Tips for frustrated literary translators

literary translators


Lots of us fell in love with translation because of literary translation. 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 Major presses are reluctant to take a chance on an unknown author or an unpublished translator, literary translation can be more a labor of love than an income-generating activity, and the process of landing a contract is often much less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; 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).

Tip 2: Look at resources for your language. Many countries 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.

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.

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.


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