When Translators Get Shafted

Surely it happens in every business, but I keep hearing about translators getting screwed over by publishers they work for. Many of them don’t want to talk about it publicly, sensing – probably rightly – that their speaking out too loudly would likely have a chilling effect on their future employability. But today the translation blogosphere is all a-buzz with news of a shafting so egregious and so obviously illegal that the translator in question decided to go public with his complaint. Jonathan Wright, who’s by no means new at this business (he’s translated nine books to date) was put under contract by Knopf Doubleday to translate The Automobile Club of Egypt, the new popular novel by Egyptian author Alaa el-Aswany. We know Wright was sent a contract because he’s posted a copy of it on his blog along with a detailed account of his correspondence with Knopf Doubleday as well as Aswany, Aswany’s agent Andrew Wylie, and Aswany’s Arabic publisher, the American University of Cairo Press (AUC), which hired Wright to produce a sample translation from the novel that ultimately resulted in his being asked to translate the entire thing.

Jonathan Wright

Wright, who’d worked with Aswany before, was first approached about translating this new novel (at that point still a work-in-progress) in August 2012; he submitted his sample translation in February 2013, and was sent a contract by Knopf on May 1. By this time he was already hard at work on the translation, since this 650 page novel was due to the publisher on September 15, 2013, an exceptionally tight deadline for a work that size. He would never have had a chance of fulfilling the contract on time if he hadn’t started working in advance of receiving the actual contract, on the basis of having been assured by AUC in February and by Knopf Senior Editor/VP George Andreou in March that a contract was forthcoming. And indeed Wright was sent a contract as promised.

But then after he had returned the signed contract something happened; Knopf failed to mail back the countersigned contract, and Wright received a letter from Wylie informing him that he was being removed from the project. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure Wright knows either. Everyone who had seen Wright’s sample translation at that point seems to have been happy with it, and the author had apparently not yet seen or asked to see it. But after Wright protested his being axed from the project, saying that he was after all already under contract for the book, Aswany requested a copy of the sample and then pulled an all-nighter with his assistant producing a spreadsheet of “errors” he found in the translation. The list (also linked to on Wright’s blog) is hilarious. Basically, Aswany didn’t find any errors to speak of, but he provides “explanations” of what’s “wrong” with Wright’s translation at various points. Just to give you a quick idea, he complains about Wright’s translating “an attractive woman” instead of “a pretty woman” or “a beautiful woman.” I guess the guy doesn’t really know Arabic, huh?

In any case, and whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations that caused Wylie and Aswany to suddenly prefer a different translator, we are left with the alarming fact that Knopf Doubleday reneged on its contract with Wright. Translators take note!

The Automobile Club

Secondarily disturbing, as Michael Orthofer points out in his blog commentary, is that the contract Wright signed was on the old Work-for-Hire model. The PEN Translation Committee now officially advises translators not to enter into Work-for-Hire contracts, which involve signing away all rights to any future interest in the work. And Chad Post in his response to the story points out that his press Open Letter always includes a clause in its contracts that provides legal protection to a translator if for any reason the press decides not to publish her translation.

Yesterday M. Lynx Qualey wrote up the story on her own blog, reminding us of the excellent 2007 article by Marilyn Booth detailing her own travails after author Rajaa Alsanea decided to take charge of Booth’s translation of her novel Girls of Riyadh. Here too the results were highly unfortunate.

Since Wright’s story is now attracting so much public notice, I am hopeful that Knopf Doubleday will do the right thing and either honor its contract with Wright or, failing that, compensate him fairly for the months of work he has already invested in the project. The translation world will certainly be watching.

Update 1/31/14: Wright sued Random House in England for breach of contract, and the parties settled out of court.

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  1. When facing a similar situation a few months ago – a job I worked on for five years and which, hopefully, I should be paid for by Christmas, my wife sent me this link: http://vimeo.com/22053820
    It’s great that translators are beginning to speak up too.

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