8 Questions for Alex Zucker on Translation Pay, Diversity, Copyright, and More

Last year, the Authors Guild conducted a survey of literary translators in order to get a better sense of the realities of the profession with regard to questions like pay, copyright, demographics, and other questions. The findings, which you can read here, are fascinating and well worth your time. This was the first survey of its kind, and I hope that it becomes a regular thing so that we can get better and better information about how the profession of literary translation looks in America.

I recently interviewed Alex Zucker to find out more about what the survey discovered, as well as to get deeper information on what these findings mean and what they may tell us about the future of translation in the United States. We cover a number of important subjects, including pay rates, diversity in the field, and what “fair” treatment is when considering a variety of factors that go into each individual translation.

I hope that this survey and discussion of it spurs more and more involvement on the part of professionals in the field in these questions. Although literary translation is a great field to work in, there is lots of room for improvement, and the survey certainly shows us a lot of places where we need conversations and changes to be made.

Veronica Scott Esposito: Could you tell us a little about the survey of translators that you conducted and why you did it?

Alex Zucker: To start, I want to make sure that readers understand what this survey was about. In recent years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the lack of support for the profession of literary translation in the US. There’s far more attention paid to the art or craft, with little consideration given to how to earn a livelihood. The subject of pay is rarely discussed in concrete terms, and none of the existing organizations in this country that have the word translator or translation in their name protect the rights and advocate for the interests of professional literary translators the way the Translators Association within the Society of Authors does in the UK.

During my term as cochair of PEN America’s Translation Committee, I was privy to a lot of information about working conditions that wouldn’t have reached me otherwise. Among the literary translators I met, there was a general feeling that, in spite of the publishing buzz about translations and the seemingly higher profile of both translations and translators themselves among the public at large, professional literary translators—that is, those who depend on literary translation income for their livelihood—weren’t necessarily seeing any economic benefits from this heightened attention. But no one had data. All the information was purely anecdotal. How then to verify whether conditions for literary translators were getting worse or better?

In the US, the organization analogous to the UK’s Society of Authors is the Authors Guild. In 2014, I needed a contract reviewed for a volume I was editing (not a translation), and a friend who works in publishing suggested I join the Authors Guild, since they provide contract vetting to members free of charge. The advice I received from the Guild’s staff attorney was totally worth the cost of membership. One thing led to another and I began talking with AG staff about developing a model contract for literary translation, analogous to their model contract for authors, as well as about incorporating translators’ concerns into their long-existing advocacy on behalf of professional writers. The idea for the survey, then, was to establish a baseline of data on the issues that affect the ability of literary translators in the US to earn a living. These results could then be used as the starting point for the Guild’s advocacy.

Anyone interested in the survey’s methodology can read more about it on the AG website. Readers should know that the findings you and I discuss here come from the summary, and pertain only to translators of prose.

VSE: What poll results surprised you the most?

AZ: On the positive side, I didn’t expect to see such a high percentage of respondents (47 percent) say their contracts always or usually stipulate royalties—let alone 47 percent saying they had actually received royalty payments. (By the way, the fact that these percentages are the same is sheer coincidence.) This finding is very important, because it refutes the belief that a royalty clause is a purely symbolic gesture. It’s also worth noting that by far the main reason respondents gave for their contracts not providing royalties was that publishers refused.

On the negative side, 41 percent of respondents reported having signed contracts that made payment of their fee contingent on the publisher receiving a grant for the translation. I knew this was going on, but until we did the survey, there was no way to know how widespread the practice was. That’s a high percentage of translators committing to months of difficult work with no guarantee of being paid. I find it disturbing.

VSE: Two-thirds of the translators polled said they always or usually retained copyright to their work. Do you think there’s been a movement toward more translators retaining copyright? And how does this bode for literary translation as a practice?


AZ: Honestly, I don’t think we can talk about a movement, either toward or away, since we don’t have any data from the past to compare to today. This was the main reason I asked the Authors Guild if they would be willing to do a survey of working conditions for literary translators in the US—not just on copyright, but on all the issues that affect literary translation, not as a practice but as a profession. It’s interesting to see where things stand at the moment, but more important from an advocacy perspective is to know which conditions are getting better, which ones are getting worse, and which ones are more or less the same.

