At its annual general meeting held in Weimar on 5 and 6 November 1999, the European Council of Literary Translators Associations (CEATL), which brings together 24 associations representing 20 countries, 19 languages and nearly 10,000 translators, considered the dispute between Karin Krieger, the German translator of five books by Alessandro Baricco, including Seta, and the Munich-based publisher Piper, which is owned by the Swedish publishing group Bonnier.
In the Spring of 1999, in view of the spectacular success of her translation of Seta (excellent reviews, award-winning translation, 100,000 copies sold), Karin Krieger invoked article 36 of the German law on royalties, which provides for appropriate remuneration in the case of “grobes Missverhältnis” (a marked disproportion) between the fee stipulated in the contract and the proceeds resulting from an exceptional commercial success, a provision often called “the bestseller clause”. After some prevarication, the publisher eventually agreed – as part of an out-of-court settlement – to pay 1% of the net cover price on bookshop sales in excess of 30,000 copies, only to announce two days later that Karin Krieger’s translations were to be withdrawn from the market and Baricco’s five books retranslated. At the same time, Piper withdrew the first translation of the novel Novecento – already selling successfully – and substituted a new version by a different translator, but with the same jacket, the same title and the same ISBN number as Krieger’s translation.
CEATL unanimously deplores this vindictive action towards a translator who was simply defending the rights guaranteed to her under the law, depriving her of all her moral rights over a work now eradicated from existence. We protest strongly against this feudal exercise of power, dictated purely by cynicism and financial greed. In addition to the humiliation of an author and the consequent moral injury and financial loss, the attitude of the publisher Piper displays a blatant disdain for cultural property. The translator has clearly been abused, as has the author of the original work, who is seeing his work published at a lower cost to ensure maximum profits for the publisher. Likewise the public are treated as undiscerning consumers who can be duped by “misleading packaging” and sold a similar substitute product.
CEATL declares total solidarity with Karin Krieger and the German Literary Translators Association (VdÜ). As literary translators who uphold the ethics of a profession practised all too often in the shadows and under difficult financial conditions, we declare that the publication of translated literature is a vital link in the creation of a common cultural heritage, overcoming language barriers and the standardisation implicit in the “globalisation” of trade. Immediate profit cannot be the sole criterion for the management of a publishing operation.