One of the things everyone seems to agree on where literary translation is concerned is that it’s not where the big bucks are, even though every few years we see a book in translation that becomes such a run-away bestseller that even a 0.5% royalty might really add up to something. (One recent such example was Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone – translated by Michael Hofmann – whose copies-sold figures ascended well into the six digits.) But the sales for many translated books never get as high as even five figures, so there generally isn’t much in the way of profit to spread around. But now the bookselling and (as of recently) publishing behemoth Amazon has decided that there’s profit to be made in Translationland, and they’re putting their money where their proverbial mouth is: $10 million of it, to be spent on translations to be published over the next five years. Sounds like good news. Whether it will prove to be an all-around boon for literary translators and the literature they love remains to be seen.
Over the last few years, AmazonCrossing has become the number-one American publisher in terms of the number of translated titles published each year (and the representation of female authors). The majority of these titles are in various categories of genre fiction, which Amazon is singularly well-positioned to market and sell to readers who depend (in whole or in part) on its website for suggestions as to what to read next. Amazon does also publish works of “high” literary international fiction, in translations by well-respected translators such as Marian Schwartz, who translates Gelasimov for Amazon and Tolstoy for Yale. But the vast majority of its translation business is in the genre-fiction markets, and I assume that this is where the new venture will be centered.
Part of today’s announcement was the launch of a submissions portal that translators, foreign publishers, foreign authors, you name it can use to propose books to be included in this program. Most of the categories listed on the site are for genres (fantasy, thriller, mystery, etc.). And I assume that the majority of those who will be using this portal to suggest projects “over the transom” are people who have been unable to place their dream projects through conventional publishing outlets. And I suspect and fear that the translators who are hired in this way will be paid bottom-dollar for their work. After all, this is not a charitable venture; Amazon is running a business, and the point of a business like this is to be profitable, as I would assume AmazonCrossing has been thus far, given the volume of sales Amazon is is in a position to achieve. Several years ago, Amazon set up a portal that allowed translators to bid on translation projects to be published by AmazonCrossing, and while my contacts at Amazon assure me that these gigs do not automatically go to the lowest bidder (there’s someone checking credentials and weighing skill against cost), I don’t know what other purpose a bidding website can have other than to drive prices down, obviously at the translators’ expense. Drive them down to how low? It’s impossible to say, since last I heard Amazon was still requiring the translators who accepted contracts to work for it to sign a non-disclosure agreement. (If they’ve since dropped that requirement, I’d love to hear about it and will publish a statement to that effect right here.)
In the end, this new translation-project-suggestion-portal might wind up being just a way of creating a glorified form of self-publishing for translators and translation, the way an unpublished novelist can use print-on-demand to get her book at least nominally into print. Is this bad for the translation market? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the proliferation of genre fiction in translation via AmazonCrossing hasn’t had any negative impact at all on the high-literature-translation world, and that the driving down of prices for the translation of genre fiction – while clearly not good for translators in general – has had few or no repercussions for translation rates elsewhere. As when negotiating with other publishers, professional translators will surely (or at least I hope so) refuse to sign contracts offering unacceptable terms. As for those not in a position to negotiate, they’re in no worse a position than the self-publishing authors, especially if (and this would be my strong recommendation to them) they make sure their contracts include a royalty clause so that if the crime novel or romance they translate happens to sell a hundred thousand copies, they’ll have a share in the windfall.
Meanwhile, good for Amazon for declaring Translationland a place where money can indeed be made. I’d like to see more major players in the mainstream publishing world taking note of that fact.