At issue, irregularities in terms and conditions of AmazonCrossing literary translation contracts
Two years of united resistance by German, Italian, and French translators a decisive factor in persuading Amazon to meet
Following two years of resistance and organizing by European translators’ associations in Germany, Italy, and France, AmazonCrossing has finally agreed to discuss the terms and conditions of its literary translation contracts in Europe. The meeting with representatives of major translators’ groups will take place during the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany in October.
In a September 1, 2014 press release, STradE, the Italian Editorial Translators’ Union, announced its participation in the meeting and noted, “Although it’s too early to predict the outcome of this meeting or any negotiations that may follow, the meeting itself is no small accomplishment, proof perhaps of the old saying that there is strength in numbers. In addition to being good at what they do, Europe’s literary translators are alert and well-informed, and international coordination among professional associations has worked so well that a company of the magnitude of Amazon.com has been persuaded to listen to them.”
As many are aware, debates over the corporate policies of Amazon.com, the colossal online retailer of books (and many other items) flared up again in late Summer 2014. Though much attention has been paid to controversies over Jeff Bezos’ employment practices and business approaches, many may not know that Amazon has also become a major distributor of self-published books and, with varying degrees of success, a publisher as well. As such, Amazon has also begun publishing translations.
In early May 2013, AmazonCrossing, Amazon.com’s translations division (headed by Dean Burnett, Senior Manager of the Literary Translation Programme) began approaching English-to-Italian literary translators with offers to work with AmazonCrossing.
In his first contacts with Italian translators, Burnett described an “exciting” opportunity to translate bestselling books but asked, as a prerequisite to negotiations, that each translator sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). The agreement specifically prohibited translators from discussing their negotiations with Amazon. In STradE’s view, the NDA was designed to prevent translators from sharing information with their colleagues and professional associations about the wisdom or legality of the contractual conditions requested or imposed by AmazonCrossing.
In fact, AmazonCrossing had begun its search for translators into European languages other than English some eighteen months earlier—in Germany. Translators in the Verband Deutschsprachiger Übersetzer (VdÜ), the German translators’ association, also questioned the NDA and noticed significant irregularities in the translation contracts AmazonCrossing was proposing.
At the same time, the European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations (CEATL), which had been in touch with members of the VdÜ, confirmed that the contractual conditions offered by AmazonCrossing were significantly inferior to those considered standard in European literary translation.
A question of particular concern involved so-called moral rights (which are distinct from economic rights and typically include the right of attribution, the right to have a work published anonymously or pseudonymously, and the right to ensure that the work is not altered or distorted). Moral rights are of crucial importance in continental Europe’s droit d’auteur or “authorial rights” system, including in Italy, an approach that differs in some ways from the copyright system favored in many English-speaking countries.
The European headquarters of AmazonCrossing is officially registered in Luxembourg, a jurisdiction in which authors’ moral rights receive only meager protection. Taking advantage of this weakness in Luxembourg’s laws (see, e.g., Sal Robinson’s “Luxembourg is Not France, and Other Reasons Why French Translators Are Right to be Mad at AmazonCrossing”), AmazonCrossing drew up a contract that included the following clause:
To the extent not prohibited under applicable law, translator irrevocably and unconditionally waives in respect of the translation (and any updates or revisions made to the translation) all moral rights to which the translator may now or at any future time be entitled. If translator is unable to waive his/her moral rights under applicable law, translator irrevocably and unconditionally agrees not, at any time, to assert any of his/her moral rights to which the translator may now or at any future time be entitled.
In fact, authors’ and creators’ moral rights have been considered inalienable since the 1886 Berne Convention (and Italy was one of the first signatories), so AmazonCrossing was actually offering translators an “exciting” opportunity to turn the clock back on their rights by more than a century.
In light of these developments, STradE began alerting as many of its Italian colleagues as possible and, to that end, drafted a sample letter that translators could use in reply to AmazonCrossing. The letter pointed out that that translator had been in contact with a translators’ union or other professional association and had been advised not to sign the NDA. The letter also cited the absence of a number of clauses that were fundamental to a translation contract. These included eliminating the prohibition against discussing terms and conditions with colleagues and professional associations and ensuring that the contract complied fully with Italian law, with particular regard to the proper conditions for the legal transfer of rights from the translator to the publisher of the translated work.
Because so many Italian translators sent a version of the letter and refused to sign the NDA, AmazonCrossing contacted STradE directly, assuring its leadership that their concerns had been passed on to AmazonCrossing’s attorneys and would be carefully considered and repeating reassurances that AmazonCrossing was ready to negotiate. What followed, however, was total silence, and no negotiations actually took place.
That silence persisted until May 2014—a year after the “Italian campaign”—at which point AmazonCrossing began contacting French literary translators in a recruitment effort identical to the one that had been so unsuccessful in Germany, Italy, and Spain.
The Association des Traducteurs Litteraires de France (ATLF), however, the French literary translators’ association, is not only a strong and united organization, it is also a member of CEATL, as are Italy’s STradE and Germany’s VDÜ. What’s more, just as STradE had been alerted to the AmazonCrossing situation by its German colleagues, STradE’s leadership had already been in touch with its counterparts in France. Well prepared for what was coming, French translators sent an open letter (French | English) to AmazonCrossing and Dean Burnett which was widely reprinted in the French press.
In clear and unequivocal terms, ATLF informed AmazonCrossing that “the conditions you are suggesting are incompatible with professional statutes in our countries,” adding that
the nondisclosure agreement that you ask potential translators to sign, prior to any discussion, violates the very principle of negotiating a fair, even-handed contract. A contract is not a document to be taken or left as is. Translators are entitled to adopt a critical stance toward any contract they are offered, and must be free to consult colleagues and authors’ associations on points they feel are debatable.
Because of ongoing resistance by translator’s unions and associations in three of Europe’s most populous countries, AmazonCrossing apparently felt it had no choice but to agree to participate in serious talks about its translation contracts, something it had promised to do a year earlier.
No Peanuts! is heartened by the concerted, well-organized efforts of translators and their professional associations to stand up to Goliath. Across languages and national borders, they linked arms to resist AmazonCrossing’s attempts to foist illegal contracts and low pay on literary translators.
It’s enough to make you say “Happy Labor Day!”