Saturday, 17 October 2015

On Amazon, and Translation, and Heike Geißler

This week AmazonCrossing – the translation publishing section of the online retailer – announced that it would be investing ten million dollars in publishing translations over the coming five years, and that it now has a submissions form for people to suggest foreign-language titles for consideration. Reactions from translators have been cautiously optimistic to neutral; you can read a few in Thu-Huong Ha's piece at Quartz.

I think most of us agree that AmazonCrossing is doing a good thing by bringing genre fiction and eminently readable literature into English, breaking down the irrational fear of translations among the reading public. This move will make it even more of a dominant force in the translation publishing world. And that, I think, is what I find troubling.

I've spoken to a number of early-career translators who are working with Amazon. It seems to be a good way to get experience or to supplement more difficult translation projects that take more time. What I'm not aware of is translators who have made the leap – should they want to – from translating entirely for Amazon to translating for other publishers.

I translated two children's books for AmazonCrossing, back when they launched five years ago. I can't remember exactly what was covered by the infamous non-disclosure agreement but I've forgotten how much they paid anyway; signing it was, however, an intimidating experience. The commissioning and editing process was fine, no more friction with the outsourced editing and copy-editing than usual. The people I dealt with were perfectly nice and in some cases seemed genuinely interested in international literature. That was before they introduced the bidding system, though, under which translators say how much money they'd like and how much time they'd need to translate a particular book, send a short sample, and then someone picks one of them for the job. I strongly believe this is not the best way to find the right translator for a book. Nor do I recommend translators submit suggestions for books to be translated, as I presume that these titles, if picked up, would then have to go through the bidding process. Meaning one translator puts a lot of effort into getting a book she loves published and another one may well undercut her for the actual job. That happens elsewhere, of course, too.

I still get royalty statements for my two books, which are now sent anonymously (I'm not exactly getting rich on them, and they've since scrapped their line in translated children's books). I can't be sure because that non-disclosure agreement means it's all conjecture – according to that Quartz article, Amazon are considering doing without the NDA – but I believe they pay lower up-front fees than other publishers, coupled with higher royalties. Which probably worked out great for Lee Chadeayne, translator of mega-selling Oliver Pötzsch, but in my case shifted much of the risk from a multinational online retailer (albeit one apparently only just making a profit) to a single parent only just making the rent (plus shoes, etc.). Obviously that was my choice, as it is every translator's choice to work with a particular publisher, provided they'll take them. But let's just say I'm not going to do it again.

If I'm to venture into the realm of conspiracy theory, might I suggest that Amazon doesn't actually want to make a profit, at least on paper? And publishing translations, while being an idealistic venture that brings light into a lot of people's lives, is an expensive thing to do. A ten-million-dollar investment means ten million less on the books. Is that very cynical of me?

The main thing that makes AmazonCrossing not my ideal client, however, is the sheer size of the enterprise. As Alex Zucker points out in that Quartz piece (again), the new investment could add up to 833 book translations over five years. That's a lot of work to be managed. I assume the scale of the program is already the reason behind the bidding process, and the reason why the emails I now receive seem to have been sent by a robot. Remember that New York Times article about working conditions at head office? Now imagine you have to get 833 translations commissioned, edited and published in that place. Even a hundred a year, which they're already heading for, is a mammoth task that can only really be dealt with using a kind of conveyor-belt method. When I read about one individual translating thirteen titles in eighteen months (eight of them in a two-person team) – in the comments to my friend Lucy Renner-Jones's excellent piece from 2013 – I can't help but feel that quality is not the top priority here.

Amazon has proved very effective at using algorithms to sell things and streamlining processes to sell those things cheaply. I just don't think that algorithms and streamlining are best applied to literature or translations, or human beings in general.

Why am I writing all this? Because my translation of the first chapter of Heike Geißler's Saisonarbeit (Season's Greetings from Fulfillment) is up at n+1 today! Heike got a job at the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, not as an undercover journalist but as a struggling writer who needed to pay off her overdraft. And then she wrote a book-length essay on how horrible it is that we have to perform paid labour at all, but especially how awful it is to perform paid labour at the Amazon warehouse in Leipzig, and how the company attempts to squeeze the humanity out of its employees and some of them even start identifying with it. There'll be another chapter up there soon so you can get even more of a taste of it. And/or read my review. So I figured Heike and I probably don't have a lot to lose on the Amazon front any more.


Patrick Murtha said...

Excellent summary of the issues involved.

I don't believe that I've ever posted a comment before, so I want to say that I love the blog. I wish there was one like this for every language! I'm aware of Lizok's Bookshelf for Russian-language books, and Dr. Tony Shaw covers a lot of French literature (from a reader's rather than translator's perspective). Anyway, I really enjoy what you do here.

Terri Edmonston said...


I found you because I read your translation on n+1. It was wonderful! Thank you! It made me actually do a search for the rest of the book, which I would love to read. I couldn't of course find it, as I'm guessing your two chapters are the only English translation? Anyway that's how I found you here, and I hope that you read the comments.

I don't usually post comments, but in this case, it seems like this is a lot of work for maybe not much return. So I am hoping just a sincere thank you from a reader will be appreciated.


kjd said...

That's very kind, Terri (and Patrick) - and yes, much appreciated.

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