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Kunzru Calls Out ISBN Edizioni for Delinquent Payments; Zucker Calls for Action

In early May, Hari Kunzru heard from fellow author Katie Kitamura that a Milan-based publisher, ISBN Edizioni, had brought out an Italian edition of her novel The Longshot and was refusing to pay her. “What perturbed me was that this appeared to be a business model for a number of publishers in Italy,” Kitamura told the Authors Guild recently.

So Kunzru, author of the novel Gods Without Men, took to Twitter. In language “calculated to be provocative,” as he told us, he got the attention of ISBN co-founder Massimo Coppola. More importantly, he got the attention of a cluster of writers and translators—ultimately more than a dozen—who had also been short-changed by ISBN and other Italian publishers. As their complaints poured in, Kunzru would retweet them, all the while making daily calls for ISBN and Coppola to answer for themselves, or at least answer the writers and agents ISBN was stonewalling.

“It’s one thing not to pay a foreign writer an advance,” Kunzru told the Guild, “at least they have already received some kind of compensation. [But] to steal months of labour from translators who are already working at a low rate is contemptible.”

After days of silence, Coppola materialized on Twitter to take umbrage with Kunzru’s language. Only later would he issue an explanation, one that’s all too familiar authors around the world: its writers and translators stood at the end of the line to be paid.

“It’s fairly simple,” said Kitamura. “The work of authors and translators should be valued as much as the services provided by a printer or a publicist or a landlord. We can’t be the last on the list to be paid.… The idea that publishers are commissioning translations and then failing to pay for this work is appalling.”

Lurking behind the nonpayment of writers and translators, Kunzru sees something larger at work: the tendency of cultural businesses such as publishing to use their status to mask exploitation. “ISBN was a ‘hip’ publishing house, that people wanted to be associated with,” he told us. “In reality, however, it was not cool at all.”

Guest blogger Alex Zucker responds to the news out of Italy, and suggests, among other things, the establishment of a translators’ section within the Authors Guild. As Zucker notes, the Authors Guild welcomes translators as members, and we’d be willing to start a translators’ section if there is sufficient interest. Let us know here.


ISBN Edizioni and the Status of Literary Translators: A U.S. Perspective

by Alex Zucker

The economic situation of literary translators is precarious around the world. In Europe, where there have been more data collected than anywhere else, the most recent assessment, published in 2008 by the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires (CEATL), found working conditions in many countries to be “catastrophic.” Viewed in that light, the recent news out of Italy comes as no surprise.

I can’t claim to be familiar with either Italy’s legal system or its publishing industry, but reading the tweets by Kunzru and by the translators who said that ISBN Edizioni hadn’t paid them, I was surprised to see no mention of the Italian Translators Union (Strade) or of any attempt at legal redress. These would be my first questions: Did Strade have a position on the matter? Had any of the translators raised their concerns with the union? And, assuming that it was possible in the Italian legal system, had they taken the publisher to court for breach of contract?

In Strade’s first comment on the controversy, May 12, four days after Kunzru’s initial tweet to ISBN director Massimo Coppola, the union tweeted that it was “following the awareness-raising campaign with interest” and that it “stood in solidarity with” the translators who were owed money. Another week went by before Strade chimed in again, with a May 19 article on its website titled “We All Want the Same Thing: Strade, Publishers That Don’t Pay and Publishers That Pay.” In it, the union echoed its position from the May 12 tweet, adding that its lawyers had been working for a year and a half to help the translators get the money ISBN owed them. While acknowledging that the decision to go the legal route was a difficult one, and pursuing it was expensive, Strade wrote that, as a union, it was the most they could do. “The real problem,” Strade explained, “is that no translator can ever be sure they will be paid within the time stipulated in the contract that they have signed.”

How does this situation compare to the one in the United States? What are the working conditions for U.S. literary translators and who defends their legal rights?


When it comes to working conditions for literary translators in the United States, our information is spotty at best: a blog post here, a podcast there, a panel every now and then. There is little reason to doubt that the situation here resembles Europe’s. Judging from anecdotal evidence, the vast majority of literary translators in this country find it impossible to earn a living working solely as literary translators. But we need empirical data to establish this as fact and determine the parameters of the problem. (Just to give a few examples: Do rates vary according to language? Translator experience? Geographic region? What proportion of translators sign contracts that grant them royalties in addition to their basic fee?) Besides pay, it would also be useful to have more information on the other most common concern of translator advocates, namely, copyright. Although there have been efforts to document the prevalence of work-for-hire agreements in the United States, their methodology has not been rigorous and for the most part they have focused exclusively on copyright, ignoring the question of pay, not to mention other concerns. This reflects the regrettable tendency for translators in this country to divide into two camps, one stressing ownership of copyright and the other emphasizing fees. Perhaps this is because so many literary translators here, unlike in most of the rest of the world, earn their living as academics and so are less concerned about money than copyright when negotiating contracts with publishers. But whatever the case, we would benefit from having more complete data on copyright and fees alike.

With this information in hand, translators would have a rational basis for deciding where to focus our energy and which types of advocacy are most likely to succeed. We need to go beyond merely raising awareness of problems to ask what will actually bring about change. Publishers react defensively when berated for stepping on translators’ rights, rather than “seeing the light” and changing their mind. How about some new tactics? A testimonial campaign by publishers who treat translators correctly to help persuade publishers who don’t? A campaign by readers—i.e., customers—calling on publishers to give fair pay to the translators who create the books they love? Environmental activists have employed this approach with some success. Perhaps a CEATL-like survey could be undertaken to gather data from translators on fees and copyright in systematic fashion, over a longer time frame, with anonymity guaranteed to increase participation?

As for the question of which organization is best able to advocate for U.S. translators on these issues, many people look to the Translation Committee at PEN America, where I currently serve as co-chair. In 1981 the Committee created a model contract for literary translations. The model contract and the work of the Committee in general have played a crucial role in establishing and promoting the rights of literary translators, not only among translators themselves, but also, and equally significantly, among publishers. Yet as a collection of volunteers, with no office or staff and no lawyers at its disposal, the Committee’s resources are limited. When members come to us reporting that a publisher has violated the terms of their contract, our first suggestion is that they document the publisher’s failure to address their concerns. Next, we recommend that they file a case in small claims court to establish a public record of the company’s breach of contract.

Lately, we have also begun to suggest that they join the Authors Guild, which is open to translators and offers free contract review. Perhaps more U.S. translators ought to consider joining the Authors Guild and forming a translators’ section, akin to the Translators’ Association within the Society of Authors in the UK. No other professional organization for literary translators in the United States is equipped to defend our economic interests, whereas the Authors Guild has been engaged in this work for over a century, with a legal staff and a base in New York City, home to many influential publishing houses.

Here in the States, as in Italy, no single organization or single approach can guarantee we will always get what we deserve. But there’s more than one way to skin this cat. Let’s see what we can come up with.

Alex Zucker is a member of the Authors Guild, the American Literary Translators Association, and PEN America. He currently serves as co-chair of the PEN America Translation Committee.