The Rights and Wrongs of Translation

Authors contact us at Lantern Books frequently because a devotee in another country has either offered to translate their book or has already done so and is looking for a publisher. What should we do? the authors ask. Consider this post our response to that question—and if it should happen to you.

Among our tasks as publishers is to protect the copyright of our authors. That means no unauthorized reproduction or use of an author’s work without our permission or paying fees to us and the author—who after all put time, effort, and money into the book in the first place. That, of course, applies to translation. The best way to secure copyright protection is for one publisher to contract with another to translate, publish, and distribute the book in that country, and for that publisher to have exclusive rights to do those things. Without that surety, an author cannot guarantee that he or she will receive royalties, that the translation will be accurate, and that the book itself will be produced and distributed professionally.

So, if you’re an author, and a kindly Croatian claims kinship or a friendly Finn fans you on Facebook and wants your book to be available in their language, do the following:

  1. Thank your fan very much, and ask them to find a publisher in their country who’s willing to publish the book.
  2. Ask them to tell the publisher to contact your publisher.
  3. Indicate to the kindly Croatian or friendly Finn that the publisher may not choose them to be the translator.
  4. Discourage the devotee from photocopying their translation and disseminating it. That’s theft, and you’ve no idea of whether they’ve a minimum grasp of your language.

Of course, the devotee may find it hard to find that publisher, which is why Lantern has its own rights manager trying to do it for the authors and us. But, as slow and frustrating as the process is, it offers some chance that one’s work won’t be pirated.

Posted in Publishing | Tagged ,

Show Me the Money!

Occasionally, a prospective author will ask us at Lantern whether we give advances. Our answer is “no.” Here’s why.

An advance is in effect an interest-free loan to an author. It’s meant to provide them with financial resources to enable them to finish the book (if they haven’t done so) or as some kind of “thank you, we believe in you” (if they have). The advance is a loan because the money that’s given is “against” royalties. In other words, if the publisher gives you a $5,000 advance, it means that you won’t get any money from your sales until you’ve sold $5,000 worth of books, on the money the publishers get from the stores and other places.

A very large percentage of books never earn out their advances, leaving publishers, quite literally, at a loss. Unfortunately, too many authors and agents think that the best possible outcome for their book is to get the largest advance possible—with actual sales of the book, apparently, being almost an afterthought. These days, those authors who do get the big advances—just like the singers who get major recording deals or filmmakers who get national distribution—are in the small minority. But they’re the standards against whom everybody measures their success.

The simple fact is, with no advance, if the book does well, then both publisher and author reap the benefits. If the book doesn’t do so well, then publishers are somewhat protected against the investment they make in producing the book in the first place. Of course, authors who wish to make more money can self-publish: taking on the risk of production for a much larger portion of the sales.

At Lantern, we’re proud to have been in this business for fifteen years and we’ve been able to pay royalties to all our authors in every one of those years. Some of our authors have by now collected over $20,000: not enough to earn a living perhaps, but certainly a very respectable “advance.” Long may it continue!

Posted in Publishing | Tagged

Reasons to Write a Book #3: The Medium Demands It

I’ve already touched on the compulsion one has to write and third-party credibility as a reason to write a book. Another, perhaps subtler, reason I like to give for writing a book is that it demands certain disciplines and constraints that may not be present in other media, which in turn will shape your argument, style, tone, and delivery.

For instance, a book can take its time and afford to be expansive in a way that a poem or a short story cannot. Film can offer a great deal of information in a glance or a scene, but words can offer an expansive role for the imagination and a more detailed description of internal thought processes than the visual arts. A book requires—or should—more time, more thought, more rigor, and more commitment than shorter prose forms, and it lends itself to arguments, visions, and explorations that, in turn, require more thought, rigor, time, and commitment from the reader.

So, if the book is what the work demands and you demand from your reader, then a book is how your thoughts should bring themselves before the public. Whether they choose to read it, however, is a whole other story.

