it’s 60 percent. I would say no.
AZ: I don’t know what I would use to measure that with.
CP: Yeah, I’m grabbing random books around my desk. I’m just curious about that. Anyways, go on. So you’re talking more about rights and less about money.
AZ: But there is one example I want to give of how an organization working on behalf of translators—whether it’s the PEN Translation Committee, whether it’s an author’s guild, whatever form it takes—can influence rates in a totally legal way. The way it’s being done right now, for instance, in the UK is that the Translators Association, which is a group within the Society of Authors, which is the equivalent of the Authors Guild in the United States. The Translators Association—let me read you the language. This is what they say: “The negotiation of fees is a matter for the individual translator and client to resolve. In the Society’s experience of reviewing contracts, we have found that UK publishers are prepared to pay in the region of £88.5 per 1,000 words. Translators may also find it useful to note the payment model used by independent publishing house And Other Stories.” They also use the publishing house And Other Stories as a model, in general, of their practices. So what they’re doing is saying, “We have found that publishers are prepared to pay this,” sort of a suggested best practice that’s coming from the Society of Authors, which includes the Translators Association, and there’s no reason that an organization here couldn’t also do that. The way that this is put into practice is that the English PEN Writing in Translation Awards, when they are given out, publishers apply for those and they are—I don't know if they’re bound, but when they apply it says, “This is the rate that we recommend,” so it’s like a lever saying, “If you want to get a grant from English PEN, you better be prepared to pay this rate.” So that’s just one example of how having a recommended rate can influence, in a positive way, how much translators are paid.
CP: I’m trying to think of how that could work in the US. Because we don’t have grants really, except for NEA. That impacts a large number, but not everyone.
AZ: The NEA, for instance, when it makes a grant to Open Letter, could attach, either as a recommendation or a stipulation, that if you want to get a grant to support publishing of translations you have to pay your translators a minimum of 12 cents a word.
CP: Which is crazy! I would actually be offended by that one.
CP: A good number of translations are being published by nonprofits, but there’s also a lot of publishers that are not nonprofits and that don’t get grants from the NEA. So there would be regulations against us—the lowest branch, the least capitalized, in general, of the publishing tiers—but not against anyone else.
AZ: Why is that against you, though? It would be coming from the money that you’re getting from the NEA.
CP: Yeah, but it would be a regulation that would be dictating what we have to do, which someone else wouldn't have to do. And that money from the NEA goes to all costs related to those books, not just the translators. That money doesn’t go to just the translators.
AZ: Well, you have to weigh the question of what is in the publisher’s best interest financially versus what is in the interest of the long-term sustainability of literature and literary translation. Because if translators can’t make a living translating, then fewer of us are going to do it. If we’re not translating as much, we’re not going to be as good. You know, in the United States most translators have other jobs—because the rates are relatively low here. That has an impact on what kind of translator you get. A writer who’s writing full time is generally going to be a better writer than somebody who’s working a day job and just squeezing it in in their free time. I’m not saying there have never been any writers who have been good who squeeze it in in their free time, but it’s a question of priorities.
Tom Roberge: I think Chad’s dislike of regulation is exactly that: It’s a dislike of regulations in general. You know, capitalism largely works without them, unless you’re talking tax and that sort of thing, but how business is conducted, apart from very basic equality safeguards, is largely unfettered. What I’m trying to say is they’re more geared towards the consumer: We get fair prices—you know, Time Warner can’t charge us an arm and a leg for capped internet and that sort of thing—and hiring practices. I guess this translation thing would fall under a hiring practice, but the laws that exist, the regulations that exist, are largely about, you know, “You have to treat all employees fairly: You can’t discriminate against handicapped, you can’t discriminate against minorities, etc, etc.” The rates you pay, even though it’s a nonprofit, it just seems—I agree with Chad—a little harsh to impose and insist on something when the truth is these are the people most likely to already be meeting this minimum standard to begin with. I don’t like the implication that they don’t know how to handle this sort of thing, or they don’t know what their own mission is, or they don’t know what’s good for the rest of their business. I understand, the NEA’s giving out a lot of money and it comes with strings. It’s just the strings can be a little insulting, I think.
CP: I had a thought experiment for a second, I’m not sure where it would go, but how much money would result from a book in translation and how that money would get split to people, to see where this rate works and doesn’t work, which I would be curious to know. But, Alex, since you and I talked about this, what is your going rate?
