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24 - Translation for publishers

"It was striking that not only she, but also Fräulein Rosy and the other women in the house accepted any poet who had published at all"1.

The category of translation for publishers covers all translations ordered by publishers and executed for them, independent of the kind of text it may be. Publishers print text of any kind, from the literary to specialized technical, to essays, to journalistic texts. What do translations of this kind have in common?

The fact that they are done for the publishing industry which, as many researchers have stressed, is an immense power system2.

While in a rapport with a single non-publishing company a translator has a rather good leverage for negotiation because companies usually are not a system, a network to her, so they have a one-to-one relation with the translator, publishers establish a compact system of written and unwritten rules against which the translator, a weak, solitary element, has nearly no power of negotiation.

Rules. Publishers are very rigid in applying their editorial rules. Such rules, to add a little mayhem, in Italy and in many other countries are not consistent between one publisher and the next, nor are they consistent with the norms of the ISO (International Standards Organization) and the national standards agencies. During my personal working experience, I collected the leaflets stating the editorial norms of the publishers I worked for, so I could see that each of the established norms were formed on the personal tastes of editors who make the decisions in that establishment; there are also publishers that change their norms pretty frequently.

Contracts. Even if the legislation in many countries equalizes translation and writing, contracts are seldom drafted according to this principle. In the countries where translation must be considered as an alienation of copyrights, in order to avoid paying large sums in the case of a successful book, publishers prepare contracts in which a translator is paid in a lump sum, independent of the quantity of copies sold.

Fees. While the demand for translations for publishers is far greater than the supply, the fees paid for translations is in constant decline. In Italy, for example, there are thousands of people that consider their greatest aspiration to work for a publisher, while publishers cover only 20 percent of the global translation market. Therefore, publishers take advantage of that and do not seek out the highest quality translators, except in case of dire need, because a successful translator will have conquered a good position on the market and require higher fees; publishers often prefer to offer their jobs to younger beginners who, since they are eager to start this kind of job, are ready to work for low fees, and sometimes for free, useful for those starting their career as work experience to put on their CV.

Texts. The secret hope of any translator working for publishers is to work on interesting texts. This should be the difference compared to a translator working for companies or private individuals. Nearly all translators for publishers are strong readers in the languages from which they translate, therefore they often have passions for certain authors and wish to propose their translation of these authors to the publishers they know. This is one of the strongest illusions linking translators to the publishing world. But in most cases publishers choose a text that is proposed to them by literary agents.

Agents. This is another difference between the publishing world and the rest of the world. Publishing agents (sometimes mistakenly called "literary agents", while they usually they deal mostly with non fiction) in the case of translations make a profit on the economic mediation between an author and a publisher of a different country. Usually an author's fortune abroad depends a great deal on the decision of her agent. Every agent handles a given number of authors, sometimes a very high number, so, inevitably, not being able to devote all their time to all authors, he concentrates on the authors that he thinks are most interesting, or more probable sources of profit. In countries like Italy, international publishing agencies are few; that's why publishers, translators and authors must cultivate the relations with them if they want to have a successful career.

Publishing information networks. Publishers have many official relations, through professional and private associations, through which they exchange information. The name of a translator who did a good job can circulate in this way, and she may get new assignments; in the same way, the supposedly bad jobs of a translator are circulated by word of mouth in order to warn other publishers.

Restrictive covenants. The relations between publisher and translator are ruled by the agreement, that is often preprinted by the publisher to give a clear idea to the translator (or author) of the exiguous power of her negotiation. The text is fixed, and is very similar from one publisher to the next. In Italy all publishing agreements contain a clause that more or less says:

If the publisher, to its unquestionable judgment, will consider inadequate the translator's work, will be able to reject completely or in part her work, refusing to comply by the payment obligations.

When revision, to the unquestionable judgment of the publisher, is made necessary by the translator's work, its cost are charged to the translator. When retranslation is deemed necessary, the translator's work is not paid.

Quality control. Quality control of translations for publishers is ruled by the same principles: the publisher's judgment (often referred to the judgment to the editor) has an infinite value, the translator's, no value at all. When texts are not completely closed and specialized (see previous units), where the text cannot be objectively wrong because the sign-object relation is rigorously one-to-one - in most cases -, the judgment over a translation's quality is always arbitrary. Some evaluation criteria for translations are present in translation studies literature, but publishers tend to ignore it because they prefer to stick by purely commercial criteria. As Fawcett says3, the final product is mostly modeled by editors. This often leads to the creation of a domesticated translation, eliminating the newest and less standard aspects. Since often the editor's competence in the source language and culture is not as strong as the translator's, corrections are modeled on criteria of readability in the target language4. Most important, for them, is a translation to be easily read, fluently. For this reason, translators who have a greater meta-translational knowledge - who therefore are educated on the theoretical, beside the practical, side - tend to come out of the confrontation with publishers somewhat frustrated.


Bibliographical references

CANETTI ELIAS Die gerettete Zunge. - Die Fackel im Ohr. - Das Augenspiel, München, Carl Hanser Verlag, 1995, ISBN 3-446-18062-1.

CANETTI ELIAS The Tongue Set Free. Remembrance of a European Childhood, translated by Joachim Neugroschel, in The Memoirs of Elias Canetti, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, ISBN 0-374-19950-7, p. 1-286.

FAWCETT P. Translation and power play, in The Translator, 1.2, 1995, p. 177-192.

MUNDAY JEREMY Systems in Translation: A computer-assisted systemic analysis of the translation of García-Marquez, Ph. D. thesis, Bradford, 1997.

VENUTI LAWRENCE The Scandals of Translation: Towards the Ethics of Difference, London - New York, Routledge, 1998, ISBN 0-415-16930-5.

1 Canetti 1999: 197.
2 Venuti 1998: 31-66.
3 1995:189.
4 Munday 1997: 170.