That said, even if we don’t have data, we do have some anecdotal evidence we can look to. In 1970, on the occasion of a conference in New York City titled The World of Translation, the Translation Committee of the P.E.N. American Center (now PEN America), under chair Robert Payne, published a Resolution along with a Manifesto on Translation, calling for translations to be copyrighted in the translator’s name. Together, these documents spelled out the tenets of what, in 1981, became the Translation Committee’s first model contract, which exists to this day (you can still find the first one online using the Wayback Machine). To me the fact that we’re still even talking about this issue—nearly 50 years after that conference—suggests that if there is a movement for translators to retain copyright, it’s progressing at a glacial pace.

There should be no question at this point: The copyright to a translation, by law, rests with the translator. Yet 17 percent of the respondents to the Authors Guild survey said they usually did not own the copyright to their work. One in five? That’s far too high. Among those translators who reported that they didn’t always retain copyright, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said the reason was that the publisher had refused—in other words, not because the translator didn’t know any better or because they chose to give up copyright for something in return (such as a higher fee). So clearly this is an area where we still need advocacy.

VSE: 83 percent of the survey participants self-identified as “white.” While the survey population isn’t an exact cross-section of translation, this figure does accord with my own experiences of the field, which I see as having very low diversity. What do you think about diversity in the literary translation field? How can we encourage more diversity?

AZ: Pay more: Jobs requiring high education yet offering low pay are filled mainly by people who have enough wealth or other means of support that income is unimportant. In this country, that’s primarily white people. We see this in the US publishing industry as a whole (I recommend this discussion at PEN America, with a long list of suggested reading and organizations at the end, and Lee & Low’s excellent Diversity Baseline Survey). It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented across all the arts, in fact.

So I’d say pay is the main factor. But not the only one. If the goal is to have more people of color working as literary translators, there are two questions to look at: 1) How does someone decide to become a literary translator? and 2) What kind of support do they get once they’ve become one? (I also feel a need to say that whatever suggestions I make here are not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive. The question of how to challenge white supremacy in our society is one that everyone needs to answer for themselves, based on who they are and which institutions and communities they’re a part of.)

On 1), people involved in the education and/or training of literary translators need to understand how their personal practices, as well as the structures and policies of the institutions they’re part of, attract people who are white as opposed to people of color, and reproduce and reinforce norms and standards of whiteness. This includes looking at who’s hired and promoted; how much they’re paid; and who holds power and makes decisions.

One other factor in 1), which also leads into 2), is jobs: because role models (and mentors and contacts) matter. When it comes to making US publishing as a whole more inclusive, black writers and editors have made it clear that from their point of view the solution is straightforward: Presses need to hire more black editors and publish more books by black writers. It’s not as if the books don’t sell; the presses will make their money. Now extend this maxim to all people of color. And apply it to translators. In other words, it’s important for people of color who are considering going into literary translation to see editors who aren’t white, editing books written by authors who aren’t white, translated by translators who aren’t white. This not only reinforces the idea that literary translation isn’t just for white people, but it also means people of color who choose to take this path will have people who understand their experience to turn to for support along the way, just as people who are white already do. The Lee & Low Diversity Baseline Survey mentions all these things.

Which takes us to 2): Again, people involved in organizations whose mission includes supporting literary translators, and especially the people who lead or run them, need to be thinking about how what they and their organizations do reinforces whiteness and how they can change that. I would ask questions similar to the ones for people involved in teaching or training: Who leads? Who speaks? Who gets paid? Who makes the decisions? (Mentorships and fellowships for translators of color seem like a good way to start, and there are a few already.)

A final point that I’d really like to emphasize: This isn’t simply a matter of personal intentions, and it isn’t just about people who are white inviting people of color to join them. If my group or organization has no people of color in leadership positions and no people of color making decisions, then going out of my way to “invite” or “welcome” or “encourage” people of color to take part isn’t enough. To illustrate what’s wrong with this, some people use the phrase “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.” I would go a step further: People of color need to get to plan the party too. As a white person, I have to be willing to give up power. I can’t just say, “Let’s have a party together. We’ll have it at my house. I’ll do the decorations, choose the music, cook the food, and draw up the guest list. You just show up. You can bring any friends you want!” No. I need to be able to say, “What kind of party do you want to throw? How can I help make that happen?”