AZ: My going rate? [laughs] I’ll take as much as I can get! You know, look, I’m not an absolutist. I work for different rates depending on who’s hiring me. I will say the most that I’ve been paid by a publisher up to now has been 15 cents a word.
CP: So one fifty a thousand [$150 per 1,000 words].
AZ: Yeah. When I work for an individual, I generally ask for more than that, and generally get it, because an individual’s not publishing a book, they’re asking me to translate a work and then they’re doing something with it. I’m doing a book right now for a publishing house in Prague for next to nothing. But contracts, one of the things that you look at when you negotiate is how long do you have to do it. So I’m translating this novella and I said, “I want a year and a half to do it,” rather than the three or four months that it would take me if I just did it straight through. And I got a residency and worked on it in Banff, Canada, for three weeks last summer, so that was a type of compensation that I wasn’t getting from the publishing house. And it’s a book that I really believe in—from the mid-1950s, an era where there’s only been one other book translated from Czech into English before. The writing is exceptional. I mean it depends, you know? There may be some people at the very top who simply refuse to work for less than a certain amount of money under any circumstances.
CP: So the rate for the UK is £90 per 1,000 words, which at the moment is approximately $135 per 1,000 words. I just wondered where you sit within that. If there was going to be a guideline like, “We have found that US publishers are prepared to pay in the region of $135 per 1,000 words,” does that seem true to you, or off base? This is a question for you too, Tom.
TR: I know what we paid at Penguin was around $140. I think that was what we generally offered translators. It might have changed. I haven’t been there for six or seven years; maybe five. Anyway, in my experience I never had anyone balk at it, so I guess in retrospect it was a pretty good rate. From what Alex was saying, I guess it is. At least a little higher than average. I mean it was Penguin, after all. And the Penguin contracts do, by default, stipulate for royalties—which is good. The classics, at least, your name will always be on the cover. What I’m wondering about is, what did Lydia Davis get? I wonder if it’s not even a rate, it’s like a straight-up—
AZ: Well, that’s the other thing. There are publishers that do that. I’ve signed contracts where it wasn’t a rate per word, it was just a fixed amount.
CP: We’ve been doing that with some things at times, recently in particular, but we usually do the rate, and usually it falls between $100 and $125. Usually don’t do $140—seems high. So for the benefit of our listeners, though, what does that mean then? So for your rate, Alex, if it’s $135 per 1,000 words, we’ll say. What does that translate into for a book and for the amount of time that you put into that book? And granted there are different types of books. Let’s say something that’s not extremely obtuse and is going to require you to spend two years hunting down information, and not something that you can toss out in an afternoon, but your average book.
AZ: Well, I’m going to back up for just a second, because in addition to the model contract from the PEN Translation Committee, we also have a set of FAQs, and one of them is, “I’ve been asked by a publisher to do a translation. What sort of compensation should I ask for?” And we cite here that English PEN suggests this fee of no less than £88.5 per 1,000 words—as you just said, they’ve recently raised it to £90—and what we write is, “This falls in the middle of the range of rates reported by our members.” That’s how we worded it there. So if we’re saying that’s about 13.5 cents a word, our members at PEN—and to be a member of PEN you have to have translated at least one book—
CP: I really love that it was £88 per 1,000 words, which in 2014 was $148, which now is only $135. Go, America!
AZ: I have to update that. So in the middle of the range of rates reported by our members—that means our members are reporting from 9 to 18 cents a word or so, which is, when I talk to my friends and colleagues, that’s about what people are getting. Personally I would say I could not afford to work for even 10 cents a word. I would really balk at that. Although, again, I took this job translating this novella for Charles University Press, but that was an exceptional project. Again, contracts, it always depends: How much time do I have to do it? How difficult is it? Et cetera, et cetera.
CP: That’s why I want to try to make this as concrete as possible for people, so we have as full of an understanding of what happens in this business as possible. We’ll stick with the $135 for right now. What does that end up meaning? How long does it take to make a normal book? How many months is it going to take you? What does that actually end up being in dollars?
AZ: In dollars? Well, in that blog post I wrote, I figured out my rate was about $15 an hour—
CP: But before we get to hours—
AZ: —the total amount of money for a book? Well, if I get 15 cents . . . A long novel’s 100,000 words, maybe a normal one is 80,000, so if I’m getting 15 cents a word and the novel’s 80,000 words, then I’m getting $12,000, right?