Posted in Writing

The Em-Dash, En-Dash, and Hyphen

Among my many faults as a writer, I tend to overuse the dash—the em-dash, that is. A colon would work just fine in beginning a list or creating a long enough pause to make the phrase or clause that follows resonant and conclusive. Parentheses (or brackets, to my UK readers) are perfectly adequate for signaling a subordinate clause. Dashes are very demonstrative orthographically, and in a cluster they can turn even the most elegant prose into Morse code. So, I’m working hard to keep my dashes to a minimum.

I’m also a sucker for compound adjectives, even more so than, say, the English poet Philip Larkin. All those adjectival clusters need their hyphens, except (so American English would have it) when one adjective is an adverb: for instance, “catastrophically decisive victory.” Whereas excessive use of dashes acts like a laxative on one’s prose, over-hyphenation has the opposite effect, leaving every sentence dense and clogged. Use only with care.

Last but not least: the en-dash. I have a fondness for these oft-forgotten prose stylists, perhaps because I’m an avid reader of The New York Review of Books and the editors at that esteemed journal seem particularly keen to fit at least one in each review essay. The en-dash has a set of specialized, but very useful skills, like the closer in baseball. These are:

1. When you have a compound adjective constructed out of a compound word. Thus “Civil War–era uniform” requires an en-dash, since “Civil War” is its own compound.

2. Dates: “1820–1885″: The en-dash here serves to signify “to.” This is also the case with direction: “Topeka–Chicago railroad.”

3. Words that are compounded in contradictory ways, also showing direction or time: “north–south divide,” “East–West conflict.” As you can see, the noun here indicates that these items are conjoined only in their dissension. The “Sykes-Picot agreement” caused a lot of conflict, but Mr. Sykes and M. Picot were working as one, and therefore are joined with an ordinary hyphen.

Ironically, Wikipedia thinks that these two imperial gentlemen should be connected by an en-dash, which only leads one to the sad realization that if we cannot even have concord over the length of the dash, then what hope for peace in the Middle East? Of course, a reasonable case could be made that the entente cordiale disguises the fact that these were two distinct persons, and not somebody called Fred Sykes-Picot. As you can see, therefore, a little less dash is sometimes a good thing.

Posted in Editing, Writing | Tagged ,

Editorial Pet Peeves #2: Have You Finished Yet?

I receive a lot of manuscripts that the author tells me he or she’s finished with. This is usually a very loose translation of one or more of the following:

1. I’ve written around 75,000 words and that seems to be about a good length for a book, so I must be done, right?

2. I feel a whole lot better having gotten all that off my chest, and if I feel good the manuscript must be good, so I thought I’d send it to you.

3. I can’t be bothered to work on it anymore, and you’re meant to be a writer/editor. You’ll fix it for me, won’t you?

4. I really have no idea what I’m doing, but if you work with me over the next several months and agree to read every one of my fifteen drafts, I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller.

5. I know there’s a book in here somewhere. Can you help me find it?

Here are my responses:

1. No, you’re not done. The number of words is no proof of the coherence or persuasiveness of your argument, or how appropriately you’ve marshaled and presented your data, or the accuracy and cogency of your writing. I would prefer 37,500 well-honed words than double the number of loose ones.

2. What you’ve got there, my relieved friend, is the necessary first draft—the part of writing where you get everything out and down. Now you have to edit, edit, edit to make sure that all that emotion and catharsis doesn’t crowd out the reader. It’s good that you’ve got this far, but you’ve got plenty of work to do.

3. Well, tough luck. Writing is hard; it should be hard. If you pay me enough money I might do your work for you. But if you don’t want to work, then why should I? Roll up your sleeves and pull down the shades, your dark nights have only just begun.

4. Sorry. It doesn’t work like that. We editors can fix some problems, but we just don’t have the time, the energy, or (frankly) the inclination to help you to say something. Of course, as with response #3, if you pay us enough money, we might consider it. But, really: figure out what it is you want to say before wasting your and my time by just throwing words around like confetti!

5. No. You built the haystack; you find the needle.

If in doubt as to the readiness or suitability of your book for publication, edit it until you find nothing to change, give it to trusted third parties for their honest feedback, and make their changes. Then put the manuscript away in a draw for a month or two, pull it out and read it again, and then edit it until you find nothing to change. Then it’s probably ready for submission.

