Payment of literary translators /”Übersetzerstreit”

Burkhart Kroeber was given a chance to defend literary translators in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung today.

He points out that the figure of 1,000 euros a month is not what an inexperienced and badly-off translator would get, but what an experienced and respected translator like himself gets for a normal month of 40-hour weeks.

I’m very glad this article has appeared, as it saves me writing a defence. I understand that publishers are badly off too, but I have read three or four articles this week where the figure of 1,000 euros was disputed. One reason seems to be that people overestimate the number of pages per day that can be done. Kroeber says 5 pages a day and 100 pages a month is normal.

There was an article in Die Welt by Uwe Wittstock on February 7 that not only disputed the figure, but also said that the Munich Landgericht I had calculated that a translator earned 3,100 to 3,300 euros per month. Does anyone know what case this refers to? I can only believe it was a non-literary translator:

Allerdings hat das dem VdÜ durchaus gewogene Landgericht München I in einer ersten Entscheidung für einen im Rhythmus der 40-Stunden-Woche arbeitenden Übersetzer ein monatliches Bruttoeinkommen von gut 3100 bis 3300 Euro ermittelt – und also keine Erhöhung der gültigen Pauschalhonorare gefordert.

And in the Süddeutsche Zeitung today (print edition) there was an article by Dirk Stempel from the publishers’ point of view. It repeated both the claim that 1,000 euros is not credible, and something else that has been said more than once: that authors sometimes earn less than translators:

bq. In dem Verlag, in dem ich arbeite, sind in den letzten Jahren allein vier theoretische Bücher zu Fragen des Übersetzens erschienen. Wir kennen die Besonderheiten und Schwierigkeiten des Übersetzens sehr wohl. Und wir wissen auch, dass unsere Übersetzer weiß Gott keine fürstlichen Einkommen haben. Wir kennen auch die Nöte unserer Autoren, wenn sie bei 40 (!) publizierten Büchern eine Jahresabrechnung erhalten, die ihnen ein monatliches Einkommen von 500 Euro ermöglicht.

That may well be the case – I’ve certainly translated art guides where the author has got less than I did – but in some ways it’s easier being an author, and the translator is engaged to do a job of work. Supposing I were good at metalwork and created a wonderful bath all on my own – would I then expect to pay the plumber less for mending it?

3 thoughts on “Payment of literary translators /”Übersetzerstreit”

  1. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, translator and book author – although the one book I was a sole author for was published in German only, and the other two I was involved in were dictionaries.
    I didn’t add up the total royalties from authorship (just became part of my annual income), but I’m sure it was a lot less than I would have earned for translating it.

    However, you won’t find me working as a literary translator (I have bills to pay, so I only translate non-literary texts such as contracts and property-related texts, and the occasional specialist architectural book that pays a decent royalty).

    But I am already working on another book idea as a hopeful author (only in German again, although I hope to do this one in English as well and find a publisher in the UK and/or US). Of course I hope that this one will earn rather more than the first one, but money is not the driving force for writing a book, and I know how the sums come out for most authors. My motive is that I have something I feel is worth saying, and I want to say it in book form, even if it doesn’t compensate me adequately for the time spent.

    But I would not have that sort of commitment to someone else’s book. So as far as literary translation goes (and even most architectural publishers), I vote with my feet (and enquiries from publishers interested in my services usually come to an abrupt end when we speak about money).

    Perhaps publishers need to consider whether the “egg” is really made of gold (or even bronze) and whether it is worth keeping the goose that lays it alive.

  2. Victor: I would go along with that. The books I have done as a translator (also with an architectural slantI have not produced royalties – I used to get royalties for a share in writing a book on British background studies.
    I understand that German tax law sees self-publishing as a Gewerbe.
    Personally I would not want to translate literature for a living, and on top of that it is hard to imagine how people have the self-confidence (to put it mildly) to take up full-time authorship or literary translation. And I can’t see a good solution for the publishers either.

    One other point I forgot to mention that struck me in the Dirk Stempel article is that he was aware that some books are more time-consuming to translate than others, and so he said that a well-organized literary translator would make sure that he or she had the right mix of books to translate. But it doesn’t work like that – it’s possible to see in advance that some books will be hard to translate, but others that look straightforward will also turn out to have hidden difficulties.

  3. Thinking about it, the argument by Dirk Stempel that translators sometimes earn more than authors is downright cheeky and hypocritical.
    Has there ever been a publishing company that took a lesser cut from a published book than the author did? For the book I did, I think my royalty rate was about 6% of net sale price (rising to 10% if they ever did enough reprints, which of course they never did).
    Pubishers of books with high sales figures might go up to 15% or perhaps a bit more for popular authors.
    So even if translators earn more than that, the publisher is still taking the biggest cut. How do they justify that? I suppose they would point to their rent and wage bills, which is basically an argument from the number of mouths to feed and the number of hours of work that go into the book.
    So why do so many publishers expect literary translators to earn a pittance, while the publisher spends far less time on the book and yet earns a far greater return?

    The real mystery to me is why so many literary translators put up with this treatment instead of voting with their feet.

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