On Contracts: Unsolicited Advice for Literary Translators


(Yes, this video is absolutely spot on. I have the emails to prove it! Originally shared by No Peanuts for Translators!)

Dear Fellow Literary Translators,

Working as a translator affords me a lot of freedom to pursue other interests. One of my primary avocations is rock climbing and alpinism. So I do a lot of objectively dangerous things. What I don’t do, however, is climb or work without a lifeline. In climbing, my lifeline is a dynamic nylon rope that can easily lift an automobile. In translating, my lifeline is my contract.

Here at FELT, we’ve all experienced a wide variety of contract conditions for our work, from (virtual) handshakes to elaborate written contracts signed, countersigned, and snail-mailed across continents. We’ve also seen the consequences of various approaches to contracts, positive and negative. I’ve personally translated a book with no contract and had it go on to see many reprintings. If I only had a nickel for every copy of that book sold…

You only have to make a mistake like that once.

Which is ultimately the purpose of contracts: to minimize regrets for all parties and ensure successful projects. In most circumstances literary translation clients have good intentions, follow best practices, and remain solvent. The translator delivers a good translation, the translation is edited and published, and the translator is paid reasonably for his or her time. But there are other circumstances. Publishers’ schedules are unexpectedly delayed. Disputes arise over expectations. Translators experience health problems. What started out as a niche long-shot turns into a best seller. On rare occasions, publishers fail and go into bankruptcy.

Translators, especially literary translators, greatly underestimate the value of their own work, making the specter of low wages a self-fulfilling fear and stoking the cult of poverty. But it’s understandable. How is an inexperienced translator to know what prevailing rates or standard contract terms are?

Fortunately there are some resources, to which I’ll add my own experiences.

Contract Terms

PEN Model Contract_Page_1PEN America offers a model contract for literary translators. This is a great starting point for negotiating a contract with a publisher and serves to point out the main concerns a translator should have.

In contract negotiations, I focus on three areas: total compensation, timelines, and best-seller contingencies. There are other important concerns (see the PEN contract above), but those tend to be less difficult to agree on with most publishers.

The total compensation you receive as a translator is up to you. If you have the skills to successfully translate literature (or anything else), you have the skills to make a good living for yourself. But here is the key: that good living may not come from the project in front of you right now. Forgetting the concept of opportunity cost is the primary reason literary translators tend to be underpaid. Yes, you could accept the (dubious) honor of translating this particular book for peanuts, but you could also reject it and go find work translating technical documents and writing advertising copy and make 100 EUR an hour (depending on your languages, of course, but you get the point–you’re smart and you have options*). Yes, you may be an artist, but are you also a monkey?

One hundred euro an hour for literary translation isn’t anywhere close to reasonable in most cases, but what is reasonable is usually higher than translators assume. See below for more discussion of rates. The bottom line though is that it’s OK to say no, and if others are going to be making money on a project, you should too. You aren’t damaging Literature and Art by turning down a job. You aren’t spitting on the graves of the great writers of the past or the shoes of those in the present. Actually, what you’re doing is helping literary translation by providing publishers with information–information about what books are worth translating and information about the value of translation. If a publisher can’t pay a living wage for the translation of a book, perhaps they should rethink their business model, the books they are selecting, or the markets they are targeting. I can’t speak for all markets, but I know from seeing my own sales figures that even in the US, one of the worst markets for literary translation, there is plenty of money to be made for everyone if publishers make wise choices. How do you think editors get paid?

While it is true that many books bring publishers little or no money (publishers will often bemoan this while trying to convince you to take a low rate), the books that are successful support the overall enterprise, which is true of every other industry everywhere. Consider the contradiction: if a client wishes to tie your fees to the success of the book, why aren’t they offering to give you significant royalties, which is the only way to do that? The answer is simple: this is a negotiation tactic, not how the industry actually works. Do you think the crew and cast of a motion picture don’t get paid if the film flops? Of course they do. Everyone on a fee contract receives their compensation as normal, those who receive royalties make less than they hoped, and the studio takes a loss this time which is balanced out by their successes other times. To reiterate: publishing is a business and translators are just as entitled as anyone else involved to receive fair pay and a portion of the success or failure of their creative contributions.

