Sunday, 14 June 2009

Without Us There Would Be No World Literature

The German literary translators' association, the Verband deutschsprachiger Übersetzer (VdÜ), has been campaigning for fairer pay for most of its existence. Literary translators here earn around €1000 a month before taxes, they say, and don't get a sufficient share of royalties for their highly creative work.

In 2001 the government made an attempt at reforming copyright law to give the creative artists a better deal, explicitly mentioning the appalling situation of literary translators. Publishers, newspapers etc. were charged with negotiating "appropriate pay" with translators (and authors, journalists, photographers, etc.). Unfortunately, they weren't all that keen to do so - and didn't have the legal structures to enter into full-blown German-style collective wage negotiations. All attempts so far have failed, with the atmosphere becoming increasingly fraught.

This coming week, the high court is scheduled to rule on five cases brought by translators against Random House. The results are likely to be groundbreaking - will the judges order that higher royalties should be offset against page rates for doing the work in the first place - which would cancel out most of the benefits for translators in the mid-sales range of 5000 to 30,000 copies (yes, Anglo-American translation publishers, read it and weep)? Or will they award the translators decent royalties on top of their basic fee, thus giving them a share of the reward for creating a successful and profitable translation?

Certainly we can only hope that the issue will be resolved in the near future, as the eight-year arguments have driven a wedge between translators and publishers that is far from conducive to good literature. For a much deeper insight, see the VdÜ's excellent background dossier (in German).

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