Translator Thomas Brovot “There’s a lot of passion involved”

A common remuneration regulation has been agreed with a handful of publishers.
A common remuneration regulation has been agreed with a handful of publishers. | Photo (detail): © Silver Drareg/ Fotolia

Translators of literary works play an indispensable role as bridges between cultures, yet they rarely receive the recognition they deserve. The translator Thomas Brovot explains why translating can be a great pleasure all the same.

Mr Brovot, what are you working on at the moment?

Mostly I translate from Spanish, but right now I’m working on a vampire novel that I am translating from French for a change: by turns gory and charming, it sparkles with imagination and is wonderfully offbeat.

Will the book be a bestseller?

That’s somewhat unlikely.

How great is your chance of ultimately making more money if more copies of the book are sold?

Although many translators these days are given a share of the revenue generated by the books they have translated, it is rare for this to result in any substantial sums, especially in the case of higher-brow works of literature that only appeal to a limited readership.

Is it not the case then that translators of popular novels – which tend to sell better – have an advantage over translators of “high literature”? Or, to put it another way, is it worth undertaking a difficult literary translation if only 3,000 copies of the book are then sold?

If it were solely a question of the financial aspect, I believe that most translators would long have sought pastures new. There’s a lot of passion involved. It can be a great pleasure to translate a genuinely good book, no matter how difficult and laborious the task may prove. Obviously translators of bestsellers have an advantage assuming that they are given a share of the profits worthy of mention. It would be nice if, like publishing houses, we could strike a balance between work that enhances our reputation and work that enhances our bank balance. Translators quickly find themselves up against the wall, however, and are simply not offered any better deal.

Giving translators a share of the profits

How are negotiations between the federation of translators and publishing houses proceeding?

After more than ten years of negotiations with publishing houses and a whole host of verdicts, right up to the Federal Court of Justice level and a ruling of the Constitutional Court – all of them insisting that literary translators should be given a share of profits! – a common remuneration regulation has now at least been agreed with a handful of publishers that stipulates percentages according to which translators are to be paid a fee in addition to their basic fee.

In other words, the situation for translators has changed – indeed has perhaps even noticeably improved – in recent years?

Certainly not noticeably, for the fundamental problem of low pay has yet to be resolved. Nonetheless, it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, there are still too many publishing companies which adjust their standard profit-sharing rates – above and beyond the legal stipulations – such that there is no “risk” to themselves: they pay nothing for smaller print runs, a little bit for medium-sized print runs, and tend to offer no profit-sharing in the case of large print runs. There’s still a lot to be rectified here.

“A translator is anyone who translates”

What exactly is the remit and what are the objectives of the German Translators’ Fund?

Just like the other arts, the art of translation is reliant on public-sector funding. For this reason, the German Translators’ Fund was established in 1997 – we based it on the example set by the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway. It supports translators in three ways: firstly, and most importantly, the Fund awards scholarships and grants to translators. In addition, together with a series of partners in our “Academy of Translation Art”, it offers continuing education in seminars and workshops. Translating literature is not a profession that requires formal training – a translator is anyone who translates, and we have always taught ourselves the art of translation in any case. Last but not least, we are keen to raise public awareness of the art of translation through events and publications; one element of this is also the August Wilhelm von Schlegel Visiting Professorship in Poetics of Translation which we established in cooperation with the university at the Peter Szondi Institute of Freie Universität (FU) Berlin.

Which issues is the executive board of the German Translators’ Fund currently focusing on?

We are pleased to see that the continuing education we offer is catching on and is being watched with interest abroad. In this context we are happy to pass on our experience, for example within the framework of cooperation with the Goethe-Institut Moscow. Furthermore, in view of the Anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, we are currently being kept busy by a project in which we are exploring – from a translation perspective – the most influential translator of the German tongue, Bible translator Martin Luther. And of course we are canvassing for increased funding, as we are stretched to the limit financially with all of our activities and our budget is not sufficient to award bigger scholarships, especially for highly extensive and time-consuming translation projects. In this regard we are pinning our hopes on political support.

You also established an agency for translators some time ago. How did that come about?

I’m going to briefly put on a different hat to answer that question. The Federation of German-speaking Translators, the VdÜ, represents the profession as a whole and can attempt to negotiate with publishers to introduce minimum standards and provide its members with legal protection via the ver.di union, while the German Translators’ Fund can award scholarships and provide continuing education. However, when it actually comes to negotiating concrete terms with a publisher or to administering or managing their authors’ rights, translators are left to their own devices. This is where the agency that I run together with my fellow translator Peter Klöss can provide support and offer a classic service. I was prompted to set up the agency when the copyright contract law was reformed in 2002 and stated clearly that authors are to receive appropriate remuneration – freelancers, however welcome the law may be, still have to fight for their own rights. A lot has been achieved in recent years, and I regard our agency as one element of this process of professionalization. We obviously cannot perform miracles, however.

Thomas Brovot, born in Cologne in 1958, graduated in Romance studies and political science and translates literary texts from Spanish, Portuguese and French. He has won multiple awards for his translations; in 2012 he was awarded the Helmut M. Braem Prize for his new translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter”. Thomas Brovot is a co-founder and, since 2009, chairman of the German Translator’s Fund. He lives in Berlin.