Part 1: Literary Translation
London Book Fair took place last week and as it was on my doorstep, I went all three days. My obvious first place to go was the Literary Translation Centre and one of the events I attended was called:
“Meet The Innovators”
The panelists were representatives of small British publishing houses that publish books in translation. One of them said he didn’t speak any of the languages they were dealing with and the language barrier was a problem which had led to legal problems. They were sued due to libel and copyright infringement. Now they are asking their translators to alert them to potential problems. At the end of the day, however, translators are not responsible for any legal matters. The whole issue did not surprise me and is one of the reasons why I believe that self-publishing could help to get more books translated into English. Some of the panelists were wondering why they had even been invited to this event in the first place – maybe because literature in translation itself is still regarded as innovative in English-speaking countries?
There was one true innovator on the panel, though: Anna Jean Hughes, the co-founder of The Pigeonhole. Her company was not even a year old and had already been nominated for the London Book Fair’s International Excellence Awards. The Pigeonhole call themselves “Your Global Book Club” and specialize in book serializations. You can subscribe via micro-payments for parts of a book, read them as you like, e.g. on your computer, via Kindle or iPhone app, and discuss the content with other readers and the author if you like. By the way: micro-payments are one of the new trends in publishing that I will write more about in my next article.
At The Pigenonhole, you get additional benefits like author interviews, audios and other material that is supposed to immerse readers in the world of the book. They take on books in English and foreign languages, which will be translated into English and the translations are funded by grants. Anna said they had 6 different native speakers among their staff, therefore I suspect they have fewer problems with language barriers than other companies. The book groups will be in various languages as well. Anna said books will only be published in hard back once they have reached a minimum of 5000 subscribers, which cuts out the risk. They work on a 50/50 royalty basis with authors and if a translation is involved, the publisher gets 40 %, the writer 40 % and the translator 20 % in addition to their translation fee. Sounds interesting to me.
And here is an interview with Pigeonhole’s other co-founder Jacob Cockcroft at the London Book Fair:
Another event that I attended at the Literary Translation Centre was the following:
“What Works In Translation?
The Critics’ Perspective”
First the panelists talked about something obvious and vital: a translation needs to promise commercial success, otherwise publishers won’t take it on. And the book should read smoothly like an original, but with some foreign flavour. If a book was not written at roughly the same time as the translation, the translator shouldn’t even try to translate into an old language version, it’s not doable. I agree, but I think you can still add a little flavour of the other time to the translation, similar to the way contemporary authors tend to write historical fiction.
Dialects are very tricky in translation. Everyone acknowkledged that they are actually untranslatable, but there are nonetheless a few cases out there, where people tried to translate for example Scottish English into a dialect of another language and the result was simply dreadful. So here is a word of warning for authors whose books contain a lot of dialect: it will be lost in translation, because even a flavour of the original dialect is difficult to achieve in translation.
The panelists went on to say that authors and translators should ideally be a good match and translators are almost like writers. A few translators are actually sometimes writers and vice versa. Just think of this famous example: Mark Twain translated several German books into English. I can even imagine the author-translator model as a great way for self-published authors who translate someone elses’s book if they happen to be fluent in that language and have an affinity to the author’s voice. In addition, I can say from my own experience that translations are good exercises for developing writing skills.
Finally, the panel mentioned that footnotes were no longer popular to explain something that is hard to translate, especially in fiction, because readers want a smooth reading experience.
And here are some legal aspects from:
“Please Sign On The Dotted Line”
In my last article about retrieving translation copyrights I assumed ebooks and print on demand would make it more difficult to retrieve translation copyrights from out of print books. There is a solution, however, that was mentioned at this event: just state in the publishing contract what out of print means, for example under 200 copies sold over a 12 month period. This addition can be important for translators’ and authors’ contracts alike. It was said, however, that smaller publishing houses tend to be more flexible if they are asked to adapt contracts than bigger ones.
When it comes to royalties, 25 % are common for authors and of this a translator should get 5 %. I have to say that unfortunately from my own experience and that of other German translators that I know, contracts often contain clauses that state, the percentage of the translators will decrease substantially or they still don’t get any royalties in case a book becomes a bestseller.
Last but not least, the panelists talked about the same issue as mentioned before: difficulties due to a lack of language skills at publishing houses that result in legal problems and translators are asked to help out. I would like to add, however, that nobody can speak gazillions of foreign languages and this means that to a certain extent publishers have to rely on translators in any case – or they translate only from “bigger” languages, which seems to happen a lot. As I said earlier, therefore I believe self-published translations could solve this problem.
In my next article (London Book Fair part 2) I will tell you more about new developments in the book industry.