CP: Right. For that normal novel, 80,000 words, how many pages is that, just to give people a sense. 300?
AZ: Yeah, I’ve got a book here that I did which was exactly that, which is where I pulled that from. Yeah, maybe more like 250, it depends of course—
CP: So 250-to-300-page book. You’ll get $12,000 to translate that, approximately. How long does that usually take you to do?
AZ: 80,000 words is definitely going to take me at least six months.
CP: And how much time are you going to be working on it during those six months?
AZ: Well, I’m talking about more or less a full-time—
CP: Full-time: 40 hours a week?
CP: Wow, that’s a significant amount of time.
AZ: There are people who work faster than I do. The fastest I’ve ever done a book—I did the Patrik Ouředník books for Dalkey Archive Press, which were pretty short, and I think I did one of those in like three months, and those were somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 words.
CP: Perfect. So it took to you six months to do this, which is approximately 960 hours of work, which adds up to $12.50 an hour. And if it took you six months full-time, you could reasonably assume to do two books a year—if you had the demand for that—which would get you $24,000 a year.
AZ: Yeah. Although I do think it’s also important to say that as the translator I’m not just translating the book, right? There’s also all the time that I spend editing it with the editor, and then I’m going through it with the copy editor, and then I’m going through it with the proofreader. And I’m not being paid for any of that time.
CP: Right. Exactly. So doing two books a year is pretty much the maximum you could be expected to do, and even that would be strained in certain ways, because you’d be spending a lot of time, depending on what it is, with the editor, with marketing, with other things—well, I’m just going to group it all together to point out that this is a fairly dismal scenario [laughs] for people who are just getting into translating and might be listening and going like, “Oh, here’s one of the top Czech translators in the country, and this is what their pay rate is. They work for $24,000 a year.”
TR: Wait, can we also point out that authors don’t make money?
AZ: Oh, absolutely.
TR: If your book is being published as a paperback original from New Directions—granted, we’re doing it in translation, so [the author has] in theory gotten paid from [their] native country’s publisher. László [Krasznahorkai] is able to write full time, be a professional writer, but largely based on his German publications, not his New Directions publications. I’m not going to give out the amounts, but it’s pretty minor. It’s about what you’re talking about for the one project. That’s the high end of what we pay. So if you’re an American and you’re published by, let’s say, Two Dollar Radio, you’re lucky to get that much money as well. And you could’ve spent years working on that. And then you’re going on a tour, and you’re giving readings, and again, you’re going through the editing process and marketing process, and giving interviews, and all of your time that takes up. And it’s very self-promotional, and that shouldn’t necessarily mean that you should be compensated for it. The point being, to make, let’s say, $10,000 or $15,000, you’re giving up a lot of time and effort. But this is what art is, right? You could toil away for decades and not get recognized, then all of a sudden all the hard work pays off. I mean it is what it is, it’s what we choose—those of us who choose it. To complain about the financial aspects only when you’re neck-deep in it just seems wrong. We’re all aware of it going in. It’s just the way the situation is, I think.
AZ: Yeah. To the extent that everybody is aware of it going in, I agree. And I think the reason that the work of the PEN Translation Committee is important is that actually not everybody is aware of it going in. I’ll speak for myself, it took me a long time to get savvy to what I needed to look for in a contract, and to the extent that we talk about it, people know. Again, I’m not going to speak for authors—and I agree that authors are very much in the same boat, Tom, no doubt about it—but a lot of translators really are very unaware, uneducated going into their first book, and have no idea about what a contract should have, does have, what are the kinds of issues that are at stake. My main point is that it’s important to talk about it. I mean I also have personal opinions about sustainability of culture in the United States, and there are obviously much larger issues here. Chad talks about these things all the time in articles he writes and blog posts he does and panels he’s on, and we see this debate being played out on the world stage with Amazon at the center—and other arts too, it’s not just literature. What is sustainable? Is it sustainable for artists to be dependent on corporate sponsorship? Is it sustainable for artists to be supported only on grants? Do artists have the right to earn a living wage like doctors, lawyers, and web designers? These kinds of issues.
TR: [pauses] Those are all complex issues.
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.
AZ: Oh, it’s not my belief that somebody’s making off with a lot of money. I’ll just speak for myself personally, but to me the numbers that you just cited, the numbers that Tom is talking about, this is important because it shows you cannot treat culture the way that you treat refrigerators. A lot of the things that we as human beings in this society really need to feel like human beings—we need culture—cannot be supported solely on the basis of supply-and-demand and the market. There needs to be some kind of support for it. It’s not enough just to say, “Well, if it didn't make money it’s not worth doing.”