Timelines are another key point of negotiation for any contract. Stipulating enough time to do a good job is critical (and a sign of professionalism), as is outlining when you will be paid. Standard practice is an advance of 1/2 of the total fee upon signature of the translation contract and 1/2 upon completion and delivery of the translation. Defining exactly when the translation is complete is important since publisher production processes can be unpredictable. A good rule-of-thumb maximum is 60 days from when you deliver the translation for editing. That gives you and the publisher plenty of time to perform edits and review but if something goes wrong you can still pay your rent. Most publishers pay earlier than this, within about 30 days even if final editing is not quite complete. I’ve also seen models with payments divided into thirds with 1/3 at signing, 1/3 at delivery, and 1/3 at completion of editing. The important thing is just to make sure you can live while you translate and that the date for final payment is not open-ended. For example, payment “upon publication” could easily mean you don’t get paid for a year if the publisher decides the book doesn’t fit with this year’s catalog.

Stipulating some sort of protection against a runaway hit has become standard for literary translators. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t insist upon this in some form or another. Sometimes we call it the Stieg Larsson Clause. (Luckily that translator did have the good sense to request royalties!). This clause can take many forms:

  • Increasingly we see translators receiving royalties from the first copy of the translation sold, generally in return for a slightly reduced up-front fee. The amounts of this type of royalty vary–the highest I’ve received personally is 10%. Even a royalty of a few percentage points adds up quickly for a book with reasonable sales. Having some idea how many copies a book might sell and at what price is critical for deciding how to balance royalties and fees. Most of my contracts take this form now, and it makes sense in light of our contention as translators that we are creative contributors.
  • The traditional model is to structure the translator’s fee as an advance on royalties, just like an author’s advance. What this means is that you receive money up front and then pay it back to the publisher in the form of them keeping your royalties. Once you have paid back the advance, subsequent royalty payments go to you, the translator. In this case, the royalty amount should be greater than in the previous case, hopefully about half of what the author receives. (Not sure what that is? Well, try asking him/her. In most cases this information is not confidential.) Since publishers pay authors this way, their accounting systems are already set up to handle it.
  • A less common approach is to begin royalty payments after a certain number of copies of the book has been sold (in any format, including ebooks and audiobooks). When approaching this, I estimate the average price the book will be sold at and then figure out how many units need to be sold at my royalty rate in order to pay back my fee. But that’s just a rough guide–the number of copies could be anything. But the logic of paying back your advance generally makes sense to publishers.
  • An emerging yet still uncommon approach is a royalties-only contract. In this case the royalties should be very high, approaching 50%. That is not an exaggeration and has been seen in the wild. Arrangements like this only make sense if production costs are minimal (i.e. ebooks) and the translator has high confidence that the book will sell. The risk of not being paid is high under this model. I would not personally agree to this, but at least one person I know has. Time will tell how this model works out.

Under all of these models, definitions are extremely important. Currently we focus on print, ebook, and audiobook copies, but a good contract will have a clause broadly stipulating that it applies to books sold in any format current or yet to be invented. I never sign contracts that ignore non-print forms of distribution. You might be surprised how fast royalties on ebooks even sold at discount prices can add up.

In negotiating the Stieg Larsson Clause, the important thing is to remind the publisher that the cost to them is negligible. For yourself, remember that this is the way creative people in entertainment industries are almost always paid. Authors, illustrators, musicians, film makers, agents…why would literary translators be any different? Unless you don’t view your work as a creative endeavor, in which case, why aren’t you translating medical documents for three times more money?


The Translators’ Association of the UK Society of Authors publishes a “seen in the wild” rate, currently 90 GBP per 1000 words. Note that the application of this rate to the number of words in the source foreign language text or the target text of the final translation can make a great deal of difference in the final sum. At FELT we’ve seen both approaches. The important thing is 1) to be clear about which standard will be applied and 2) to make sure the final compensation is commensurate with the work involved. Paying per target word goes back to Dickens and beyond, but if your client wants certainty about the final cost up front, the math is simple to convert a target rate to a source rate. For Finnish and English, the ratio is about 1.35 English words per Finnish word, but character counts are usually almost identical.

Other translation associations may also provide members with survey data about rates members receive. The Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters, to which I belong, is one such example. Beginning translators would do well to join their national translation associations and request the guidance of other member translators. Otherwise they are likely to contribute to driving rates down for everyone.

These sources of information are a starting point. I personally sometimes accept less than the rate data the associations listed above collect, and I also frequently receive more. Overall my experience with clients in Finland, the UK, and the US is in line with the rate listed above. I generally attempt to pace my work so these rates work out to around 35-45 EUR an hour, which is only slightly higher than I pay semi-skilled craftsmen with no university education to perform repairs on my house. I pay plumbers and electricians significantly more. Remember, as a self-employed person I am responsible for all of my own taxes, insurance, and benefits, so in terms of net pay any nominal rate works out to be considerably less in terms of a salaried employee’s hourly wage. How much you make charging prevailing rates will depend heavily on how fast you work.

