“The work of translators is known primarily through translated books,” Attila Piróth points out

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Continuing my series on Literary Translation presentations held at the 52nd ATA Annual Conference in Boston, here are some tips on what aspiring literary translators can do to get their foot in the door.

During the 52nd Annual Conference organized October 26-29, 2011 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Boston, I attended a one-hour presentation entitled Translating for the Publishing Industry, given by Attila Piróth, English into Hungarian ATA-certified technical translator with a PhD from the Eötvös University in Budapest. He is also the Head of the Eastern European Chapter of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI).

Piróth opened the session reflecting on how the work of translators is usually known to the general public by translated literature. However, literary translators don't get the recognition that they deserve, nor do they get a reasonable compensation in the current publishing model. “There is this translator of Gabriel García Marquez's books who doesn't pay taxes, because her income is so low,” he noted.

Quoting a study entitled Comparative income of literary translators in Europe, organized by the European Council of Literary Translators Associations (CEATL), which showed a widespread dissatisfaction of professionals with the current market, the presenter said that there is a lot of room for improvement in this particular segment of the translation industry.

“Book distributors have an excessive profit margin compared to most other industries,” Piróth remarks, estimating that only 8% of list price revenues usually goes to the translator of a book. “When it comes to technical translations, you need a manual translated in order to sell the product in a foreign market. As for literary translations, what you sell is the text itself,” he explains, highlighting the status of a translated book as the final product, not an accessory to the complete package. 

How to compete ― And, if bad compensation were not enough, competition is highly unfair in the field. “University teachers and academic research fellows have a full-time paid position and publishing a book is considered part of their teaching job,” he states. “They're not under the same price pressures a freelance translator faces, so literary translation becomes a hobby to them. Additionally, lots of people are ready to work for cheap, and some say having their work published is an honor.”

He invited attendees to consider whose responsibility it is to actually improve the collective situation and shared some tips on how to negotiate with publishers. “Translation is an original work of authorship, so add royalties to the negotiation, similarly to those paid to authors”, he suggests, saying it would very viable with 2nd printing if the 1st edition proved to be successful.

Another idea is seeking grants, usually awarded by governments for translations from the national language into a foreign language to promote country's literature worldwide. There is also the option of translating classic books that are in the public domain, which usually takes effect 70 years after the author's death. 

Taking charge of it ― Similarly, “copyleft” books could provide a wealth of material for literary translators. Copyleft, or simply ↄ⃝ , is a play on the word “copyright” and describes the use of copyright law to assure the right to distribute copies and modified versions of an original work, while requiring that the same rights be preserved in such modified versions. 

In other words, if an author offers his or her book for free on the internet through copyleft or a Creative Commons License, translators have the right to translate and distribute their translation so long as their version is distributed for free and within the same parameters.

“Literary translation is a hot topic right now,” Piróth says. “But there is a conflict of interest between publishers and translators and literary translators don't get much recognition. We can make a change with a Fair Book Initiative.”