CP: And this is the motivation in some sense behind one of the more negative aspects of this. As the publisher I could look at these numbers and just be like, “You know what, Alex? No. I’m going to pay you $2,000. If you can’t translate it, I’ll find a student who will do it for me.” And I’ve saved $10,000.
AZ: Yeah, or all the publishers will just have to shut down, right? We all know that there are publishing houses that are being run at a loss, on an ongoing basis, simply because the person or people behind it have decided they want to keep it going—the culture is that important to them. But I think it’s important for us to know that it’s going on. There is increasing pressure on all sorts of cultural projects—artists and writers are working for less and less money all the time; it’s happening to journalists because of the internet; more and more people are being expected to work for free—in return for exposure. What is that exposure supposed to get you? It’s supposed to get you work, but if the work isn’t paying your living, then what’s the point? There are a lot of big issues at stake here.
CP: Yeah. [laughs] I don't know where to go from there.
AZ: I certainly don’t walk around thinking that publishers are getting rich off of my labor.
CP: I’m not accusing you of thinking that either. I don’t want it to come across that way, but in some discussions about this—when we start talking about rates and the underpayment of translators, there should be an asterisk that the whole system is a little bit jacked. Nothing’s quite right, and I don’t know how we make that right.
AZ: Right. That’s why I like to connect it to the larger world of culture and other arts—it’s not just translators; it’s not just literature. I agree.
CP: If we’re selling 10,000 copies of every book of these, all these numbers become a lot more doable.
TR: Can I just point out: How many people live in this country? 300 million?
CP: I think it’s like 380, isn’t it? It’s over 300 million now.
TR: Let’s say half of those are adults, or read in English.
AZ: 322 million.
TR: So let’s roughly say 150 million people who are potential readers of a book like this—we’re selling 2,500 copies.
TR: I mean the numbers are staggering. In the last podcast we were talking about [Mark] Zuckerberg’s book club and how many copies it sold, and we were like, “Yeah, that puts you on the bestseller list.” Even the New York Times bestseller list requires sales of about 2,000 or 3,000 copies a week. If you do that for a year, you’re still only selling 100,000 copies. This is a country of hundreds of millions of people, and that’s how many copies of books we’re selling.
CP: This is why it would be better to just make apps.
AZ: How many people go through, I don’t know, the Museum of Modern Art in a week?
CP: Hold on, I’m going to drive this home real quick for you, Tom, with those numbers. 150 million people—to sell 2,500 copies, you have to sell one book to every 60,000 people.
TR: [laughs] That’s like a whole city.
CP: Yeah, literally one book to every 60,000 people, you will sell 2,500 copies.
TR: You want to know how many people go to MoMA?
AZ: I think this stuff is fascinating, no?
TR: Just as somebody who works in New York, literally across the street from the Met.
AZ: Or the Met. But the Met is more like Penguin Classics, and I chose MoMA because it’s more like contemporary literature.
TR: 2.5 million people a year.
AZ: Do they all pay?
CP: If they don’t, doesn't it get underwritten? It gets underwritten in some way.
TR: It’s $25 to go to MoMA.
CP: Yeah, and it’s free Friday from 4 till 8 p.m.
TR: I don’t think most people plan their visits that way.
CP: No, and UNIQLO probably is sponsored by them, so that money probably still gets factored into there. That’s like 48,000 people a week going there.
TR: Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I mean the number of people going in and out of the Met every day, it’s mind-boggling. If all those people just bought a book, in addition to doing that.
AZ: It’s cheaper than the admission.
CP: It is, and it would take you longer to read it.
TR: I was going to point this out. Going to MoMA, going to the Met—you don’t really need to know all that much about art. You can just walk in and there are placards on the wall that will explain things. You can just stand in front of a painting, and it might be one of the most valuable, most important pieces of art in the world, but you can look at it and say “Yeah, I don’t like it,” and walk away. It’s not forcing you to engage in the way that literature does. It can be difficult to engage in a book, especially if you have no knowledge of the cultural, historical context. And you know, translated stuff tends to be like that. So I can understand why people go for the easy option. There’s no shortage of people going to see The Avengers. Or buying comic books. It’s an easier form of art to consume.
