May 19, 2014

Luxembourg is not France, and other reasons why French translators are right to be mad at AmazonCrossing


Luxembourg.  It's close to France. But it's not the same thing.

Luxembourg. It’s close to France. But it’s not the same thing. Image via Wikipedia.

When AmazonCrossing—Amazon’s translated literature publishing arm— was launched a couple of years ago, there was optimism about it in the translator community. New places to publish translations and get paid for it don’t open up all that regularly, and AmazonCrossing promised a couple of things that the other houses didn’t: the sheer volume of jobs (AmazonCrossing now publishes more works in translation than any other press in the US) and visibility in the world’s largest bookstore.

But in the immortal words of ‘80s glam metal band Poison, “every rose has its thorn.” And translators in France, where AmazonCrossing has recently expanded its operations, are currently protesting Amazon’s distinctly pricklier side. The Association des Traducteurs Littéraires de France (ATLF) have sent an open letter to Dean Burnett, Senior Vendor Manager at AmazonCrossing, about Amazon’s contracts for translators, which contain, in their view, a number of problems.

Some of these are more glaringly offensive than others: for instance, the rate AmazonCrossing is offering French translators, between 5 and 12 cents a word, is three times lower than the standard rate paid by French publishers.

Then there are other concerns that speak to a clear lack of trust between the French translator community and AmazonCrossing. The members of ATLF ask, in one section, for a guarantee that all editorial work done on AmazonCrossing books translated into French be done by editors whose first language is French. Which you’d think would be an obvious expectation, except that then the ATLF points out that all communications from AmazonCrossing to French translators so far have been in English—not only legal documents but also editorial instructions and style guides. Suggesting that no one at AmazonCrossing has considered—or much cares—whether the books will be edited appropriately for their eventual French audience. And is there even a French editorial staff in place? It’s not clear.

Also in this vein is a stipulation that I’ve never seen or heard of in other translation contracts, asking translators to report twice a week on the progress of their translations and to send drafts of the translation along the way. While it’s quite common for editors to ask translators if they have sections ready to share before the complete translation is delivered, sections that can be shared in-house and with sales reps, the kind of editorial peering-over-the-shoulder the Amazon contract spells out is unique, not to mention annoying to translators. Reasonably enough, the ATLF politely told Burnett & Co. to fuck off and let them get the job done (“Le traducteur doit être libre d’organiser son travail comme il le désire et n’avoir a justifier ses choix que lorsque ceux-­‐ci sont définitifs, c’est-­‐à-­‐dire à la remise de la traduction.”)

But perhaps the most egregious aspect of the AmazonCrossing contract (aside from the confidentiality clause… because of course there is a confidentiality clause) is the fact that it completely ignores French law and asks translators to behave as if they are subject to the laws of Luxembourg, where Amazon has its European headquarters for tax purposes. Because whereas French translators and authors and other creators have an inalienable moral right to their creations, in Luxembourg that moral right can be transferred to another party, as copyright is. (The concept of a “moral right” is a feature of Continental law, and essentially it protects the relationship between creator and creation, assuring that the creator has control over how the work is presented, though not over whether money is made from it.)

There is no good reason for translators to turn over their moral rights to Amazon; unlike a transfer of copyright, Amazon can’t potentially make better use of the moral rights to a translation than a lone translator might. It can only, in fact, make worse use, since it allows the company to adapt or alter the translation without the translator having any legal recourse.

Since the Amazon contract also requires translators to turn over all their economic rights to a translation (worldwide, exclusively, in all formats, and with no obligation on AmazonCrossing’s part either to use the translation or to return the rights to the translator if it isn’t used), the ceding of moral rights as well strips the translator bare. Basically, they want it all. Even if it’s illegal and impossible and can’t be done in the country where these translators are actually employed. Not important: close your eyes and think of Grand Duke Henri, constitutional monarch of Luxembourg and the only European royal able to go as David Bowie to Halloween parties.

In short, this is a raw deal — a fact that the professional associations of Italian and German translators have also already apparently pointed out to Amazon. Whether they’ll make any changes in their contracts — or even have the courtesy to translate them into the language whose readers they intend to appeal to — remains very much to be seen.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.