2017 Authors Guild Survey of Literary Translators’ Working Conditions

Earlier this year, a team from the NYC-based Authors Guild conducted the first ever comprehensive survey of literary translators across the country to learn more about their working conditions, in particular the terms of their contracts and whether they are able to make a living as translators. The survey was spearheaded by former PEN Translation Committee Co-Chair Alex Zucker and 2018 Man Booker International Prize laureate Jessica Cohen working with Authors Guild staff in collaboration with the American Literary Translators Association, the American Translators Association’s Literary Division, and the PEN America Translation Committee. The results are in part quite surprising. For one thing, far more translators receive royalties for their work than word-of-mouth might lead one to believe – a discovery that will no doubt be helpful to translators who’ve been refused royalties or even copyright in their work on the grounds that it (supposedly) isn’t usual for publishers to grant these things in translation contracts. Lo, but it is. Another welcome surprise: there seems to be very little differential in translator pay based on gender. That’s good to know, especially as nearly 60% of literary translators identify as female. Not so surprising (but it’s always good to see the hard facts & figures) is how white the field is: 83% of translators self-identify as white, with shockingly tiny percentages of African American, Asian American, and Native American colleagues (1.5%, 1.5%, and 1% respectively), and only 6.5% Hispanic or Latinx translators. I’d love to see all these figures change. A more representative field of translators will lead to a more diverse body of work and perhaps also to more diverse approaches to translation, which can only be an enrichment of the field. You’ll find lots more information from the survey presented on the website of the Authors Guild, where you can also click through to see the data itself. Seriously, it’s pretty fascinating, particularly the sections about compensation. The Authors Guild has announced a plan to repeat the survey every 5 years so as to be able to aggregate the data and track trends. Calvin Reid in Publishers Weekly reports that the legal staff of the Authors Guild is also putting together a model contract for literary translation, to be unveiled early in 2018 as part of the Guild’s ongoing Fair Contract Initiative, according to AG executive director Mary Rasenberger.

Corollary: Literary translators, please consider joining the Authors Guild to support this work! (The survey shows that over 91% of translators belong to at least one professional organization…) Please also join the American Literary Translators Association (which is doing important work to support emerging translators in particular) and, if you can afford it, others among these fine organizations that collaborated on this project. It’s a great time to purchase professional memberships and make charitable donations while you can still take them off your taxes…

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