An Author Asks: Why should a translator get royalties when the story is mine?
By Lisa Carter, Intralingo Inc.

A reader recently commented on my post 10 Truths on Royalties and Literary Translation, from way back in 2012. I wanted to raise this issue in a new post, rather than leaving it buried deep in the archives because it’s a hugely important topic.

Here is what author Alexandra Martins wrote to ask:

Hello, Lisa. I found this article, precisely when I was searching the net for the reason why would a translator get any rights to an author’s literary work.

I understand that translating something requires creativity and skills in writing. I understand that, and I think that a good translator should be well paid for his/her work. But only once.

I’m Portuguese and I wrote a novel. I created the story, wrote it down, put it on paper. I invented the story, the caracters, the action, everything. I and only I. It’s my work, it belongs to me, and nobody else. When I published it, anyone who bought it was actually being licensed to read my work. The only thing they bought was the paper and the ink. The paper and the ink belongs to them. The story is still mine. If a publisher was interested in publishing my novel and put it on sale in bookstores and other markets, I would not sell my story, I would only license it. Because, gess what? It’s my story. Nobody else’s. The publisher’s job would be simply to get the paper and the ink, so readers can read my story.

So please, help me understand: why should a translator (from Portuguese to English, for example) get royalties from a work that belongs to me? I understand translations are not easy, but all they are doing is translating words into another language. Telling my story in another language. MY story. Not theirs.

As for the creativity necessary to make he story appeal to English readers, isn’t it part of the job? I mean, if you don’t like doing that, look for another job. But having a share on a story, in whatever language, a story that you did not have a part in creating, I think it is very unfair.


-Alexandra Martins

Two readers (who are translators) shared their thoughts with Alexandra:

What an interesting point of view. Ages ago I wrote about why translation is creative. While it doesn’t answer your question directly, it might give you an idea of an answer. Hint: there is not one “correct” way to translate anything, especially in literature. So the translator creates something based on an original idea that is not his or hers. It is a heavily creative process. So the reader of the translation is given the licence to read the translation, just like the reader of the original is being licensed to read the original. [Emphasis mine.]

-Anna Lycett

Translating literature is a process that takes just as much creativity and skill as writing the original does in the first place. As the author, the idea of the story is obviously yours. But once it has been translated, every word of the translation is the result of my hard work. So the translation is my baby just as the story is yours.

Having a novel translated is an opportunity that opens up a market and audience that the author could not previously reach. This would not have much of an impact on sales of the original text, which is entirely the author’s. A 1-3% royalty is not much, especially as the amount of effort and creativity this kind of translation requires is comparable to that required for creative writing in the first place. The author would still get much more, on top of the sales they already get from sales in the original language.

If anything, I would argue that a translator should receive equal royalties to the author on the translated version. Sadly the world is not ready for that idea yet, though. People still seem to think that because translators make everything look simple and pretty, they’re not having breakdowns behind the scenes going “Argh this word equivalent is not really equivalent at all! How can I express this without destroying everything!?”. Just as authors have breakdowns over things like “Argh this character is supposed to _____, but no matter how I write this it doesn’t work!”. Just because you love the work doesn’t mean you don’t pull your hair out over it… [Emphasis mine.]


I then happened upon this piece by Daniel Hahn, an eminent literary translator, on Words Without Borders. The article is about reviewing translations and how the translator should be credited, but the crux of Hahn’s argument is closely related to this topic. Here’s what he says:

So what makes me crazy is when the reviewer praises something that I did and gives the impression that I’m not there. By all means compliment the author on the tightness of the plotting, on the deftness of the characterization, and ignore me—they’re supported by my work, of course, but marginally. But a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—that’s a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is. There’s a reason the copyright in my translations belongs to me and not the original author. The plot and the ideas and the themes aren’t mine, but the words are, all of them, and the way they all fit together, too. And if that’s what you’re reviewing, I want credit. (Or, for that matter, criticism.) [Emphasis mine.]

As you might be able to tell from the added emphasis in the quotes above, I couldn’t agree more with what each of these translators has said. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see Alexandra’s point. It’s hard to understand all that goes into a literary translation unless you have been involved in the process, as a translator or as an author whose work has been translated. It is a complex process, not simply taking one word and giving it an equivalent in another language.

In December last year, British art critic, novelist, paint and post John Berger had this to say in an article in the Guardian:

The conventional view of what [literary translation] involves proposes that the translator or translators study the words on one page in one language and then render them into another language on another page. This involves a so-called word-for-word translation, and then an adaptation to respect and incorporate the linguistic tradition and rules of the second language, and finally another working-over to recreate the equivalent of the “voice” of the original text. Many — perhaps most — translations follow this procedure and the results are worthy, but second-rate.

Why? Because true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.

Wow. Well put.

What I’d like to emphasize to Alexandra — and all authors — is that literary translators are not trying to take anything away from the writer. Quite the contrary, we’re hugely respectful of their work. We want to take nothing away, add nothing, yet convey every little last thing. A literary translator attempts to portray every single nuance of writing style, plot and character development in another language, for another culture. And that is precisely what makes our work so very challenging.

We go to these great lengths in translation, often for very little money up front, because we believe in the work, in the author, and we want to share both with a wider audience. Our work is about giving, offering a new work to a new world, expanding the author’s circle of readers, influence and, ultimately, income. But we are not martyrs, we do this for ourselves, too. We expect to earn a decent income and a certain amount of recognition for our efforts.

If you consider that royalties granted to a translator generally range from 1-3% when the book is published traditionally or up to about 25% when the work is self-published, it’s clear we’re not trying to usurp the author’s due. The author will always earn as much and usually much more than the translator. We understand the weighting, recognize that even in another language the translation is ultimately the author’s work. But without us, without our skill, insight and participation, there will be no work in another language, so it’s only fair that recognition should go both ways.

That’s how I see it. What about you? What’s your perspective? How do you justify a translator’s right to copyright and royalties—or not?




Lisa Carter is an acclaimed Spanish>English translator. Her work has won the Alicia Gordon Award for Word Artistry in Translation and been nominated for an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Lisa offers translation, editing, professional development and promotion services through her company, Intralingo Inc., at