Translator Beware
October 28, 2013 1:06 PM   Subscribe

"Why translators should give Dr Alaa Al Aswany and Knopf Doubleday a wide berth" is a "cautionary tale," which involves literary agent Andrew Wylie, seen in a recent metafilter post, and translator Jonathan Wright who says, "The least I can say is that he [Dr. Aswany] is not an honorable man. But let others be the judge, as I explain the origins of our dispute." Some of Dr. Aswany's objections to Wright's translation can be found in this file.
posted by ChuckRamone (15 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting. Does this kind of thing often happen to translators? Looks like like the author wanted to hand the job to a friend and Knopf is betting that fighting the thing in court would be more trouble than it's worth to the translator.
posted by Diablevert at 1:23 PM on October 28, 2013

تحليل طبق من الفول
posted by mrbill at 1:30 PM on October 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

That objection document is insane. I especially like the objection to "I thought hard about the possibilities, eager to reassure myself" where the author prefers "I concentrated to get rid of my worries."
posted by demiurge at 1:36 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hope that Mr. X does indeed translate Dr. Aswany's novel word for word, as he apparently desires. It would be a fitting punishment.

And wow, Knopf took all three signed copies of the contract, and then tried to claim that there was no contract and Wright couldn't prove it because he had no signed copy available? That's pretty lowball behavior for a major publisher.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:42 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

Some of Dr. Aswany's objections to Wright's translation can be found in this file.

Assuming competence in the language pair on the part of the translator, where isn't really one "correct" way to translate a document (in this case a novel).

There are plenty of wrong ways to translate something, but translation or "transcreation" at its best preserves the original meaning and magic of the source text. Translators have to be masterful writers, and masterful writers are very rare. This is one of the reasons why books in translation can be very flat to read.

However, my main point was that Aswany is mistaken if he thinks there is only on "right" way to translate the novel.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:43 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

See, I'm stuck on someone having done months of work on something WITHOUT A CONTRACT in place.

I wouldn't have even read the damn thing until I had a signed, executed contract in place.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:55 PM on October 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

What I find amazing is that, after unloading this blunderbuss of bullshit on the guy, Dr. Aswany is shocked, (shocked!) to find that his treatment of Wright on this particular project has soured Wright on working with Dr. Aswany on other projects. He actually comes off all hurt and betrayed that Wright didn't want to keep on translating his articles for him.
posted by Naberius at 1:56 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

See, I'm stuck on someone having done months of work on something WITHOUT A CONTRACT in place.

You've got months of verbal agreement, a bunch of preliminary work done that would have to be re-started if they switched translators because it's mostly in your head and notes, and a schedule hashed out with the publisher and author -- what are they going to do, throw all that in the garbage and start over, out of a fit of pique?

...don't answer that.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:16 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

See, I'm stuck on someone having done months of work on something WITHOUT A CONTRACT in place.

That is dead common in publishing. Terrifying, but common. I've had books with due dates that came before my initial signing contracts. I have friends who got almost all the way to publication (which means they did revisions, copyedits, pass pages, proofs,) before they got their contract.

It's a weird handshake business and reading this makes me side-eye Knopf so hard. I will have to think seriously in the future about whether I want to submit to their imprint.
posted by headspace at 3:29 PM on October 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

This is why I love Mike Monteiro's talk: "Fuck you, pay me."

People gotta learn this stuff, but you don't all have to learn it the hard way.
posted by bashos_frog at 4:21 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

He should have refused to start work without a contract. This is why contracts exist.
posted by w0mbat at 5:45 PM on October 28, 2013

The original source of the open letter might also be of interest; looks like there's some discussion going on there.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:39 PM on October 28, 2013

This post has a link where the translator has replaced his original with the provided "correct versions", and comments them. You don't even have to be a translator to see that this is indeed just a pathetic attempt to justify breaking the contract.

I now need my the solitude.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:39 AM on October 29, 2013

He should have refused to start work without a contract. This is why contracts exist.

Welcome to the world of translation, where "contracts" are emails requesting a quote from a translator, translator giving a quote and estimated date of completion, client accepting (or attempting to negotiate), translator doing translation and sending invoice, and then waiting for payment. Only private clients will pay ahead of time. Agencies, publishing houses, all the rest, will only pay on completion; for larger projects such as books, if you're lucky, they'll pay for meeting agreed-upon milestones and then a final payment on completion. That's a big "if".

Reading the article, you see that there is a clear, written trace of continuous agreement: there was a pre-contract to the more official one promised by Knopf. The editor's email about it being held up is so familiar in translation and editing, it merely made me shrug; you hear this All. The. Time. "There is a backlog in the contracts department at the moment, but we should have your contract ready in about a week. Please feel free to reach me if you have further questions." (Also, replace "contract" with "payment" and "contracts department" with "accounting" and you have the background noise of being a freelance translator. One-month payment deadlines are a luxury. Three months are the rule. You're lucky if you're actually paid four months later.)

Long story short, translators are already running a gauntlet of agencies and publishing houses calling all the shots that more or less dictate whether or not they'll have work and whether that work will actually be paid. A translator's power lies in their talent, skill, work ethic, and un grain de folie ("a seed of folly/insanity") that usually boils down to loving their work and having an uncanny dedication to it. There are so many translator stories like this one, for smaller jobs, with less well-known clients and some so well-known that not even agencies dare to stand up to them. Translators are very often of the personality to be Davids in the faces of Goliaths, but our stones are only pens. No one fights with swords any more, just money; is the skilfully-wrought pen mightier than the well-moneyed client? The world continually seems to answer that question with "let's see... one of them could try to eviscerate my reputation with words that I could discount, while the other one could give me money to buy food." And that sadly includes people who call themselves translators, with less compunction, less skill, less ethics, who are more than happy to say, "oh ignore the complainers, I'm happy to work for half price!"

It's great that this translator, who obviously knows his stuff, found a supportive audience. Hopefully the pre-contractual agreements in writing will be recognized for what they are.
posted by fraula at 5:25 AM on October 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

I used to work in a small company that handled translation and typesetting of technical materials, and the way we treated translators was horrible and sadly, probably the norm.
Work was requested and sent by email and invoiced afterwards, with no contract. If the boss didn't like a translation he either wouldn't pay or would make the translator do unpaid work to fix it, and he never EVER paid them before 60 days, sometimes 90. And that was from final invoice time.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:10 AM on October 29, 2013

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