Updated: Mar 30, 2022
To what extent do literary translators in the Netherlands get recognition, in the financial sense of the word, for the menial work they perform? This sounds like a rhetorical question, which, against your better judgment, you wish to have satisfactorily answered. Although over the past years the visibility of translators has increased—more and more publishers are gradually placing the name of the translator on their covers—these positive developments do not affect the financial aspect of the work. For the time being, the one development does not lead to the other: the dominant idea that increasing visibility will result in better remuneration is, in my opinion, a vain hope, for which the underlying logic escapes me.
This autumn, I found a striking example of the financial appreciation of translators in de Volkskrant. On the 25th of September, Margriet Oostveen wrote about the process behind the creation of a Frisian translation of ‘The Hill We Climb’. In this article, she revealed that, after finishing the translation project, the translator submitted an invoice of 500 euros for the translation, while the sensitivity reader, who had only worked on the text for two days, submitted an invoice of 2000 euros. The client found this skewed ratio unacceptable—apparently no arrangement had been made beforehand—and after some discussion decided to award the translator and the sensitivity reader the same monetary compensation. They speculated about paying each party 750 euros, a notable 50 percent increase for the translator.
The sensitivity reader will have been less pleased. But what he or she charged (2000 euros for two days) is not all that outrageous for someone who is self-employed—you have to bring home the bacon somehow. I am not sure whether this is an average rate for a sensitivity reader; I can imagine that a bigger budget is available for the translation of Amanda Gorman’s work. The translator must have thought so as well. Five hundred euros may seem like a small sum, but for a 112-line poem, it is almost double the current minimum rate, which would add up to a meagre 279 euros. But everybody will understand that for such a sum, you cannot translate Amanda Gorman.
The translator and the sensitivity reader seemingly belong to the same industry but employ completely different rates: the sensitivity reader demands no less than four times as much. This might not be the case everywhere, but let’s not forget that the translator also received much more in this particular instance than usual. These incredibly skewed ratios cannot be backed by any substantive arguments. We do not have to put the value of the sensitivity reader up for debate to understand that they are not worth four times as much as a translator. To create a good translation, there is always one party you need the most: the translator.
Stories about the very scant financial appreciation of translators are everywhere: when, not long ago, I dove into the newspaper archives in an attempt to find articles about the financial position of translators, I found many such stories. Not that this fact surprised me. Literary translators simply earn incredibly little from their translations: on average, around or below the minimum wage, not in salaried employment but as freelancers. A small group of translators can keep their head above water thanks to subsidizations from the Dutch Foundation of Literature, but there are also young, recently graduated translators who go under because, due to the lack of economic prospects, they cannot invest sufficiently in their careers as translators. They sadly conclude that there is no future in a career as a translator—especially when you are trying to find housing in 2021 while also trying to pay off your student debt.
The underpayment of translators unfortunately appears to be a constant factor throughout history. I cite from De Sumatra Post from October 30, 1926: “The publishers allow many worthless products to be translated, mostly for starvation wages, and thus badly!” Luckily, the so-called model contract arrived (at long last, in 1973), accompanied by a minimum wage that was agreed upon by the Association of Literary Scholars (now the Author’s Union) and the Literary Publishers Group. This was a big move forward, because it meant, among other things, that translators’ royalties would be secured – although their financial problems were not resolved.
With a model contract, a translator can apply for a subsidization form the Dutch Foundation for Literature. But, to do so, you first have to actually receive such a contract. In Het Parool from February 28, 1976, translator and author Guus Luijters talked about his experience with Elsevier. This company approached him with the request to translate a book for them at a rate of 3,5 cents per word, while the minimum rate was, at that time, five cents. Understandably, in 1980, a group of literary translators revolted; they were of the opinion that they were “the lowest coolies of this society” (Het Parool, April 3, 1980). This revolt eventually resulted in additional money being made available by the ministry of ocw, to be put towards translator work grants from the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Good news for literary translators, but not for so-called ‘book translators’, whose beautiful books are not given the coveted designation ‘literary’. The arbitrary difference between a ‘literary translation’ and a ‘book translation’, which is enforced in the Netherlands, is relevant for Dutch translators from a contractual and so financial viewpoint: book translators are doubly disadvantaged, since they can neither get a model contract nor, as a result, apply for subsidization. But they deliver the same work.