AZ: So, here’s the devil’s advocate argument: Actually, we have too many books in translation in English, and publishers can’t make any money on them, so publishers should limit themselves to publishing only those books that they can actually make money on, and there should be much more effort, time, financial backing put into getting those books to the people who really want and will appreciate them.
CP: Isn’t that what happens, though, in a practical way?
TR: No, because there’s a lot of chaff published on the side. New Directions publishes 30-some-odd books a year, and you ask a dedicated reader by the end, they’re going to know five of them. So what if we only spent our time and money publishing those five? This is not unlike Twelve Books, where they publish one a month and they put literally all their efforts into one book at a time—which is not true because on the back end it’s more complicated—but in terms of marketing and publicity, everything gearing up for one month, everything goes into this one book. But not every book is a hit.
AZ: Maybe most publishers are too big.
CP: I’m thinking of it in somewhat of a different light than what you’re saying—what you’re saying I completely agree with—but on a practical level, as a book starts doing better, you tend to put more time and effort into it. So on a structural level, at a larger publisher, some of the lower books that aren’t selling as well aren’t going to get quite as much attention a month onwards as the Thomas Piketty book or whatever. So, in some ways, the market does end up forcing your hand a bit, but I don’t think that doing books that aren’t in translation are that much cheaper.
TR: Also agree. But to finish up this point: Alex, what you were talking about—doing a book that costs next to nothing and you’re getting paid next to nothing because you really believe in the book—this ties into what you were saying about the rights reverting to the translator, because three books later, three translations later, that author becomes popular and the backlist starts selling. This is also the mission of New Directions. We stick with authors. We did three books with László before Satantango really caught on and attracted attention. You have to be committed. You’re going to take a loss on those three early books and you have to stay committed. That’s why you publish not just the five that you know you can sell right then and there, in that fiscal year. That’s why you publish the other ones on the side. You’re aware of the limitations in the market, but you do it anyway. It’s a much longer-term process that you have to stay committed to. Otherwise—I mean, there are a lot of publishers and I’m not going to name them because they do some good books—but this is the one-and-done model of publishing, not just with translations, but everything. The focus on new culture and debut novelists, and they’re just trying to get the fast buck.
CP: To bring that home, didn’t the first László book come out from Harcourt Brace?
TR: It did?
CP: I might be wrong. I might be thinking of Marías.
TR: Yes, Marías. We were the second.
AZ: Well, New Directions is a fantastic publisher. When I’ve heard Barbara Epler speak, I’ve heard her say—you can correct me if I’m wrong, Tom—but she talks about the fact that it’s got this strong backlist, which enables the publishing house to be able to bring out five Krasznahorkai books at a loss before one that makes up for the others. That’s a great position to be in. But I really like that idea, and right now, for instance, there’s an author, Petra Hůlová, whose first novel I did for Northwestern University Press back in 2009. It won the National Translation Award in 2010. I haven’t been able to sell another book of hers since, and she’s written eight novels now and she’s 35 years old. But when I go to publishers now, what I’m saying is, “I would really like to find a publishing house that is committed to publishing this author, not just this book.” I think that’s one way that a publishing house can be more successful, both financially and culturally. Of course different literatures have different standing. Czech literature is at a disadvantage to, say, French literature, where people don’t grow up knowing much about it. I think part of the reason people are more likely to buy a book that’s translated from French or Spanish or German is that it seems less foreign to them, relative to Czech, and if you only ever get one book by each author—one book by Petra Hůlová and one book by Josef Jedlička and one book by Magdaléna Platzová—there’s no idea of who these authors are, but when you get several books coming out, people begin to form an idea of the author and how they fit into the culture, and I think a lot of people do connect to literature that way. I really like that—I don’t want to call it a model of publishing, but that approach, I guess.
CP: I have three statements: One is, Tom, I was thinking of the Quartet version, which apparently came out in 1999 for Krasznahorkai. But that was only the UK version, so that one doesn’t count. The Marías is the one that was published and then dropped and that you guys obviously made a success out of. Two things I was thinking of. Alex, do you still run into publishers that don’t give you back the rights to your translation if it goes out of print, that they copyright it in their name and retain that? And secondly, this is much broader and more complicated: According to our database, we have more and more publishers every year doing fiction and poetry in translation. However, a greater number of them are smaller presses. Do you get the sense that it’s easier to find a place for books because there’s this resurgence? We say that things are growing, and more books are being made available, there’s more interest generally in translation. But do you have a problem that, yes, there are more people doing this, however that hasn’t changed your specific authors that you’re working on? That these are presses that are starting out on a shoestring and can’t afford your going rate, so it’s not really helping you financially?
