Thirty or forty years ago, a couple of Harvard professors made names for themselves (both of which I now forget) and a lot of money by writing a book on negotiation called “Getting to Yes.”
My problem, however, in contract negotiations for translation jobs, has frequently been the opposite: getting to no. Not that my objective has been to make the negotiations fail, quite the contrary. Like most translators, I’m always looking for work and am happy to find it. But our lack of contracting power inevitably makes it difficult for translators to say no to just about any proposed terms. We’re just the gals and guys who can’t say no.
I’m happy to report today that my time has come, and I have to admit that getting to no is a much better feeling than I ever would have thought.
In a nutshell, I was recently offered the chance to translate a new Italian novel by a publisher for whom I have already translated three books (one novel and two non-fiction). The publisher is based in Rome but has created a US affiliate that publishes English translations of contemporary European fiction. When I did my first job for them in 2010, they paid me 10 US cents a word, with no royalty, and I had to give them the copyright to my translation, something I have since learned that at least one other American translator refused to do. She got to no very quickly.
Without going into further detail, when they offered me this new job I asked for a little more money and to keep the copyright, specifying that I was willing to negotiate. The response came back that they couldn’t agree to more money or to let me keep the copyright because “all our translators work for the same terms and we can’t make exceptions.” The “same terms” are the terms we agreed to in 2010.
So I have finally gotten to no. Why? Several reasons. Other publishers pay more and they let me keep the copyright on my work (the “flour from my sack,” as the Italians say). Because in 2010 ten US cents were worth about nine Euro cents and now they’re worth 6.5 Euro cents, and I live in Euros (as does the Italian publisher, of course). But most of all, because I want to experience the freedom of saying no.
The thing about saying no is that you don’t know now what it will lead to in the future and you will never know in the future what might have happened if you had said yes. It’s a double whammy from the uncertainty principle. Since I’m risk averse and have always had an underdose of self-confidence, I’ve always gone for the certainty of yes.
Strangely enough, however, I am thoroughly enjoying having gotten to no. Who knows what might come along to replace the certainty of the underpaid work I would have accepted by saying yes. And that’s the best part of it all. By saying no I’ve expressed my confidence that whatever comes along will be better than the certain outcome I would have accepted by getting to yes. I feel optimistic and confident instead of feeling weak and under-appreciated. I never would have believed it, but getting to no is actually a no-brainer.
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