Interesting translations – Translating Art books “für die Katz”*

I guess all the signs were there to see. There was a contract, yes. But it clearly was not worth the paper it was written on. The deadlines were always totally unreasonable: 40.000-words in old-fashioned academic French on Michelangelo, in just one week.

I guess all the signs were there to see. There was a contract, yes. But it clearly was not worth the paper it was written on. The deadlines were always totally unreasonable: 40.000-words in old-fashioned academic French on Michelangelo, in just one week (these were the days before DeepL and co., we’re talking 2005-2012). A bit of a tall order, I would say. Plus a clause in the contract stating that failure to deliver on time would nullify all entitlement to getting paid…

Many aspiring translators fell for the allure of translating texts books on art and art history and seeing their name in print on the frontispiece of a beautifully produced coffee-table book. Some are perhaps still waiting for payment. Others, me among them, have long drawn a line under this episode. We had clearly been duped by a publishing house that set out deliberately to get naïve translators to produce translations which they had no intention of paying for, and then selling them on to reputable companies. The books are still being sold, and the company continues to be present at international book fairs (at least when I last checked).

Parkstone International as they were called for a time had a Paris office (“Sirrocco”) in Paris, their production setup was located in Vietnam, and there was a company address in New York. Sending registered letters to the latter invariably resulted in the letter being returned (“unknown at this address”). When things got a little hot they changed their name to Editions Artifise and then Temporis Collector. Translators were typically approached by the Paris office by one of three or four very friendly editors/interns.

My first project was on Gaudi, followed by Michelangelo, Breugel, Hundertwasser, William Morris and some other well-known artists. The most challenging was undoubtedly Michelangelo by Eugène Müntz, an Alsatian art history professor (1845-1902) due to his antiquated and very academic-rhetorical French and because of the sheer volume that needed to be ready within just a few days (and nights).

A lively and increasingly bitter discussion ensued on the web between 2009 and regarding Parkstone Press and their various companies. A large number of translators vented their anger and frustration, and there were reports about non-payment, and cheating, and checks bouncing. As an example, here is one of my own posts in 2010:

I translated about 7 books for Parkstone plus some blurbs etc. over the space of about 3 years, and was lucky enough to get paid for some of the work, though they still owe me about 12.000 dollars. Since the company has been set up in a very clever way, it is impossible to pin down the directors, and no lawyer will take up the case. Your contract is not worth the piece of paper it is written on. I am not defeatist by nature, but here I would say: It is best to take it as a lesson. I for my part at least enjoyed the work, and the two girls, E and E, were professional and delightful to work with – only they never had any authority to write out any cheques.

And then again, in 2012:

They still owe me over 10,000 dollars, too, going back 3 or so years. The whole company is clearly set up to cheat and to make money for the directors. Around the globe there are not just translators, but also authors, printers, etc who have not been paid for their work. Since registered letters bounce back unopened, I doubt that any law firm would have much success. Neither E nor E are to blame, they were only acting in good faith, as employees, and were probably screwed too. Best to put it all down to experience. At least we all got some translation practice – and the texts were actually fun to do!

The last entry comes from a Susan – August 14, 2018

To add to the long long list…I was cheated out of three thousand USD back in 2003. After repeated attempts to get paid I gave up and moved on. It was the only time I was cheated during the five years I worked as a freelance German-English translator.

All I can say is that the work was very challenging, fantastic practice for working under pressure, immersing yourself into unknown territory, doing research and adopting a suitable style. Besides being a wonderful immersion in art history it was also a lesson in the ways of the world.

*für die Katz” in English “for nothing”. The saying comes from a sad story about a smith whose clients always tried to pay as little as possible, and much of the time expected him to charge nothing. When that happened, he said: “This is for the cat” – and gave the cat nothing, so it starved.

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