May 22nd, 2014

A Few Remarks about AmazonCrossing and Translation

Recently, Nate over at the the excellent The Digital Reader blog included a pointer in his Morning Coffee link roundup (
to a Sal Robinson entry over at Melville House’s blog:

FWIW, Melville House is quite predictably and volubly anti-Amazon, so the positions taken are unsurprising.

Robinson first points out that AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s translated literature imprint, created a huge volume of translation work versus what had existed before. This is presented as largely positive, with the remainder of the article being the negatives associated with that positive. I am not conceding that positive part, and I’m honestly a little surprised that Robinson did, because once you do, the rest of the complaints sound like that joke about We Already Know What You Are We’re Just Negotiating The Price.

Oh, and here’s the actual letter, which Robinson included a link to:

The first asterisked complaint in the open letter asserts that the AmazonCrossing contract they saw does not specify that the translation rights have been acquired by Amazon. If you look at the first page of the sample contract that ATLF offers here:

that’s a chunk of what Article 1 accomplishes. I think ATLF wants boilerplate saying that AmazonCrossing has the right to publish the translation that they are contracting for with the translator. I think, but I’m not sure, that the balance of that paragraph has to do with rights reversion — but it might actually be about what happens to rights in the event AmazonCrossing didn’t have the right to publish the translation. (Question: can you purchase as a service a translation of something you don’t have the right to publish? Because if you can, I can totally see AmazonCrossing doing this, and I can equally see that pissing off a translator.)

The second section of the letter is that the contract picks Luxemburg for jurisdiction over “moral right”, which is a right we do not recognize in the United States, so it’s unclear whether I should care or whether I can reasonably be expected to care. The sample contract from ATLF does have a blank for putting which courts have jurisdiction over the contract, so one assumes they are used to not always getting French courts. The sample contract does not appear to directly address the “moral right” issue, however, I may have missed it. There is this weird co-ownership of the translation thing that might actually capture moral right; I don’t know. (The manuscript becomes the joint property of the Editor and the Translator, is my best guess — it’s in Article 1, part B, second paragraph of the sample contract.)

The third section complains about the inadequacy of compensation, and the fact that some revenues are not included in the calculation of what is owing to the translator, and others are left up to AmazonCrossing to decide “au bon vouloir”. Welcome to doing business with Amazon. Honestly, if you have a better offer elsewhere, you really should probably take it.

The fourth section is really where it gets interesting. Robinson summarizes the paragraph on editorial work:

"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.”

Actually, what they do is draw your attention to the fact that it may be that not all editorial work done on the French translations is done by editorial staff whose first and dominant language is French and who have mastered perfectly the cultural issues and stylistiques (this seems to include everything from genre through use of language up to and including motifs, formal structure, scansion, you name it -- we may or may not have an exact match for this phrase in English, but if we do, I don't know it. Wikipedia thinks that the cognate is an equivalent; wikipedia is wrong, because the French version has compositional and rhetorical structural components missing in the English cognate) of the texts. It is a true observation. Nowhere in the ATLF sample contract do they say anything about such a requirement of the editor. They _do_ say a lot of other things about the editor, and they are illuminating. The ATLF contract envisions that the translation contract is being driven by an editor, who has a responsibility to the author, and the balance of the editor’s job is “comme il est d’usage dans la profession”. And AmazonCrossing clearly is violating a lot of the “as is typical of the profession”. A bit earlier, in italics, there’s an explanation of the kinds of criteria an Editor might give a Translator in producing the translation contracted for: adapted for a certain audience (young readers, specialists, etc.), adapted to a French context, etc. The Editor clearly has a lot of leeway in some respects — but AmazonCrossing is apparently in violation of this leeway.

So where did they go wrong? Robinson focuses on the langue maternelle issue, which doesn’t mean what she suggests here. In a translation context, this just means that the person doing the translation (the target) must be doing so in their dominant language. Basically, I shouldn’t be out there trying to produce a French translation of an English text, because my French isn’t good enough. But it could become good enough without that ever having been my “first language” in the colloquial sense.

