Words are what matter

Screen shot 2013-04-29 at 11.43.10 AMEarning money and literary translation do not necessarily go hand in hand. Nor do earning money and publishing literary fiction. How do you square the problem of wanting to translate good literary fiction and making enough to live off? Do you do literary translation/publishing as a sideline to a better-paid job? Do you translate (or publish) genre literature in between books you like? Or do you say to yourself, what the heck, I’ll translate a bestseller for Amazon?

At the London Book Fair a couple of weeks’ back, a spokeswoman for Amazon Crossing said: “Words are what matter, whether they are digital or analogue.” Uncontroversial enough, except coming from Amazon, I thought: surely profits are what matter to a multi-billion company? Amazon Crossing is a publisher of translations and according to one report, the second largest buyer of rights to German titles after the Dalkey Archive Press. What’s not mentioned in the report is the types of titles published by Amazon Crossing as opposed to the Dalkey Archive – unsurprisingly, they are mostly thrillers, crime fiction, and light beach reading. The Dalkey Archive, however, is a joint project by the Dalkey Archive Press, English PEN, the Free Word Centre and the Arts Council England that runs a Global Translation Initiative: their website says that “it was born out of a conference (…) where it was found that the crisis facing literary and cultural translation into the English language is in fact a shared problem of all the English-speaking countries.” The GTI aims to redress the lack of translated literary fiction in English – 3-4% of the total US book market, for example.

Due to the lack of published figures, it’s hard to say how much Amazon Crossing pays translators. Word has it that we are supposed to outbid each other for the translation fee – in a “myhammer.com” style, I imagine, although I have not checked this. Press reports such as in Die Zeit have not been able to penetrate the wall of silence either. However, one translator who has worked with Amazon Crossing say during the Q & A session: “I have been paid well and that this has ensured I was able to take on projects that would not have been able to do otherwise.” “I’m trying hard not to have an opinion about it,” says another translator after the session, as if he too realises that this Faustian pact might be something he too might have to take on to survive. Small publishers, for the record, generally pay translators fair fees. They are hugely dependent on subsidies from public funding bodies in Switzerland, Austria and Germany; the difficulty is finding a publisher willing to take on the risk of a translated title. Seagull Books is a shining example of one such publisher, but of course, they can’t be left to shoulder the entire task.

So, Amazon, the champion of translated literature? Aren’t they the only company you can’t meet? I try to imagine what it might be like to send in a manuscript of a translation to an anonymous email address. What would the editing process be like? How would you know who had read it – if at all? As Katy Derbyshire pointed out, the atmosphere during this session at the LBF was a little uncomfortable as Amazon sponsors the very seats we were sitting on in the Literary Translation Centre. It’s hard to have a frank discussion is such a loaded setting.

Also during the Book Fair, Anna Kim’s book Anatomy of a Night was launched at The Society Club in Soho – a beautiful, old-fashioned type of bookshop with leaden glass window frames and informally set out tables. I met her at the event for the first time and she told me about her book’s setting – Greenland – and the story, which is based on a real-life wave of inexplicable suicides that happened there (including a boy of 8) and her research: two trips to Greenland of about 2 months where she tried to get to the bottom of the causes of the suicides.

In itself, this was a normal Book Fair event. Except that Anna was holding a Kobo e-reader: Anatomy is a first release (and Anna’s third book) by Frisch & Co., the Berlin-based literary translation publisher, E.J. Van Lanen, who publishes ebooks only. A friend and fellow translator, Bradley Schmidt has translated Kim’s book – it’s his first book length translation – and to top it all, epubli’s Sharmaine Lovegrove hosted the event. At the club, I realised, I was able to sit and chat to the writer, the editor and publisher and the distributor over a glass of wine at one table … and they all had time, they were keen to talk about their work, open to questions and yes, it was quite an exceptional atmosphere.

Sharmaine in particular is known for her opinion that Amazon signals the death of the independent bookshop: Dialogue Books, her store in Berlin, was closed last night with the words: “We cannot carry on buying from Amazon simply because books there are cheaper.” One of the key points about Frisch & Co is that E.J. is putting his neck out for a project that, essentially, is a risk, but a risk kept minimal by the reduced costs of publishing in ebook form. No principles have had to be traded, simply the format. The project is not motored by profit, as in the case in Amazon Crossing, but by a group of people who care passionately about literature. In other words, it’s not just the words that matter, it’s the people who put them into book form.

I could go on. This is a huge subject and I am wary of judging any translator who needs to pay the rent by working for Amazon Crossing. But before anyone is tempted to do so, I just wanted to put forward the alternatives. Frisch & Co. is one, and there are other small indie publishers who are waving the flag for translation: The Serpent’s Tail, & Other Stories, Pereine Press, Comma Press in the UK, to name just a few, who are all dedicated to publishing quality translations. And on a final note: I was intrigued to know how each link in the chain of Anatomy of a Night experienced the publishing process. So to end my speculation, I simply asked them. They have been kind enough to provide me with long thoughtful answers, which I would like to share here. Over the next few days, I’ll be blogging their answers to my questions. (And I have downloaded Anatomy of a Night, which I can’t wait to read.)

3 Responses to “Words are what matter”

  1. I am well aware of pretty much everyone out there who publishes translations. If only it was as easy as all that to get published by them! If Amazon Crossing’s bidding process is a more democratic way of getting work published than the usual stumbling into it that most established translators seem to have done, then I’m all for it. Besides which, what’s wrong with “crime, thrillers and light beach reading”? And everyone I met from Amazon Crossing seemed just as passionate about books as everyone I met from any other publisher.

  2. Hi Rachel
    Sorry, I didn’t mean to say anything was easy. Far from it. I’m am quite interested though in weighing up the pros and cons in a public debate. And I don’t think I said there was anything wrong with thrillers or light reading. Except that the profits – royalties especially – may be hard for individual translators to chase up, even though Amazon Crossing might dangle it as a part of the benefits of its programme.
    All the best

  3. My first novel translation was a 600+ avant-garde juggernaut for Seagull, and I am currently at work on a title of similar length for AmazonCrossing; just to make comparison closer, both titles won the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis. SF covers a very broad range of genres and styles!

    How to compare the two working relationships? Granted, I live on the edge of Europe out here in Transylvania, so I must meet editors and publishers on my odd trips to the West – Seagull at a breakfast meeting in Paris, Amazon at the LBF – and do everything else by email. I don’t at all feel though that Amazon’s approach is anonymous or overly competitive.

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