In a previous post, I discussed the unfair and disastrous practice of revenue sharing (aka the “Translate for Royalties” model, or TfR). If you didn’t read the previous article, or just don’t want to re-read it, let me refresh your memory: offering your translator a share of the royalties instead of real money is a Bad Thing. You’re asking a professional to work professionally for a promise of payment that may or may not come true. Very bad.
With this article, I want to focus on one aspect in particular of the TfR model, one that perhaps clarifies more than any other the fact that such a model is totally unfair to translators: author control.
But wait! you may say. Author control is a great thing. Author control is everything! And you are right… when said control is about your creations. However (and this is something every author who whishes to be translated should have clear), translations are the translator’s creations. Yes, that’s right: what, if not an act of creativity, would you call taking a book and rewriting it in another language? But in a deal that follows the TfR model, the translator has little or no control over the product of their work.
Let’s begin with something really basic: pricing. In a TfR deal, the translator gets a share of the royalties, right? Well, what if the author decides to price the book at 0.99 dollars, euro or whatever? The translator would be getting a handful of pennies per copy sold. Which is kind of abysmal, especially if the book we’re talking about is quite long. Sure, this strategy may help the other books in a series and/or other books by the same author sell better… but what if those books are going to translated by another person (some authors employ multiple translators in order to have all their backlist and new releases translated quickly)? And anyway, why should the translator be undercut by a decision in which they had no say?
The same is potentially true about everything else that affects the price or the availability of the books – promos, giveaways and the like. Author decides to make the book free for a week? Translator isn’t getting any money for the copies sold during that week. Author decides to give a free copy of the book to anyone who will write a honest review? Translator isn’t getting any money for copies given away. Sure, all these decisions may be right and eventually pay off – but why should I, a competent adult, trust another person to “make the right decision” about something that affects my income? I did my job, and hopefully I did it well. Why does the money I’m going to get for it depend on someone else’s choices?
Back in the days when I was still translating for royalties, I worked on a book by Author X. I was supposed to do a second one, but then I decided to quit the TfR world for good, so I told Author X that they should look for someone else (all in due time and following the appropriate channels). The other book, a sequel to the first one, was translated by another person and released. Well, you know what? Not long after the release of the second book, I looked at the first book’s sales and found out a huge spike… in free downloads. I made a few checks and realized that Author X had made a free promo of the book, without consulting me or telling me anything. The hundreds of free copies downloaded by readers during the one-week promo obviously didn’t bring me any gain, but I’m reasonably sure they boosted up the sales of the second book… you know, the one I didn’t translate and on which I’m not earning a share of the royalties. Cool, uh?
There’s worse. I’m not a fan of websites that promote the TfR model, but the one I used to work on at least required the translator’s authorization before making a book permanently free. Other contracts, especially those agreed upon directly by author and translator, do not necessarily grant this luxury. I’m sure that there are many translators around the world currently at the mercy of unscrupulous authors who could make the books they worked on permanently free at any moment, increasing the sales of their other books while denying compensation to the translators. Again, those who did the work have no control over decisions that could deprive them of the whole income coming from said work. How is that even remotely fair?
The total lack of author control for translators means that TfR deals can never be fair. They may work occasionally… but I think they are much more likely not to work. Which makes them a bad practice that you shouldn’t encourage.