The New York publisher, Europa Editions, founded in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri (an Italian married couple who also own the Rome-based press, Edizioni E/O, and who operate both publishing houses), is one of the U.S.’s most prolific publishers of works in translation.
Europa’s star has risen especially quickly in recent months because of the success of the third of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan novels,” Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (September 2014). A sudden literary sensation, Those Who Leave has garnered big attention from major high-end publications, including the New York Times and the New Yorker, which have dedicated serious pages to the book and to speculation about the true identity of the mysterious Ferrante (whom no one has ever interviewed in person or even seen).
But Europa Editions deserves to be famous, if not infamous, for something else: its insistence that translators grant Europa copyright over their work as a condition of being published.
In other words, rather than being able to retain copyright to their own work — and to “lease” certain economic rights to a publisher for a specified time and under specified conditions — translators who work with Europa are required to sign an agreement that turns their copyright over to the publisher permanently and for all purposes.
In Here, e.g., is the front matter from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay:
Goldstein is acknowledged as the translator — as European Union, Italian, and American law require — but she no longer holds the copyright to her work.
How does Europa keep getting away with this? The way bad practices throughout the translation and publishing industries always spread: too few good people demand they stop.
By now, Ann Goldstein surely has enough clout in the small world of American translation to insist upon contractual conditions that would actually do herself and her colleagues some good. She could help put an end to this unfair, damaging practice.
But so could all of Europa’s other translators into English, including Antony Shugaar, Carol Perkins, Howard Curtis, Michael Reynolds, Alison Anderson, and Mike Mitchell. They could stop agreeing to sign contracts with Europa that undermine professional standing and contractual power — theirs and their colleagues’.
Some translators in negotiations with Europa have, in fact, already done so. Gregory Conti is one – see, e.g., his Getting to No.” Conti is the author of more than a dozen translations for Notre Dame Press, Semiotext(e) MIT, Other Press, Metropolitan Books, Nebraska Press, and Rizzoli USA, among others. For Europa, he has translated three books, including Alberto Angela’s A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, which, according to Europa’s editor-in-chief, “has sold more than any other translation from the Italian in the last 30 years.”
Another is veteran Italian-to-English translator Anne Milano Appel, who has similarly authored more than a dozen book-length translations for such publishers as Penguin, Farrar Straus & Giroux, W. W. Norton, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, St. Martin’s Press, and City Lights Press. Her authors include Paolo Giordano, Roberto Saviano, and the Strega-prize winner, Giuseppe Catozzella.
In both Conti’s and Appel’s case, the attempt to negotiate fairer conditions ultimately led them to say no to Europa, which refused to budge. (You can read Europa’s tone-deaf, corporate-speak response in Conti’s article.)
But Europa can take a hard line only as long as translators like Conti and Appel remain isolated voices. If, instead, Europa’s owners began to struggle to find qualified translators who were willing to accept low pay and unfair contractual conditions, Europa’s “come to Jesus” moment would arrive with all deliberate speed.
For its part, the American Translators Association could take a genuine moral stand for once and oppose this indefensible practice before it becomes a standard that can no longer be resisted. If other organizations (PEN and the American Literary Translators Association, e.g.) also wielded their combined power, the ripples could become a tidal wave.
Of course, Europa Editions isn’t the only copyright rustler in the field, but it’s one of the biggest abusers and one of the best known exploiters of the unequal balance of contractual power between the translator, whose options for publication are extremely limited, and the publisher, who can impose this kind of literary droit du seigneur upon the intellectual and creative labor of others.
We call upon Europa Editions and other American publishers to stop the practice of usurping translators’ copyright. We call upon the American Translators Association and other organizations of professional and literary translators to take this principled stand with us.
Specifically, we call upon Ann Goldstein as a seasoned professional who ought to know better: Don’t translate another word for Europa without retaining the copyright to your work. Solidarity with other translators is not too much to ask of you.
Be Obi-Wan, Ann, not Darth Vader. Use the force for good.