I remember when I first heard that the German-based international publishing conglomerates Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck had started systematically buying up American publishing houses in the 1990s. I was young and naive then, and my first thought was: maybe they’ll want to publish more German literature in translation. Of course that was completely backwards thinking on my part. These international corporations were purchasing publishing houses as a financial investment, and their management strategies served only to further the blockbuster bestseller culture that had already begun to dominate in this country before their arrival.
Just recently, on July 1, 2013, Bertelsmann merged one of its largest American holdings, Random House, with the enormous Penguin empire (owned by Pearson PLC). The resulting megalopublisher headed up by CEO Markus Dohle is now – as Jane Ciabattari reported in Library Journal three months after the merger – the largest in the world:
The newly formed company will have $3.9 billion in revenue, 10,000 employees, nearly 250 imprints, and a global reach, combining Random House’s strength in Latin America with Penguin’s hold in India and China. Penguin Random House will publish 15,000 new titles a year, about one-quarter of the world’s English-language books.
So what does a multinational corporation do once it’s cornered a big chunk of the world market in a given industry? Well, naturally, it stands to reason that it’s going to use its clout and position to maximize its profits, and one way to do that is to cut production costs wherever possible. And it’s not much of a surprise that one of the areas in which it’s looking to streamline its expenses is literary translation.
On February 10, 2015, Penguin Random House’s headquarters in Spain sent around an e-mail to all the translators whose work it publishes informing them that the rates paid for literary translations would be decreased starting on February 16, 2015. According to Carlos Fortea, president of ACE Traductores (La Sección Autónoma de Traductores de la Asociación Colegial de Escritores, i.e. the Translators’ Section of the Spanish Writers Association), further correspondence with PRH representatives revealed that rates would be decreased between 6% and 15% depending on genre (fiction, nonfiction, etc.), and that the policy shift was non-negotiable.
After PRH representatives refused to engage in any sort of negotiation in the aftermath of this announcement, ACE Traductores published a letter of protest on the organization’s website, pointing out among other things that the great financial success PRH’s Spanish branch enjoys is based in no small part on the popularity of bestselling works translated into Spanish by the very translators who are now being handed a pay cut for their troubles. Aurora Matilde Humarán, President of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, has now issued a statement of support as well, addressed to Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial CEO Nuria Cabutí and arguing among other things:
The fact is that it takes many years to train and develop a translator who, in the end, contributes thousands of readers to your value chain, even creating new consumers from childhood. On the other hand, it might take only a few months to convince translators who are shown so little appreciation for their invaluable task to find work in another field with more reasonable prospects and remuneration.
I think we’ll soon be hearing more international protest in this matter. For those of us in the United States, trouble in Spain can seem far away, but even aside from the question of whether we should be speaking out in solidarity with our Spanish colleagues (and of course we should!), local problems are largely a thing of the past. If a multinational corporation like PRH is trying out across-the-board pay cuts in one country, this is a likely prelude to imposing them in other countries as well. Monopolies are never a good idea from the point of view of those who value quality (not just in culture and art, though certainly there). The largest publisher of translations in the U.S. is currently Amazon, and many of their translation contracts are assigned via an online bidding system that encourages translators hungry for work to underbid one another. I’m thinking that’s not the best way to produce a quality product. But once you start using words like “product” to discuss things like books (for which the understanding of quality must be infinitely more nuanced than in the case, say, of lawn furniture), notions of quality may not figure as anything more than as a variable for calculating the ratio between cost-of-production and units-sold. Sure, books can get published that way, but are these books anyone who actually loves books will want to read?
It’s a sad day in Translationland Spain, and that means trouble for all of us all over the globe who care about international literature.