AZ: Yes. [laughs] It’s not helping me. The first question—yes, I have come across contracts recently that don't have a reversion of rights clause in them. I don’t usually assume that it’s not there because they want to screw me over. I assume it’s not there because they just don’t know about it. I had a contract sent to me by a publishing house, and just to see what they would say, I sent it to an Authors Guild lawyer to review, and when I wrote back to him I said, “At PEN we really advocate for there being a reversion of rights clause,” and this is why, you know, for the reason we were saying before, and he said, “Oh, I didn’t think of that. Maybe we’ll start saying that to translators when they send us contracts from now on.” So I think it’s one of those issues that just hasn’t been on people’s radar. And again, I think maybe publishing houses and their lawyers—it’s not the editors who are drawing up the contracts normally—they probably just don’t even think about the reversion of rights issue.
CP: Then, to clarify the question, make it a bit more direct, have you ever asked anyone? For example said, “You don’t have a reversion of rights clause, it’s the normal thing.” Are there presses that you’re running into that are saying, “Hell no, we’re not giving that to you”?
AZ: No, they’ve all said okay. As to the second question, I think it really does matter which language you’re translating. The translation landscape, market, definitely needs to be disaggregated for those of us who work in smaller languages. It’s not the same for me as it is for somebody who translates from—not even just a language that’s spoken by more people and whose literature is more familiar to readers—but that gets more support from the state institutions. I think one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, that French literature is perennially the one that’s translated the most is because of the backing for it from French cultural institutions. Ditto for German. And Spanish, of course, is coming from so many different countries, that there are multiple routes to take. Russian is actually getting a lot of support. And then we’ve seen from your databases that, in any given year, if a country decides to put a lot of money into grants for translations, then all of a sudden the number of books being translated from that language spikes. So the general increase in visibility of translations and popularity of translated literature has not made a big difference to me as a Czech translator. For me personally it’s a question of meeting editors and them getting to know me and my work. I’ve noticed that the translators who publish the most often are the ones who have standing relationships with editors and publishing houses—where they’ve found a publishing house with an editor whose taste is similar and they know that that translator is not only an excellent translator but also good to work with: turns things in on time, turns them in clean, isn’t going to freak out, if they miss a deadline they let them know in advance—all of those things that make somebody a pleasure to work with as opposed to a pain in the ass. You know, I’m not complaining, but Czech is definitely an underdog compared to, again, French or Spanish or German. There are definitely languages that are underdogs compared to Czech too. I’m very aware of that.
TR: The French take a lot of bashing on this front, and I would just like to point out that the reason the French put so much money and effort and resources into the promotion of their culture is that they value that culture. They value the arts. We should all applaud them!
AZ: Who’s bashing? I’m not bashing!
TR: This whole underdog thing, that the French have more translations—they’re doing what they believe in. It’s a wonderful thing.
AZ: I hope I’m not coming across as bashing. [laughs] I’m definitely not bashing the French. I’m just pointing out that it’s difficult to talk about translation writ large, because the situation’s different for different languages. If I say Czech is an underdog, that doesn’t mean I’m angry or resentful of French-language stuff. I’m just saying it’s a different landscape, different situation.
TR: Wait, can I take the opportunity to bring up this email I got from, once again, Doug Singleton from McNally Jackson. Do you remember this one?
CP: The one that I remember is the one about not giving away spoilers.
TR: No, no. You actually replied to this, so you should remember. Doug writes in about Javier Molea.
CP: Oh yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about
TR: So Javier Molea is the Spanish-language buyer and events coordinator, as well as just a general bookseller, at McNally Jackson. And he was looking at these data from Typographical Era, “that there are many more French-language translations than Spanish-language translations, so the author pool and reading audience must surely be far, far greater for Spanish-language books. I’m not being facetious. I actually figure there must be a rational reason as regards French government subsidies or Spanish translations being sold through other channels than this group of publishers.” I replied and said, “We’ve talked about this before, and it has something to do with subsidies and the sheer aggression with which the French get their books into American editors’ hands, but it is still baffling.” And Chad, you wrote, What is your explanation of this bizarre phenomenon? And Alex, you feel like the French and the Spanish are the heavyweights, but the French are ahead even of the Spanish.