VSE: The two largest segments in the poll reported as being paid either $0.00–$0.07 per word or $0.14 or $0.15 per word. 7 cents per word would definitely quality as poor pay for literary translation; while 15 cents per word is much more in line with decent pay standards in the field, many would consider this low and not a living wage. For reference, Daniel Hahn, a very sought-after and well-regarded translator, disclosed on his website that he is paid roughly 19 cents per word on average. Is there a need for translators to know pay scales in the field and request higher rates?

AZ: Yes, absolutely. Again, the survey was conducted by the Authors Guild, a professional organization, so I approach this from a professional standpoint. When people are considering a profession, isn’t finding out what it pays one of the first things they do, normally? Every translator is responsible for educating themselves, on all the issues we’re talking about. Because unless you have an agent (and very few literary translators do), you’re negotiating your contracts yourself. At the same time, that’s why it’s important for translators to talk with one another about how much they earn.

Whether or not a given rate constitutes a living wage depends of course on what your living expenses are. The American Translators Association offers a handy tool called the Translator Earnings Calculator to help translators determine how much they should charge. It’s up to each person to decide for themselves. Where this can be a problem is when you have a professional translator (that is, someone who depends on translating for income) losing a job to a translator who is not (i.e., who doesn’t depend on translating for income), because the non-professional translator is willing to work for less. So, actually, by being familiar with going rates, you can help protect the livelihoods of professional translators even if you yourself are not a professional.

In my experience, it’s easier to ask for a higher rate if you consider yourself a professional. Hahn lives in the UK, where the professionalization of literary translation is more advanced than it is in the US. One reason for this is the longer history there of literary translators belonging to a professional organization (the Society of Authors) that protects their rights and advocates for their interests as professionals. The only organization in this country that offers equivalent services—in particular, contract vetting—is the Authors Guild. That’s why I urge every literary translator who considers themselves professional to join the Guild, which has long been open to translators, though for reasons that are unclear to me, relatively few have joined.

VSE: While we are discussing pay, we should also talk about royalties. I was pleasantly surprised to see that 1/3 of respondents reported receiving “more than $1,000” in royalties, although many translators still receive tiny royalties, if any. What do you think is a fair royalty rate that translators should aim for?

AZ: I would hope everyone reading this interview accepts the principle that translators have the right to share in a book’s profits. (For anyone who needs convincing, see this post from Lisa Carter’s excellent blog at Intralingo.) All the more so if they help to publicize the book, as so many translators do nowadays; but even if they don’t. Whether or not to exercise their right to royalties, and if so, what rate to ask for, are things every translator has to decide for themselves when negotiating their contract. Depending on the book, I may prefer to take a higher fee and a lower royalty rate, or the other way around. So, what’s fair? It depends.

Since I realize that’s not a satisfying answer, what I can add is that it’s common nowadays for translators to negotiate a royalty rate of 1 or 2% of retail price on printed books and 5% on e-books. We see this, at least for printed books, in the responses to the Authors Guild survey (the survey didn’t ask specifically about e-books; that question will have to be added next time). Note that that’s a basic rate. Some translators negotiate escalators in their royalty rate as sales of the book increase (for how that works, see this article on author royalties).

Another important detail to take into account is that it is standard for the translator’s royalty payments to begin only after the book has earned out its advance—in other words, once the publisher has earned back what they paid for the translation. This is why negotiating royalties in your contract doesn’t necessarily mean that you will receive royalty payments. (A few presses pay royalties from the first book sold, but the practice isn’t common.) The actual dollar amount will of course depend on the sales of the book.

One thing that can make it tricky for translators is that often the author signs their contract with the publisher before the translator does. A standard author royalty nowadays is 10%. So if the translator asks for 2% and the author has already signed a contract giving them 10%, the publisher may tell the translator that their royalty has to be subtracted from the author’s—i.e., 8% for the author, 2% for the translator. This may or may not be agreeable to the author and their agent, and therefore may require further negotiation. (Again, I strongly recommend this primer on royalties and literary translation by Lisa Carter at Intralingo.)