Understanding the inner workings of the publishing industry is often difficult for translators, whose backgrounds tend to emphasize linguistics and literature rather than business. Much literary translation is not terribly profitable and relies on grants and subsidies. Literary translators should be sensitive to this, and negotiations between translators and publishers should take these realities into account. But those considerations, while real, should not be overblown and are not more important than the value of translators’ time and dignity.

IMG_0843I deeply respect and value my clients and institutional benefactors, and the vast majority of the people I’ve worked with in the publishing  industry have been honest and well intentioned. Good contracts have been the proverbial fences that allow us to remain good neighbors and sometimes even become friends whilst doing difficult, under-appreciated work about which we all feel passionately. Climbing roped-up is a thrill, and translating with a fair, secure contract is a pleasure and a privilege.

*I really believe this. I’ve interacted with dozens of literary translators, and they’re all bright, competent people with great prospects wherever they live. Options for translators include translating other types of texts (check out Proz.com), writing, editing, teaching, running translation agencies, publishing, arts administration, or going back to school for more training. In addition to translating, I’m also a rock climbing instructor and PhD candidate in public administration. Being a self-employed, freelance contractor is hard to beat!


On the Rocky Road to a Good Translation

Just some Pekka out to catch some fish.
Just another Pekka out to catch some fish.

An abridged version of this essay was published at Books from Finland.

I am a professional translator, and I have a secret: I don’t read translations. Shocked? Don’t be.

I’m not alone. The literary website Three Percent draws its name from the fact that only about 3 % of books published in the United States are translations (the figure for Germany is apparently something like 50 %). There are various opinions about why this is, including this one from Three Percent’s Chad Post writing at Publishing Perspectives. I’ll get to my own explanation in a moment.

Why do I say it’s a secret that I don’t read translations? Because people expect me to read translations, as if as a translator it were my sacred duty to show solidarity with my professional community. Or maybe I can’t be cosmopolitan otherwise. Americans are just a bunch of xenophobic boors anyway, right? If you like that explanation, I hope it keeps you warm at night. In most industries, if the boys in marketing fail to reach a major target audience, they get kicked to the gutter. But if it makes you feel better to blame the consumer, be my guest.

Here’s the cold, hard truth: there are some 350 million native English speakers in the world, most of whom live in the United States. The US is the equivalent of 60 Finlands in terms of population. Among those 350 million English speakers there are a lot of writers. And while for a very few readers translated literature is a category unto itself, for most of us translated literature is competing with everything else on the fiction shelves. If a translation doesn’t get read widely (and most don’t), the translated book itself (a new work being presented in a new context) has failed to appeal to a publisher enough for them to spend money marketing it and failed to appeal to an audience enough for them to finish the book and then recommend it to a friend.

Ok, so why don’t translations usually compete well? I don’t think it’s any mystery. In a really, really good book, the concepts and events being described run together with the language being used to describe them. The concepts the author imagines influence the choices made in the language, and the language the author conjures influences the choices of concept. And I’m not talking just at the novel level. I mean from sentence to sentence and word to word.

In genre fiction, the concepts (i.e. the “action”) are most important, so the language is more functional than poetic, which is part of why some literati turn their noses up at it. Genre literature generally translates well. In art fiction, there is more balance, sometimes even with the how of the expression becoming more important than the what. This is extremely difficult to translate, especially given the cult of “faithfulness” among translators. Even though I know what the author just described, I can’t just restate it, since he also made sure every other word in the sentence started with the same letter (just to choose a common device from Finnish). How often do you think that sort of thing can be replicated in another language? In a language from a completely different language family (Finnish is non-Indo-European)? Not often.

So with art fiction, right out of the gate you can assume that a big part of what made the book a success is going to be lost. Just think about it. Does anyone get turned off from translated literature by a Henning Mankell? No. It’s usually a Kafka or Marquez that was challenging enough in the original, but made absolutely incomprehensible in translation. (Luckily for big names like those, a new translation usually comes along.) We read Mankell for the puzzle—the language just has to not get in the way. We read Marquez for both the story and the language.

Take how many people have had a bad experience with a translation that made the foreign seem alien, add the language barriers between foreign books and domestic agents and publishers, and then put this in the context of stiff domestic competition, and you get only 3 % of books published in the US being translations.

