A Glimpse into the World of U.S. Literary Translations

As 2017 came to a close, the Authors Guild  released results from a survey of U.S. literary translators. The survey, conducted in collaboration with the American Literary Translators Association, the American Translators Association’s Literary Division, and the PEN America Translation Committee, collected information from 205 translators on payment, royalties, copyright, and various other aspects of the literary translation profession.

“Advocacy for literary translators is increasingly important to us. Many of our members are both authors and translators, and with the number of books in translation growing each year, many of which are very high-profile titles, it is important for us to understand the landscape,” said Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger.

The Guild’s translator members are also working with Guild legal staff on a model contract for literary translation, which the Guild is planning to roll out early next year as part of its commitment to merge translators’ concerns into its ongoing Fair Contract Initiative.

The survey confirmed some long-held assumptions, while shedding light on new issues.

  • Contradicting the belief that royalties for translators are a rarity, nearly half of the respondents reported always or usually negotiating royalties in their contracts. Similarly, over half reported receiving royalty payments, and over half of those whose contracts did not stipulate royalties said it was because the publisher refused.
  • Two-thirds of translators reported always or usually retaining copyright to their work; over half of those who did not retain copyright said it was because the publisher refused.
  • Half of the respondents who translate prose (where pay, as a rule, is significantly higher than it is for poetry) reported receiving 13 cents per word or more—slightly higher than the rate the Society of Authors states that UK publishers are prepared to pay. On the other hand, a disturbing number of respondents reported working for subpar rates of 7 cents per word or less.
  • On the whole, the survey showed that income for literary translators has not changed significantly over the past five years. Although 39% reported spending more than half of their time on translation and translation-related activities, just 17% reported earning more than half of their income from that work.

“It’s so wonderful to have this detailed information about translation contracts and earnings finally available,” said Susan Bernofsky, director of the program Literary Translation at Columbia University and a past chair of the PEN America Translation Committee. “I hope translators across the country will take advantage of the Authors Guild’s contract-vetting service, and also that more publishers will step up as champions of translator-friendly contracts. I’m grateful to the team at the Authors Guild for this significant contribution to translator advocacy.”

About the Survey:

The survey was distributed online in April 2017, to members (approximately 1,200) of the Authors Guild, the American Literary Translators Association, the PEN America Translation Committee, and the American Translators Association’s Literary Division, and was also publicized on social media. The survey was open to all translators, but focused on those who work in the U.S. and/or work predominantly with U.S.-based publishers.

Click here for the main findings of the survey, with commentary and advocacy recommendations.

Illustration: Translation Icon by Ætoms under CC BY-SA 4.0 License

The Authors Guild has served as the collective voice of American authors since its beginnings in 1912. Its over 9,000 members include novelists, historians, journalists, and poets—traditionally and independently published—as well as literary agents and representatives of writers’ estates. The Guild is dedicated to creating a community for authors while advocating for them on issues of copyright, fair contracts, free speech, and tax fairness.