iving in Rome I’ve come across many expatriates and Italians alike who work as translators. They take on literature, non-fiction, poetry and film scripts. Some do it as a profession while others take on translating projects as a sideline or as a serious hobby in retirement. A common thread between them is a passion for their work. But many share the same lament: the modest compensation they receive for their labor.
It is a buyers market. Publishers have the upper hand, often taking the position that translators are interchangeable. Many translators are simply happy to get work and will accept terms offered by publishers on what is essentially a “take it or leave it” basis. But while the market value of a literary translation isn’t comparable to that of the original writing, translators worth their salt bring undeniable artistry to their work.
They also educate. American Frederika Randall, an accomplished writer who recently translated 19th-century writer Ippolito Nievo’s “Confessions of an Italian,” said the sign of a good translation is one that is “original and alive.” Preference plays a vital role in her choices. “I especially like translating fiction that touches on Italian history and opens up new ways of looking at the world.” Like any creative endeavor, reaching that goal is no easy task.
I became aware of the economic predicament of the translator through a good friend who is the English translator of choice of an eminently successful Italian film director who often makes original English language films.
This director first brings a film project to her before he has investors. The director must have his Italian script translated into English before trying to sell the idea. He knows my friend will bring estimable literary knowledge and a savvy understanding of both American and Italian cultures to the English translation. He also knows those characteristics are essential since it’s the script — in English — that will eventually attract to top actors who in turn help lure investors.
What indeed is my friend’s translation work worth to that director? How can it be calculated? How much of the transaction is about the money he is willing and able to pay before he has investors and how much the creative value she brings to his project? Does the calculation change — or should it change — if the film goes on to win awards?
Take the case of Umberto Eco’s debut novel “The Name of the Rose.” Translated into English with modest expectations in 1983, it went on to become a British and America best seller and was made into a hugely successful film. But the translator received no benefits. His contract was for the translation alone.
These are not new issues. It’s a long established tradition that translators are “authors” of their work in recognition of their creativity. They receive copyright protections and royalties. Several countries have laws setting minimum compensation guidelines for translations and organizations such as PEN America provide invaluable online information to translators and “A Model Contract for Literary Translations.”
Yet in spite of all the laws, standards and recommendations something seems to be missing; and that something is unity among translators.
A glaring example of such unity is that presented by the members of the Writers Guild of America East and West. Together, they represent TV and film writers across the U.S. Unhappy with payment standards, health and pension plans, WGA members are threatening major studios with a strike as early as 1 May.
Similar unity exists among playwrights who are members of The Dramatist Guild of America. Through its public advocacy, the Guild has strengthened playwrights’ legal rights so that theaters respect them more. Though not a union, members of the Guild have learned to demand that certain standards be met, and get the job done because of the Guild’s high-profile status.
How translators find a way to unify and raise the standard of the craft they pursue will be up to them. But it’s a necessary and pressing task. The uneven status quo, particularly in an often-imprecise country such as Italy, will never secure them a footing for the kind of recognition and compensation they surely deserve. Lament must meet response, the sooner the better.