There Is Power in a Union

fart and laugh.jpg“Farting and laughing are healthy.” A life-affirming message photographed by me on the Langenscheidtbrücke in Berlin-Schöneberg, 16 June 2019.

It’s funny to read one of the most celebrated, successful Russian-to-English translators in the world complaining that an equally celebrated, successful scholar of Russian history wrote a less than glowing profile of a famous writer whose works they have translated and published to great acclaim and universal gratitude, and calling for an online campaign against the famous scholar and their allegedly retrograde views.

It’s funny because there is a whole other world of less celebrated, less acclaimed translators who have other, more mundane problems to deal with, such as getting paid fairly for their work or, sometimes, getting paid at all, and having their work stolen by unscrupulous publishers and other clients.

Just minutes ago, I was informed that the people who shanghaied me yesterday (Saturday) into consulting and commenting on someone else’s (extraordinarily bad) translation of a text and asked me to do this before Monday would not pay me the modest fee of 105 euros I asked for two and half hours of intense work commenting on the very bad translation of the odious text they sent me. They want to pay me 32 euros per the number of characters in the source text, although I made it clear that were this an ordinary translating or proofreading job, my minimum fee would be 40 euros in any case.

photo_2019-06-15_10-45-35If you read Russian you will understand why I was extremely dispirited to consult on a wretched translation of this source text with no notice and basically no deadline this past weekend. And then the people who asked me to do this thought it should cost them next to nothing.

A few weeks ago, I was perusing the memoirs of a famous anti-Putin dissident, translated into English and published, nearly two years ago, by the world’s largest general-interest paperback publisher.

I was curious to see who translated the book, but no translator is identified by name anywhere in the book. Oddly, however, the publishers had included a plainly false statement in the front matter: “The moral rights of the translators have been asserted.”

How could that be if none of them was identified by name? How could that be if one of them, as it turned out, to my surprise, was me?

You see, I translated a book of memoirs by the same author a few years ago. The book was never published, however — supposedly, because of a nasty conflict with the publisher.

But now this new book has been published (to great acclaim, of course) and, while it is mostly a new book, whoever really wrote it or ghost-wrote it or edited it has inserted chunks of my old, previously unused translation into the new book.

I haven’t gone through the book with a pencil yet to underline and figure out how many such passages there are, but they are there.

In what sense, then, were my or anyone else’s “moral rights” “asserted”? Neither they nor I was identified in any way as being among the translators. I was not paid by the publisher for my work. I was not sent a copy of the book by the publisher.

The same publisher, by the way, had to be forced by the organizing committee of a prestigious literary prize for books about Russia to send me copies of a book I translated that was awarded the prize last year.

In the front matter of this book, I am clearly identified as the translator. I am also identified as the copyright holder of the translation published therein. But until last year, when I won the prize, I had never seen a copy of the book.

Nor has the world’s most powerful English-language publisher ever contacted me about royalties, although per our contract they are owed to me. I am reasonably sure that a decent amount of royalties have piled up by now. Even if they haven’t, they should give me an accounting.

I would say that I really have these royalties coming given that both the world’s most powerful English-language publisher and the US publisher that sold them my translation for a song (after having pleaded poverty and paid me a miserable fee) themselves refused to send me copies of the book. They only did so after pressure was brought to bear on them by influential outsiders.


I would call on more celebrated translators to band together with less celebrated translators to defend the rights of translators great and small.

What I wrote at the beginning of this post was probably wrong. I would be irritated, too, if a celebrated scholar wrote a damning review of a writer whose work I promoted by producing the very best translations of it I possibly could.

But there are translators whose work is ripped off and left unpaid. It comes with the territory, but it shouldn’t. Translators worldwide should organize national and international unions to ensure the fair treatment of translators and their work by publishers and other people who commission translations. When publishers and other clients step way out of line, these unions could intercede forcefully and effectively on behalf of their members.

As it is right now, when clients try and throw me under the bus, I either raise a ruckus on my lonesome or I lump it. I usually do both, usually to no effect. Since many outsiders to the craft do not deem translation “real work” anyway, they are only too happy not to pay you for your efforts.

There is power in a union, however, and there really is strength in numbers.

— Thomas Campbell, the editor of the Russian Reader and other blogs since 2007, and a freelance translator since 1996

P.S. Out of curiosity, I just counted (with a little help from WordPress) the number of words I have published on this website since I launched it in 2007: 1,409,036. Apparently, the median length of a book is 64,000 words. In the last twelve years, then, I have translated (mostly) and written the equivalent of twenty-two books and published them on this website.

