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German Translators Take Their Case for Better Pay to Court

Christine Harjes (jam)February 7, 2006

They are the starvelings of literature: translators. But now they are fighting back after a recent court case said translators should get a percentage of book sales. The dispute has the publishing industry worried.

Translating is hard work -- and poorly paid, tooImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

"Whoever says he can live off translating is either lying or doing an unprofessional job," Germany's best-known literary translator, Harry Rowohlt, once quoted a former editor of the Suhrkamp publishing house, Walter Boehlich.

Rowohlt should know: He's translated works like "Winnie the Pooh," Frank McCourt's bestselling autobiography "Angel's Ashes," Kurt Vonnegut's "Timequake" and over a hundred other, mostly American books. Despite the impressive resumé, Rowohlt said he could not live off his translating.

"It's my main occupation," he said. "But if I didn't travel around giving book readings or playing a homeless person on (the TV show) Lindenstrasse, I couldn't afford to be a translator."

Harry Rowohlt
Translator Harry Rowohlt, in his other life as a down-on-his-luck character on TVImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Burkhart Kroeber, who translates Italian author Umberto Eco, shared concrete figures on how much, or little, translators make. They are paid between 14 and 22 euros ($16.8 to $26.5) per page. Kroeber himself manages no more than 100 pages per month, which brings him between 1,400 and 2,200 euros gross. In addition, he sometimes gets a share of the net sales price, but it is minimal and only applies after certain larger printing runs.

His is no entry-level wage; he has been in the business for 30 years.

Triple the wage

Gerlinde Schermer-Rauwolf of the Association of German-language Translators (VdÜ), which is part of the Ver.di trade union, is demanding a tripling of that wage. It doesn't have to happen overnight, she said. But she wants a substantial increase in the foreseeable future.

According to her, translators' income should be based on three pillars. First, the per-page rate should be increased. Second, a general royalty system for each copy of the translated work should be introduced and third, a system of subsidiary rights should be applied, from which the translator would benefit when the book appears in paperback form or as an audio-book.

Bücher in einem Antiquariat
Translators want a bigger share in books' profitsImage: BilderBox

In 2002, the federal government set down in an amended copyright law provisions to give fair remuneration to several different groups of artists, including translators.

"Fairness," however, was never exactly defined, because at the time, the publishers promised to accommodate translators. But that has yet to happen, according to Kroeber.

"Publishing houses have not taken one step towards solving this problem since the new copyright law has taken effect," he said. "They've refused everything."

Gone to court

In order that their claims do not expire due to statues of limitation, several translators have gone to court. In a few of the twelve cases brought to judges, the first decisions have been handed down.

Judges approved the current annual per-page rate of 18 euros, but regarding net royalties, the court gave translators an additional two percent and a full 25 percent regarding proceeds from subsidiary rights.

The decisions are a victory for translators, but they do not sit well with publishers.

Fewer translations as a result?

"The reaction is that publishers are refraining from translating," said Christian Sprang, legal counsel at the German Book Trade Association. "We've seen that since the copyright law went into effect in 2002, the number of translated titles have gone down from 9,000 to 5,500."

Artikelbild Bücher, grafisch bearbeitet
Will there be fewer translated books in the stacks if translators get paid more?Image: dpa

Sprang sees the conflict around translators' fees in market terms. No translator is forced to do a translation if the per-page rate is too low for his or her taste, he said. On the other hand, outrageously high fees for well-known authors are appropriate, he said.

"There is only one Dan Brown, one John Grisham and one Joanne Rowling in this world," he said. "But just in Germany there are several thousand translators who can translate these works. Supply and demand determine the price."

If Harry Rowohlt had his way, publishers would release more high-quality literature. That means importing less schlock from abroad and exporting good literature from Germany in order to boost revenues.