The ironic thing about the 3 % figure is how tremendously important translated literature is to the Anglo-American literary consciousness. Ask anyone who paid attention in high school who the greatest authors of all time are, and you’re almost certain to get at least two Russians, a Frenchman or two, a Spaniard, two Chileans, and a Brazilian, plus an ancient Greek or three.

Despite my dirty little secret, my favorite book is a translation. When I was eighteen years old, I read Narcissus and Goldmund, by Hermann Hesse. I’m not one for rereading books, but this has been an exception. However, and with all due respect to the English language translator, Ursule Molinaro (and whoever her editor was), even as a teenager, and without any reference to the source German text, I knew the translation wasn’t the best it could be. But note, this is my favorite book, so whatever deficiencies there are in the translation or with the original work, the virtues of both far outweigh them for me. And let me tell you, the problems with Narcissus and Goldmund (and with every other conscientious translation in the history of the world) are child’s play compared to some of what I’ve seen lately.

Remember what we’re talking about though: one of the most beloved books by a Nobel Prize winner who explored the same themes over and over, honing his conceptual expression, written at the height of his career. What happens to the average book that ends up in a translation in which an eighteen-year-old can see deficiencies?

I can tell you what happens to it in my case: it doesn’t get read. I read a paragraph, I start editing the grammar and punctuation in my mind, perhaps rephrasing the dialogue, and I get bored. Whatever great concepts or action there might be in the book, if the language is sub-par, I’m never going to get far enough to find out. There’s just too much good literature (and other things) out there to waste my time. No book is ever perfect, but at the very, very least the language needs to not get in the way of whatever might be interesting otherwise about the book.

One of the most basic standards in professional translation is that translators only translate into their native language. Brain development changes after age 12; if you don’t learn a language before that point, you aren’t a native speaker. Taking me as an example, Finnish and Estonian are second languages for me, so I translation from these languages into English. If someone asks me to translate the other direction, I say no.

The reason should be pretty obvious: even if a translator were to misunderstand something in the original, if he can express what he understood in a fluent, interesting way, the reader will almost certainly never know or care there had been a misunderstanding. Reading is always an act of interpretation after all. But if the language is odd, the reader knows immediately.

What do I mean by odd language? I mean teenagers whose speech makes them sound 50 years old. I mean book after book narrated in the present tense, which is rare and usually awkward in English. I mean non-English punctuation, particularly comma splices. I mean non-English expressions like “open the television” resulting from literal translation. I could go on.

The basic remedies for these types of problems are professional-level fluency and proofreading.

Fluency is, like most human attributes, a result of innate ability, training, and maintenance. The professional translator presumably already has the first two, but maintaining fluency can be devilishly tricky. Does that seem odd?

Consider the path a (Finnish) translator walks to arrive at his profession. First comes a connection to Finland, one that surprisingly often comes either by chance or fate, depending on one’s cosmology. Then comes what we might call an infatuation: the nascent translator becomes obsessed with Finnish language and culture, which leads to improved language skills and literary awareness. By the time the literary translator really breaks into the profession, his Finland hobby has likely been going on for a decade. If the translator works with Finnish literature by day professionally, and then continues to read Finnish literature, follow Finnish news, and keep up with Finnish friends during his free time out of old habit, how current is he likely to stay with literature in his native language? Taking myself as an example, I know exactly what’s going on in Finnish literature right now, but I haven’t really the slightest idea about what’s going on in American literature, other than some guy named Franzen is hot. Peter? Oh, no, Jonathan. Peter is the Finnish actor. See what I mean?

So why is a failure to stay current with my native language literature a problem? Because my job, the entire point of my profession, is to produce good English. This is what translation is: rewriting a book from another language in your own. The author takes care of the plot and the Finnish, and I’m supposed to take care of the English. Reading Finnish doesn’t help with that. Reading other translators’ work probably won’t help either, and may even hurt. However, every word of English-language literature I read can improve my ability to manipulate the English language in the way that Finnish authors manipulate Finnish. To my mind, reading in his own language should be a literary translator’s primary professional development activity. And when I say read, I don’t just mean read, I mean read and pay attention. The basic mechanics of fluent expression are surprisingly easy to lose one’s grasp on, especially when constantly immersed in a foreign set of mechanics. Remember the comma splices—Finnish uses commas differently than English, and translators forget.