Currently, the minimum rate for literary translations is 6,8 cents per word—that’s a standard rate, not a legal minimum. If you manage to find enough work, you can almost scrape together something close to a minimum wage with this. However, translators are also being asked to work for 5,5 cents, which strongly reminds me of the 3,5 cents instead of 5 cents in 1976. When we consider the development of the minimum rate during the last two decades, we notice that the rate has only increased at half the speed in the last ten years, compared to the ten years before that. You can hardly speak of an increase anyhow: despite the agreements between literary publishers and the Author’s Union, the current rates are insufficiently adapted to inflation. So, the situation of translators has actually deteriorated over the past years, as if the situation was not dire enough already. And this is without even mentioning the current inflation rates.
Lamenting that everything was better in the past is impossible. But celebrating that the situation today is better is equally impossible. Although, strictly speaking, some things have changed—such as the significant increase in the additional fees for translators who are subsidized by the Dutch Foundation for Literature—the profession as a whole has ultimately made little progress. They were and are starvation wages.
Why would translators have a right to better payment? One can think of numerous arguments. Translators are well-educated—often academically—and have invested in their career. They have mastered both the language from which they translate and their mother language at a very high level. Furthermore, thanks to their education, experience, creativity, and language sensitivity, they are able to reformulate and transform the words of their author into an autonomous Dutch text. In an elaborate review of the Dutch translation of ‘The Hill We Climb’, which appeared in the De Standaard on the 10th of September, 2021, I read: “In the literary world, making a successful translation is about the most difficult task there is.” Thanks to translators, we can read books from all corners of the world and travel to other places. But is it really necessary to defend this thesis with such substantive arguments? For me, the discussion is about something much more fundamental: that, for translators, it apparently is an unreachable ‘ideal’ to be able to live of your work.
As a counterargument, people often say that translators are enormously costly for publishers. This is an argument that I struggle with. A translation is expensive because publishing a translated work is expensive, partially because of the costs of the translation rights, but not because of the costs of the translators. Translators are actually ridiculously cheap, when you calculate their hourly rate. Publishers can calculate the costs of translators beforehand: when you buy a foreign title, you know you will also have to pay for the translation, and you cannot claim that a translator is expensive when they are working for the minimum rate—it’s not called a minimum for nothing.
Luckily, there are also many decent publishers who offer a model contract and pay the minimum rate. I am a translator for HetMoet and receive a proper contract from them. Not because a small, independent publisher like HetMoet has such a tremendous budget, but simply out of common decency. Because HetMoet cherishes creators, and values everybody who is involved in the process of creating a book. And they are not the only ones.
On the flipside, there are also the big, very profitable publishers who, without blinking, fly their foreign authors over to the Netherlands but apparently have no money (to spare) for the translators—whom they desperately need to make their sales in the first place—to decently reward them for their work. For them, the laughably low minimum rate is peanuts. But because translators love their work so much, and maybe also because they are used to being underpaid, they work according to any principle but the one which states that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Sometimes I think: if only we would dare. Instead, we—me included—try our utmost best every time to make a Dutch translation that approaches the original text as closely as possible, while the compensation we receive for this is practically a symbolical sum. We put up with all this because of our love for our work. And I write this out of love for my work. I also write this because I wonder: how long will it be before enough is enough?
So, let’s do a thought experiment: let’s quadruplicate the translation rates. The 6,8 cents now become 27,2 cents per word (I hardly dare to write this down). For an average novel of 70.000 words, which takes several months to translate, the translator would then receive a fee of 19.040 euros. Of course, even the biggest and most profitable publisher cannot afford this (I think), but that is not what this is about. If you, as a translator, continually manage to find commissions, and translate three books at that rate a year, you can go on a month-long holiday without your laptop and you’ll earn 57.120 euros a year. For those in salaried employment, that is a very nice salary. For a well-educated and experienced freelancer in the Netherlands, for whom a lot less of this sum remains, it is an adequate reward. You can probably live from your work as a translator, which is the primary purpose of working. I’m just saying.
Annemart Pilon (1988) is a literary translator and an Italian and Spanish teacher. After living in Naples for two years to learn Italian, she obtained her Master’s degree in Literary Translation at the University of Utrecht. During her Master’s degree, the Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Master’s program of Literary Translation awarded her the ‘Talent Scholarship’, providing her with the opportunity to be coached by renowned literary translators such as Manon Smits and Pietha de Voogd. She has translated the works of, amongst others, Teresa Ciabatti, Erri De Luca and Nicola Pugliese.
She has also published articles in the translation magazine Filter and the daily paper NRC, in which she raises awareness about the terrible income of translators. To this end, she has also assembled an elaborate file about the financial position of translators in the Netherlands and Flanders for the Centre of Expertise for Literary Translation.
Translation: Ilse van Oosten