Posted in Editing, Writing | Tagged

Editorial Pet Peeves #1: The Double Space After the Period

One of the first acts I perform when I receive a manuscript electronically is to find-and-replace double spaces with single spaces. It takes only a few seconds and it removes all those unnecessary gaps between words that will only irritate me and make me lose focus on the actual manuscript as I read through it. The double space after the period is a holdover from the days of manual typewriters, when it was somehow deemed necessary to show people that the sentence had come to an end and a new one had begun, as if the round splodge after the last letter of one sentence and the big capital letter beginning the next sentence weren’t enough. I consider the double space a relic of a more unhurried, and perhaps less literate age, akin to the pre-eighteenth-century custom of placing at the bottom of the page the first word of the next page (known as the “catchword“—from which we get our modern-day idiom), so that bookbinders would keep the pages in the right order. The double space following a period is particularly unnecessary, since not only is the book likely to be edited, thus potentially changing sentence structure, but the whole book is going to be retypeset, thus rendering the manuscript’s original typesetting moot. Justification of the text so that no text is ragged right or left will also render your attempts to control space useless. Double spaces after periods aren’t the only quirks of manuscript layout that are wholly unnecessary: 1. Providing page numbers in your table of contents. All the pages will change anyway. Just put “00″ or “000″ if you want to indicate that the page number should be inserted. 2. Macro “anchors” that take you from the table of contents to a particular chapter. This is very annoying to the editor who reads a manuscript electronically and a complete waste of time if the manuscript is printed out to be perused. 3. Wild and crazy margins, exotic and/or unreadable fonts in a range of colors, ridiculous point sizes for the text, and anything else showy and superfluous. The point of your submission is to make your manuscript as undemonstrative as possible to guarantee that nothing—and I mean nothing—gets between you and the editor’s meeting with your first sentence.

Posted in Editing | Tagged , ,

Sometimes “Said” Should Be Taken as Read

When I was writing my zombie–P. G. Wodehouse spoof Bertie Wooster and the Lizard King, I decided to set myself the extra challenge of never using the verb “say” following direct speech. In other words, no “he said,” “she said,” etc. Instead people murmured, commented, added, opined, and employed a whole host of other methods to indicate they’d spoken.

That one can make it through a 50,000-word book without using “said” once might be considered something of a miracle—especially since when I read fiction now any repetition of “said” seems egregious. On the other hand, as a writer friend of mine put it, sometimes “said” is all the character needs to have done. The word is anodyne enough that the reader can get on with the business of concentrating on what was said and not that it was said at all.

Point very well taken. The exercise, however, provided a number of other insights that I’ve found particularly useful since:

1. It’s often not necessary to tell people that someone has just spoken something. The close quotes should do that, and the reply (assuming there is one) will affirm that sound was articulated and is being responded to.

2. Beware of juicing up your prose with adverbs. I’ve long been guilty of over-directing the reader, by telling her/him the tone of voice in which the statement is couched. It’s one thing to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he said.” It’s probably excessive coloration to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he bellowed.” And it feels like gilding the lily to write: “‘You’re a complete and utter idiot!’ he said, thunderously.”

3. It’s easily overlooked (and done by the best writers around) but some verbs that are used as “saying” words, um, aren’t: coughed, spluttered, snorted, sniffed, etc. As a rule of thumb, if you find it hard to complete the action being described while speaking the accompanying words, then the verb you’ve used is probably inappropriate. “Bellowed” might be one of them.

4. Gesture is often a great way to break up too many “he said/she said” conversations. The following scene may be dramatic, if physiologically challenging to the lady in question: “‘I never want to see you again,’ she said, walking through the door and out of my life.” But isn’t it more dramatic as well as a great deal easier for the aggrieved party to execute if the scene develops as follows: “‘I never want to see you again.’ [New paragraph] She walked through the door and out of my life”?

Unless, of course, the door is locked.

Posted in Writing | Tagged ,