A few months ago (November 19, 2015), on the occasion of his review in the NYRB of the new translations of the collected works of Primo Levi, I took exception to Tim Parks’ failure to address the quality of the translations. I am happy to report that he has now done just that, quite comprehensively and insightfully, in three posts to the online version of the NYRB, the most recent of which is at http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/03/15/translation-paradox-quality-vs-celebrity/. I doubt that Parks chose to write theses critical essays in response to my comments, but I am grateful, as I imagine most translators are, for his having done so.
Parks also uses his posts on the Levi translations to offer some valuable observations on literary translation in general and the treatment reserved to translators by book reviewers and the literary marketplace. One of his comments, however, strikes me as oddly off the mark. Parks notes that some translators’ organizations argue that translators should be paid a royalty and share in the commercial success of the book “as if the translator had the same impact on the work as the author. This is nonsense.” Well, no, what’s nonsense is this clumsy mischaracterization of the argument for translators’ royalties.
True, no translator should, and no doubt ever would claim to have had the same impact on the work as the author. It is undeniable, however, that the translator is the author – “one that originates or gives existence to” – of the translation. It is the translator’s authorship that gives rise to the claim for royalties as, of course, is true for the author himself. The claim to royalties, by author or translator, is based not on the their contribution to the commercial success of the work, which only determines the amount of the royalty, but on their ownership of the property, irrespective of whether the property is the original work or the translation.
So translators have every right to negotiate for a royalty. Where the negotiation gets touchy, naturally, is when it comes times to decide if the translator’s royalty will be paid from the publisher’s receipts or deducted from the author’s royalty. One can understand why novelists might object to giving up part of their reward for the commercial success of their novels, but one would expect novelists who are also translators to know better.