VSE: The report also noted that translators’ payments were often dependent on publishers receiving grants. Before we proceed, I should note a couple of things: obviously translators should always be paid for their work, although many of the presses doing the work here are very small publishers with barely enough resources to bring the book to market. Also, in very many cases translators receive more money than the author of the book, who generally receives a modest sum to license the work and some small royalties on sales. Considering all of these things, what’s fair when a press truly lacks the ability to pay a translator very much?

AZ: I appreciate what you’re saying. There are different niches within the publishing industry. I would be curious to see if there’s a sort of natural selection going on, with certain presses, because of their lack of money, working mainly with translators who aren’t professional—by which I don’t mean that the translators lack professional standards, but simply that they don’t depend on translating for their livelihood.

To me the principle is the important thing here: If a book is being sold for money, in the market economy, and everyone involved in its production is being paid except the translator, that isn’t fair. If the book is produced within a gift economy, and everyone involved in it is donating their labor, that’s a different story. The problem is when a press tells a translator, “I’m sorry we can’t pay you because we have to pay the printer”—the implication being that the printer’s labor has value but the translator’s does not.

There’s a difference between not paying much and not paying at all. There are small presses that are nonprofit and operate on a funding model that factors in fair fees for translators, so we know that it’s possible. Even a cash-strapped publisher can find creative ways to show goodwill.

I don’t think it’s correct to compare the fee an author is paid for the rights to publish their book in translation with the fee a translator is paid to translate the author’s book, for several reasons. First, the author presumably has already been paid for their work, when they published it in their native language. Second, the author has already expended the labor to produce the book, so they’re being paid to license the rights, whereas the translator is being paid for their labor. Third, in a typical contract, the author’s royalty, at 8%, is four times higher than the translator’s, at 2%, so the author’s earning potential from sales is higher than the translator’s. Fourth, an author can sell, and be paid for, translation rights more than once—for every language their book is translated into, the author receives a fee, whereas the translator is paid for their translation only once. Fifth, the author has potential for further income from the sale of subsidiary rights (such as film or stage adaptions), since even if an adaptation is based on the translation, the author has to be paid for the rights to the underlying work, whereas the translator, depending on their contract, may or may not receive any payment for the subsidiary rights; it isn’t a given.

This is not to say that the author will actually earn all that income, but these differences in potential earnings put them in a different position from the translator. This is the principle that underlies the author’s receiving a smaller payment for the rights to translate their work than the translator receives for translating it. Many translators and translator advocates uphold the literary translator’s art as on a par with the author’s in terms of creativity and skill. Rightfully so. Economically, however, our status is not the same.

VSE: What do you hope is the impact of this survey? Five years from now, what changes would you hope to see in the translation field?

AZ: The first thing I’d hope for is a higher level of awareness about the issues for professional literary translators in the United States. To some degree, we’ve already achieved that, just by conducting the survey and publicizing the results. I’d also like more literary translators to understand the issues, so they feel empowered to negotiate their contracts and ask questions of publishers, rather than feeling they have no choice except to sign or walk away.

I’ve mentioned already that the main reason for doing the survey was to establish benchmarks on the issues that are most critical to the viability of literary translation as a profession. We actually collected much more information than we’ve been able to analyze and publish so far: For instance, there are disaggregations I’d like to do that could reveal important differences in how translators are paid depending on what language they translate, or whether there are certain languages where it’s more likely that the translator’s payment is contingent on the publisher receiving a grant. We usually talk about fees as if there were only one translation market, but in reality, every language is a minimarket of its own. (I translate from Czech. If I turn down a book because the fee is too low, it’s not as if the publisher can offer it to somebody who translates from Korean.) In some languages, there are more translators, and the greater supply of translators may result in rates being driven down.

Also, though the information we got is revealing, it’s just a snapshot in time. The really interesting data will come five years from now, and five years after that, as we continue to run the survey and get some points of comparison.

So, what I’d like to see in five years? In general, a higher level of knowledge about contracts, among translators and publishers alike. Specifically, more translators signing contracts with royalties, fewer translators signing contracts with payment contingent on the publisher receiving a grant, and higher pay for translators. We didn’t include this in our initial findings from the survey, but when asked, “If you could at least match your present total income by translating literature full-time, would you drop your other paid work?” nearly two-thirds of respondents answered “Yes” or “Possibly.” If more of us can earn a living doing what we do best, I think it can only be to the benefit of our work.

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