Publishing Perspectives this morning covers a German case which resulted in the establishment of legal minimum pay levels for literary translators. The article and comments discuss the many ways publishers are finding around the rules as well as the vagueness of some of the terms used, but let's just take some rough guesses to get an idea. €15/page for a short 200-page novel = €3000, $4200 at today's exchange rates. I know that's three or four times what friends have been paid for equivalent work by US publishers. The pay rate which the German translator found so insultingly low she felt compelled to sue would be seen as generous in this country. And that's not even counting the royalty and sub-rights participation German translators are guaranteed by this court ruling.
Converting to the standard unit of measure for translation in the US, assuming 300 words/page, the Germans are getting 7¢/word, while my American friends get something like 2¢/word. For non-specialized commercial translation, market rates start at 8¢ or 10¢/word for beginners, up to 15¢ or so for experienced professionals, and then to 18-20¢/word and higher for specialized (legal, medical, technical) translation work. Many of these rates are pushed down by the now-dominant online marketplaces which, while they do provide the valuable service of hosting the exchange forum and dealing with the business details, also often promote a race to the bottom in the form of translators underbidding projects just to get the work. So you might see prices like 5¢ and even 3¢/word: those clients get what they pay for. In any case, literary translation is surely on the more specialized end (at least to the extent that the original work was written by a competent author with attention to the nuances of language)—and yet it gets compensated worse than an unqualified hack job.
Oh, sure, there are presses that pay $3-5000 for a book-length translation, and some even give the translator royalty participation. But a lot of small non-profit presses see no problem with paying $1000 or $1500, and a lot of translators sell their work at that rate because otherwise it won't get published at all. The press might sell only 1500 copies, so that's $1/copy sunk cost as far as they're concerned, and while the trade paperback may list for $15 it actually wholesales for about $8—and don't forget, the press also has to pay the original author, not to mention editors, designers, proofreaders, printers, distributors, PR and sales, and all their operations support.
For that 200-page book, let's assume our literary translator is skilled and experienced and can bash out a rough draft at 500 words/hour, or 120 hours for the 60K-word book. Three weeks of full-time work, and double that to allow time for editing and revision. $1500 for six weeks of work is $6.25/hour, less than minimum wage.
So why do people do it? To get the work out there. To build a reputation and a publication list that will get them the $5K jobs. Because it's how they study texts. And that, I think, is where this whole dysfunctional system really breaks down, because most literary translators in this country are (necessarily) not professional literary translators: they're professional academics. They have a day job, and they can do translation on the side. The day job covers their major financial needs, so they can afford to pursue their translation hobby at less than minimum wage. They choose translation projects based on what they study and teach, so they pick tedious and obscure writing and translate it in a tedious and obscure manner. They are rightly incensed that their translation work is not counted for (sometimes in fact is counted against) their scholarly credentials, because (as many have said) translation is the closest possible form of reading, and literary academics love nothing more than close reading.
At the MLA in Philadelphia, I saw ALTA—the American Literary Translators Association, the only organization for the profession in this country—bend over backwards to win the favor of the assembled scholars and academics. Most of the people in ALTA are themselves scholars and academics and they want their work to be accepted and respected by their peers: that makes sense. But scholars and academics already have a professional organization: the MLA. ALTA doesn't need to become more like the MLA; it needs to go in precisely the opposite direction.
Literary translation needs to be accepted and respected as a stand-alone profession. That means translators must pick projects based not on what they like to study and teach (because professional translators are not scholars or teachers) but based on what they like to read and write. Maybe the reason only small presses publish literary translations in this country—and they can get away with paying the pittance they can afford—is because the vast majority of what professional academics are interested in translating is tedious, obscure, academically-oriented writing?
I like the idea of formal experimentation—300-page sentences and all that—but usually I can't be bothered to actually read it. It's not a discrete choice, it's a continuum, but (like, I think, most people) I'd much rather read books about pirates, vampires, and sex.
And I'd rather translate books about pirates, vampires, and sex. And such books should sell well enough to attract reasonable professional pay rates, and the fact that someone could make a living at it should be the definition of a profession. That's the situation our professional organization should be concerned with building, and the people we have to please in order to bring it about are not academic peers and tenure committees, but publishers, editors, reviewers—and, above all, readers.