Finally, the translator’s lifeline. The importance of professional proofreading and editing cannot be overstated. Publishing translations without multiple reviews by native linguistic experts is professional suicide for everyone whose name is on the title page. The same is true of written materials used to promote translated literature. A publisher or agent who sends out material without multiple reviews by native linguistic professionals doesn’t want to make money (sample translations and promotional materials should be top quality, not an afterthought—see this post by Emily Williams ).

Literature in translation can and does compete with native literature, even in demanding markets. I don’t expect to see any “breakthrough” that permanently changes the 3 % figure cited above, but that doesn’t mean translated literature has failed to find a readership. It just means that there is a lot of competition and that every book succeeds or fails on its merits, not on the reputation of the overall field. Whatever momentum one big hit may create is likely to be short-lived. Yes, there are aspects of the book trade that make breaking in difficult, but every new author faces these challenges. Perhaps the greatest disservice any of us involved in translation can do is to adopt a sort exceptionalist attitude, as if the success of a book or author in Finland (or wherever) should give the book a free pass from all of the normal requirements for finding a publisher and an audience. Hype will only get you so far.

Last week I perused the shelves at a local big box store, which only sells best-sellers. I was pleased with how many translations there were; definitely more than 3 % of the fiction. But in every case there was something odd. One book pretended not to be a translation. In another the translator’s name was buried in the copyright page. The third, fourth, and fifth we’ve all heard about. Despite the heroic efforts of thousands of translators over the years at an impossible task, often working at a pittance, there have been enough problems to convince publishers here that they have to be wary of translations.

The beginning of this essay is a lie. I do read translations. I want to read translations. But you, the translator, and I, the translator, must understand that I like television and films and music and my bicycle and my garden and my dog as much as I like books. I like my wife and my children and my church even more. I read the books I’m supposed to in order to be literate, but I also read science fiction and fantasy and espionage.* I’m not a captive audience. You have to win me over. Please win me over. You can’t say the Finnish or German or Chinese or whatever made you do it. You have to be a translator. Take responsibility. Win me over.

*But not nonfiction. Too far-fetched for my tastes. I do look at the pictures though.

On Choosing a Translator

I know there's one in here somewhere.
I know there’s a translator in here somewhere.

Summary: you have options, and your selection of translator matters.

I should dispense with one thing first: If you have any interest in either making money or creating good art or entertainment, hiring an amateur translator or a student is risky business at best. That should go without saying, but I’ve learned never to underestimate the strength of the siren call of discounted or free services. I’ve also lost count of how many projects I’ve done that were essentially repairing an incomplete or substandard translation that someone thought they were getting on the cheap. So, keep the work coming! I guess…

I digress.

Literary translators don’t exactly grow on trees. However, at least in my main combination, Finnish to English, there are now options. As a result of a number of factors, most importantly perhaps the work of FILI Finnish Literature Exchange, there are now a generous half-dozen translators working at least part-time doing Finnish literary translation into English. If we think more broadly, including non-fiction as well as fiction, the numbers climb a bit.

However, this is a new enough development that many translation clients are still unaware of their options. Others don’t believe the selection of a translator really matters.

Literary translation is a creative process similar to the writing of an original work. There are differences of course, since the starting point is an existing work rather than the translator’s imagination, but in terms of the editorial and publication process, life is much easier if we just think of the translator as a co-author who is rewriting the original work. The translated work is a new creation. So, if we’re thinking of the translator as a co-author, it’s pretty obvious that it matters who the translator is. You wouldn’t hire just anyone to be your co-author. For that matter, you wouldn’t hire just anyone to be your editor or proofreader.

Which brings me to one of the scourges of the translation world: the phrase “native speaker”. There are approximately 375 million native speakers of English in the world. How many of them are competent to edit a work of fiction by a major author? How many of them can even write a professional document? Not many. As a former college instructor, I can attest that being a “native speaker” doesn’t count for much when it comes to the ability to write well. Even within the translation industry (not just literary translation–all translation) there are plenty of native English speakers whom I wouldn’t let touch a document I really cared about. Everybody makes mistakes, and no one is the God of Perfect Grammar, but that doesn’t mean anyone should settle for substandard work. Everyone needs an editor and a proofreader, but the editor shouldn’t have to rewrite the whole dad-blasted thing.

So how do you choose a translator? The same way you choose anyone else you need to work for you: interview, ask for references, and look at their prior work (actually look at it, don’t just accept that because it was published it must be good). If you’re offering a major project, like a book translation, ask for short sample translations (just 2 or 3 pages) from two or three translators. Longer samples than that you have to pay for, but a few pages isn’t a big investment for the translator.