Norwegian translators’ work to rule action in 2006 (SUCCESS STORY)

2 May 2006 on Sehesteds plass, Oslo: Oversetteraksjonen 2006 is launched in vintage style

In Norway the translators went on strike in 2006. Or rather it was a work to rule action, seeng that we are free lancers and therefore cannot strike as such. In Norway translators have had a standard contract since 1972, but in the early 2000s it was outdated and the fee was extremely bad. We had been trying for five years to get the publishers to the negotiating table, and when they finally did, we got nowhere. On April 1st 2006 negotiations broke down. 

A month later we launched our work to rule campaign, Oversetteraksjonen 2006 (Translators’ campaign 2006). Our point was to take the contract literally: The existing contract, dating back to 1972, stipulated that translators had to hand in “easily readable, typewritten manuscripts which were ready to print”. So this is what we did. We meticulously followed our out-dated contract to go with the out-dated payment agreement. Manuscripts were neatly wrapped up in brown paper tied with string, and delivered to the publishers, who then had to scan the documents in order for them to be edited. Editors who were quick off the mark and used to scrawling in margins and between lines soon found scanning in these comments was not so easy. As the stand-off continued, manuscripts piled up: 60 in May, 200 by August.

Showing our presence outside the fence of the publisher Aschehoug’s annual garden party in August.

The campaign had one overarching motto: No whining. We consistently strove to be funny, good humoured, and nonagressive. We sought to create a colourful, light-hearted, slightly carnivalesque or absurdist atmosphere.

It was launched in the square between the bare imposing façades of the two main publishing houses in Oslo – one shrouded in scaffolding for its multi million hyper cool refurbishment. Translators sat behind wooden tables banging out letters on ancient typewriters to accompany their translations while journalists took photographs and garnered information. The image of a company modernising its premises but assigning its freelance translators to the past needed little comment.

After three months, as the publishers’ book launch season started in August, we started distributing collectable Pokémon-style cards with photos of some of the publishing industry’s main characters’ not so well chosen comments. The cards were displayed on the strike website “Oversetteraksjonen 2006” and constituted part of an internet game.

We picketed publishers’ parties and events, and brandished placards with both silly and serious slogans, such as: “Recent research has revealed that translators need more money NOW”, “Hand us your pin code”, and – outside the most prestigous garden party for the literary elite –  “You are drinking the blood, sweat and tears of translators. And what’s on your plate?”, “Have you the heart/wallet to go to this party, too?” (see photo above).

At the end of September, after five months, the publishers gave in, and invited the translators back to the negotiating table. After a month of negotiations, a new contract was signed. The result was better pay, a modernised contract – and a renewed respect for the profession on both sides.

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