The German publishing house Lübbe has three translators among its permanent employees, and the Managing Director Klaus Kluge talks about the model in an interview in the trade mag Buchreport.
Aside from the wish to have particular translators who know their stuff in Lübbe's genres at their permanent disposal, Kluge says the decision was motivated by the possibility of spiralling royalties. The example he gives is Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol - if he had to pay the translators 0.8% of all sales income, he says, the end sum would be "breathtaking". In this case, though, his permanent people get a capped royalty plus their standard wages. There are advantages for both sides, he claims, as the translators have the security of a permanent job rather than working on a book-for-book freelance basis.
One thing I don't quite understand is the time pressure he cites to get (American) bestsellers out in translation. Why is it of advantage to Lübbe to have published The Lost Symbol before it came out in Sweden, for example? I can hardly see thousands of people in airport bookshops hovering between Das verlorene Symbol and Den förlorade symbolen. And certainly it has negative implications for translation quality when, as in this case, one book is translated by a team of six in an extremely short period.
Another issue for me is why Dan Brown is entitled to unbounded royalties but his translators are not. And with the publishing industry in its current state, that job security Kluge cites is presumably worth little in return.
Although freelance literary translators are in a very precarious position, they can at least (in theory) choose which books to translate, working on particular authors or genres for various different publishing houses. And they do at least have a chance of decent royalties that recognise their creative input, once the dispute on the issue is settled in Germany. I don't see that the permanent employee model - under these circumstances - offers them a genuine alternative.