Discussing the rates professional translators charge, Job Monkey writes, “The average rate per word is 10 to 20 cents, depending on the type of document to be translated, the language combination, the amount of work involved, the subject matter and the deadline.”

For the sake of the argument, let’s forget all other factors and pay me ten imaginary cents per word for my work on the Russian Reader. If someone were to pay me, the bill would be a hefty $140,903.60.

This is not taking into account the work I did on a website that mostly eclipsed the Russian Reader for over five years, Chtodelat News (740 posts between February 18, 2008, and May 4, 2013) and the work I still do, not often enough, on my “relaxation” blog about Finland, Living in FIN, which mostly functions as a platform for my translations of modern Finnish poetry. 

Of course, I don’t expect anyone to pay me $140,000 or even a fraction of it for work that I made myself do, but even things that are not bought and paid have value. So it is all the more vital that translators (all of whom, in my experience, do a lot of pro bono work for good causes) are paid fairly and promptly when they do work expressly for money.

Finally, you can support the work I do on this website by looking in the left sidebar, where you will find PayPal and Ko-Fi donation buttons. I appreciate all the support I get from my fellow Russian readers. It is what keeps me going.

4 thoughts on “There Is Power in a Union

  1. I sympathise – am curious to know, is there a U.K.-based organisation for Russian-English translators like SELTA (Swedish-English Literary Translators Association) and DELT (ditto for Danish-English translators)? There probably ought to be.

    1. It’s really nice to hear right off the bat from a translator whose work I’ve admired for many years… I’m not based in the UK. I’m a US national who has spent most of his career working in Russia. I’ve only recently moved to Berlin. Technically, I should have joined the American Translators Association a long time ago, but although they do lots of great things for their members, they don’t function as a real trade union, as far as I understand. It’s a distinction I know fairly well because I was a union organizer for several years. I imagine there should be a German translators’ union and, this being Germany, they would probably be happy to let me join, but you’re right that there should be organizations and unions for Russian-English translators in the UK and US. If there aren’t such organizations, I guess I’ll have to try and start one. The problem, however, is that the Russian-English translation scene is complicated, especially in Russia itself, by the large numbers of native Russian speakers who work, part time or full time, as Russian-English translators. That, in fact, is the background of the sad story I tell in the post. An acquaintance of an acquaintance had, apparently, given one such Russian speaker a translation test, but wanted a native English-speaking translator to evaluate the results. They were deplorable, as is nearly always the case with non-native speakers with no or little experience of living outside of Russia, that is, in the Anglophone world. (That doesn’t qualify a person, either, but it would mitigate some of the sheer stupidity I see all the time.) Nevertheless, I can’t tell you how many times over the last several years I’ve been asked to “proofread” or “edit” such non-translations. In many cases, I have told clients I need to translate a text over from scratch. When they know the difference between good translations and bad translations, they have almost always been happy to pay me my going rate for a new translation. But not everyone can tell the difference, and not everyone wants to pay for it. So, essentially, the Russian-English translation community is chockablock with de facto strikebreakers. People who are almost by definition not qualified to do their jobs are not going to kick up a fuss about being underpaid, and yet they get a very large number of commissions and orders nowadays, sometimes with the proviso that an actual native speaker will be brought in after the fact to undo the damage. It’s a vicious circle.

  2. There’s a similar problem with non-native English-speaking translators in the Nordic world, especially Finland, but in general organisations like SELTA and DELT are successful in steering U.K. and U.S. publishers away from the non-native English speakers. In England there are also the Nordic and German sections of the Translators Association, which is more akin to a union (and probably also has a Russian section, though I’m not familiar with it). Professional translators’ magazines like Swedish Book Review are an important resource in that respect, and one might imagine that in the field of Russian translation a grouping like Pushkin House could produce such a journal without too much difficulty. Just a thought.

    1. It doesn’t surprise me that there is a similar problem Finland, since the prejudice that non-Finns cannot possibly learn Finnish well enough to do anything with it is common there, which partly explains why Finnish-language pedagogy is underdeveloped, although I was lucky to have outstanding teachers nearly always. The idea that Pushkin House could produce a journal about Russian translation is a good one, although I’m not sure I could anything more than suggesting it to the people I know there.

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