In any event, the ATLF aren’t asking for any such guarantee about the editor anyway: not in their sample contract or in their open letter. They’re flummoxed by the idea that they might have to work with an editorial staff that isn’t competent in French. That is NOT “comme il est d’usage dans la profession”. And that’s worth thinking about.

French translators are used to Francophones deciding that some étranger text should be made available in French, and then hiring a Francophone to do the translation. French translators are NOT used to an American company deciding that they could sell a fuck ton of some fiction to French readers, if they could only get somebody to turn it into French. AmazonCrossing is definitely screwing this up if they are imposing an English style guide (even if it’s in the weird version of English that Europeans use as a common second language) as part of the translation contract (which the open letter asserts, and which is significantly more important than the contract being in English, which is where Robinson focuses, but the ATLF really does not).

Finally, asking the translator to check in twice a week is exactly the kind of thing that anyone working a McJob expects. ATLF, obvs, hates the idea that translation is being turned into a McJob. But I sort of suspect that AmazonCrossing has in mind turning a whole lot of successful, mostly genre fiction, into sales in other languages. And waiting for the translator to finish the entire translation of an entry in the Amish Vampire Dentist series before making sure the translator is producing what you expect is not an error Amazon is likely to make.

ETA: I am no more a translator than I am a copy-editor: that is, I've been known to do these things for my own purposes, or to help a friend out in a free and highly amateurish capacity. I don't think I have ever tried to read a contract in French (or, for that matter, German or Dutch) and I will note that the French contract was considerably easier to understand in many respects than a typical contract in English. Which really ought to be a lesson to us; we should do better.

ETAYA: For your entertainment, here is what the Italian equivalent of ATLF had to say back in 2012, on the subject of increasing the availability of literary translations:

Just to make it really clear: these people want to take Italian tax dollars, and use them to pay translators to produce texts that Italians don't want badly enough to justify translating them. Given the amount of debt Italy already has, I sort of feel like they can probably think of other more important uses for this money.

Breezer Uptown Infinity

R. got my a bike for my birthday! It is a Breezer Uptown Infinity. I bet you saw that coming, after that subject line.

Breezer is a brand. Uptown is an entry in their line of bicycles. "Infinity" means it has the Nuvinci non-gear gears:

About ten years ago, R. and I went to the Netherlands. I had been telling him I wanted a bike like that, and he thought they weren't available in the US. And by "like that", I meant internal gears, upright riding position, stepthrough frame. I found three bikes: Bianchi's Cafe Racer (which was my present that year), the Electra Townie (which I bought a few years ago) and some Breezers. The Electras and the Breezers were only available with the Shimano Nexus 3 speed -- the Cafe Racer had the 7 or 8 speed (I always forget), so that's what I got. When the Townie had the better gears, I got one. Later on, the Nuvinci happened and I've been trying to buy a bike with that ever since -- but it still had to satisfy my other criteria.

The Uptown has an upright riding position, however, it is not crank forward a la Electra. So, bummer there, but of course R. loathes the Townie so he's happier on balance. The step through is deep, and the bike itself is light and stiff, which is quite nice from both our perspectives (the Townie is too heavy to comfortably lift on top of the car). The Uptown comes standard with a dynamo and light (they run the wire through the fender and included rack, so if you intend to swap accessories, think long and hard). The seat is decent, but not a Brooks saddle. The rack is perfectly adequate, altho not a Moose Rack, so I won't be towing the Burley Kazoo, altho I may be able to haul the WeeGo. They included a bell AND a wheel lock in the rear, however, the frame lock does not integrate with a chain. Basically, it's what we're used to when someone tricks something out for us: they compromised on everything -- but the price was a lot lower than what it would have cost to produce the equivalent (and believe me when I say, I _know_ what's involved in getting a dynamo, light, etc. on a bike).

The Nuvinci is a dream. You cannot turn the shifter arbitrarily while stopped, a la the internal gears I am accustomed to, but there is some play. It is completely intuitive but has a very cute little indicator.

It'll be interesting to see how it holds up over time, but right at the moment, I am completely in love with my new bike, which is what is supposed to happen when you get a new bike. If gears annoy you, I highly recommend getting something with the Nuvinci -- it's even better than the Shimano Nexus (boy, I never thought I'd be writing that).