Tips for frustrated literary translators

This post was originally published as a newsletter to my mailing list. An unusually large number of readers told me that they benefited from it, so I’m re-publishing it here while I’m on vacation.

It’s book prize season, the time of year when many of us admire, or even envy, our colleagues like Tess Lewis (PEN Translation Prize for her German to English translation of Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion) or Jessica Cohen (Man Booker International Prize for her Hebrew to English translation of David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar). Lots of us fell in love with translation because of literary translation. As an example—of that phenomenon combined with teenage hubris–I translated Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Ophelia and did a reading of it, as my final project for my high school Shakespeare class in 1989…talk about teenage angst writ large. While that translation happily ended up in some unknown dumpster in New Jersey, many of us still dream of translating books–to bring our favorite authors to light in our target language or for a variety of other reasons.

Literary translation is a tough game. Major presses are reluctant to take a chance on an unknown author or an unpublished translator, literary translation can be more a labor of love than an income-generating activity, and the process of landing a contract is often much less straightforward than commercial translation projects are. Still, it’s possible; French to English translator Sandra Smith’s very first book translation was the smash hit Suite Française, which won the PEN award and was selected as Book of the Year by the Times of London. What’s a frustrated literary translator to do? Here are some tips!

Tip 1: Start with journals. If you’ve never done a book translation before, journals are a great place to start. Try to get a short story or an excerpt published (make sure you get permission from the translation rights-holder first, so that your publication triumph isn’t also a copyright violation). The PEN website has a long list of journals seeking work in translation. Research their submission guidelines and start there.

Tip 2: Look at resources for your language. Many countries–other than the US–actively support literary translations. There’s the French Publishers’ Agency, which brokers the English translation rights to books written in French. For German, there’s the Frankfurt Book Fair New York, and I’m sure that other languages have presences like this too.

Tip 3: Go to a summer camp. There are various literary translation summer schools where you can hone your craft and make some good contacts. The UK seems to be a hotbed of these kinds of things; the British Centre for Literary Translation runs this one (full for this year, but check back for future years), and City, University of London offers this one. Well-known Spanish to English literary translator Lisa Carter has this list from 2016 on her website, but a lot of these programs are probably running again in 2017.

Tip 4: Translate a book in the public domain and self-publish it. If you don’t feel like beating your head against the wall of the traditional publishing industry, bootstrap it. Sites like Project Gutenberg have tons of works in a huge range of languages, all in the public domain. You could start translating one of these books today and publish it on a blog, or make an e-book out of it, or do a print-on-demand edition. Just make absolutely sure that the book really is in the public domain before you publish it.

Tip 5: Go the traditional route and be prepared for a long haul. Being published by a traditional press is challenging, but far from impossible. If you feel that your favorite source language author absolutely must be translated into your target language, and that that translation absolutely must be published by a traditional publisher, don’t let the naysayers get you down. Go to the PEN list of publishers of works in translation, and get to it.

Bonus tip: Make your peace with the financial aspects of literary translation. If you are primarily or exclusively a commercial translator, you’re used to following the money and focusing on high-paying markets. And that chase is not likely to lead you anywhere near literary translation. But as long as the rest of your business is on solid financial footing, it’s OK to have a passion project in there somewhere. In fact, those passion projects can keep you motivated in the rest of your work. Which is not to say that there aren’t literary translators earning real money–there certainly are. But just as very few small-time authors are making a living from writing, many literary translators supplement their book translation income with commercial translation as well.

8 Responses to “Tips for frustrated literary translators”
  1. Elias Jacob July 12, 2017
    • Corinne McKay July 12, 2017
  2. Alison Penfold July 13, 2017
    • Corinne McKay July 13, 2017
  3. Peter Winslow July 27, 2017
    • Corinne McKay July 27, 2017
  4. Zara Tucker February 9, 2018

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