Give writers their dues

China's top legislature is reviewing a draft amendment to the Individual Income Tax Law.

China's top legislature is reviewing a draft amendment to the Individual Income Tax Law. If it is approved, salaries, remuneration for personal services, authors’ remuneration and royalties will be combined when calculating individual income tax. The total amount, if exceeding the threshold, which is possible to be raised from 3,500 yuan (US$544) per month to 5,000 yuan, will be subject to a progressive tax system, where tax rates range from 3 to 45 percent.

On the face of it, this is good news to authors. Since 1980, writers have been taxed at 20 percent once they earned more than 800 yuan (US$124). That is to say, if an author earns 3,500 yuan for his work, he’ll pay 540 yuan in tax, while someone from other line of work doesn’t have to pay for tax for earning the same amount in salary. Over the years, authors have been calling such tax structure unfair. Now it’s likely to change.

But I doubt this will make much of a difference to the income of authors or translators. According to the measures jointly released by the National Copyright Administration and the National Development and Reform Commission in 2014, the rates for original content range from 80 to 300 yuan/1,000 Chinese characters, or 50 to 200 yuan/1,000 Chinese characters for translated work.

If you find this hard to comprehend, my personal experience might help illustrate. Last year, a classmate and I worked on a 100,000-word industrial report. We put in an average 10 hours a day and had it done in 2 months. The workload was monumental, involving much research, proofreading and polishing, in addition to translation. For this strenuous work we were each paid 3,550 yuan, a sum probably no respectable worker today would feel comfortable to mention in public.

But this payment was worked out at 80 yuan/1,000 characters, which falls within the standard translation rates adopted by all major publishers.

Half a century ago, renowned Chinese translator Fu Lei, who was best known for his rendition of Honore Balzac, could support his family of four by full-time translating. Fu reportedly made it a rule to translate no more than 1,000 words a day. Today when people choose to write or translate at all, their chief source of satisfaction cannot but be spiritual or psychological.

Easing tax burdens on writers and translators is encouraging, but it can be even more incentivizing if serious writers could earn a decent gross income in the first place.

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