CP: There were two main points that I had, the main one being that there are a lot of Spanish books being published but they’re not being professionally represented by agents or publishers. Frequently, if there’s a small press in Nicaragua that’s publishing really interesting books from Nicaraguan writers, they aren’t the people who are sending out catalogs to American editors or meeting with them at Frankfurt for drinks talking about their new hot Nicaraguan author. Whereas French, since it’s been such a hub for literature and language and art for such an extraordinarily long time, has a really professionalized and systematic way of representing their books. There’s all the promotions that they do with the grants—the Hemingway Grants, the grants from the CNL—and the different things they do to promote the authors, bringing them on tours, all that kind of stuff. And that all does help, but there’s also the sense of certain editors, bigger editors, being connected to each other at these sort of places. I think the French are particularly good, as are the Germans, at representing their countries’ literature in a form that’s digestible and makes sense to editors who are considering it for translation. Spanish is a crazy one because there’s just so many books, and so many areas and so many locations. Everyone runs a little bit differently. There’s a lot of Argentine books we’ve done that are by very small presses, versus a big agent like Carmen Balcells, who’s representing the big-name authors from the Spanish-language world. If you think about places like China or Japan or South Korea that have a different way of dealing with things that doesn’t always line up with what an editor wants here, it’s going to restrict them in a way. It’s a structural problem.
AZ: I agree. That’s all. [laughs]
CP: Speaking of Czech, we don’t get approached by very many Czech publishers. There’s one publisher and one agent that I meet with on a regular basis. I think that might be it.
AZ: Dana. Dana Blatná.
AZ: There’s only two. There’s Dana Blatná, who’s Czech from the Czech Republic, and there’s Edgar de Bruin, who is Dutch and translates from Czech into Dutch, but he is the other person who represents a significant number of Czech authors’ foreign rights. He goes to Frankfurt. I think Dana does too.
TR: Alex, along these lines, what if anything does PEN do to level this playing field a little bit?
AZ: We have limited levers at our disposal. The thing that Margaret and I are working toward right now is to get better outreach on the application process for the PEN/Heim Translation Fund grants, which is a really important way to promote translations, both by up-and-coming translators but also from languages or cultures that have not typically been as widely exposed. We haven’t figured out exactly how to do it yet. But what’s valuable about those grants is that the amount of support is from $2,000 to $4,000, so based on what we just said, that’s not usually going to cover the full cost of translating a book—and the grants are made to individual translators, rather than the publishers—but the prestige of the grants, and the fact that there are publishers on the advisory panel that awards the grants means that, the last time they ran statistics, something like 60 percent of the translations that won PEN/Heim Fund grants did find a publisher. So I think to the extent that we can get more [translators] from Arabic applying for those grants, from Indonesian, or whatever languages are out there that have strong and valuable literature but typically have been overlooked, if they apply for and get a PEN grant, it astronomically increases the chance that they’ll be published. New Directions recently did a book from Indonesian, right?
TR: No, it comes out in the fall.
AZ: Do you know if that one won a PEN/Heim Fund grant?
TR: I think it did. I don’t think she’s on it anymore, but I think Barbara [Epler] did it for three years and now she’s done.
AZ: Since we’re all volunteers, the PEN American Center doesn’t have paid staff working on translation—that’s not something that they have the resources to work on—but that’s our main lever, to work on that issue.
CP: Interesting. I always thought you guys got tons and tons of applications for that.
TR: That was my impression too.
AZ: This year I’ll be on the panel, so I’ll get to see where the applications are coming from. But I don't know up to now. The other thing we’d like to do is have more of that data published. Our biggest obstacle is people power—having enough people to put all of this information together and get it published and out there. It’s a question of having the people to do it.
TR: I don’t mean this to be too critical but, yes, PEN would do better to update their website more often, especially as regards these kinds of things.
AZ: Yep, I agree [laughs]. We’re doing the best we can. We’ve updated it a lot in the past six months. There’s been a lot of work on the pen.org/translation page. I can’t speak for the rest of the site. I have no influence over that.
TR: Well, I think in general they need to hire a couple more people.
AZ: They have. They just got a new editorial assistant. They’re aware.
TR: Well, I hope we’ve provided our listeners with a somewhat better understanding of the crazy mess, financially and ideologically, that is translating and publishing translated works.
CP: We may have depressed everyone.
[End of discussion with Alex Zucker]