Literary Translation: how to get started?
Thread poster: Elena Markina Harrison

Elena Markina Harrison  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:04
Russian to English
+ ...
Feb 8, 2010

Hello everyone!
For a couple of weeks I have been tormented, yes, absolutely tormented, by trying to find out how it all works... Please, experienced literary translators, help me - I'm about to go crazy in the attempt to unravel this mystery.
So I would like to be a literary translator. Yes, I know it does not pay much - but it has been my dream and I would like to give it a try. I have done contracts, websites, technical texts, you name it - no inspiration, my muse is dying. Where do I start??? Google is already tired from my search entries, but I still don't understand. Not a single publishing company hires translators, but how do the books get translated then? Some Russian publishing houses advertise for vacancies, but not a single one in the States.
I guess, to sum all the craziness up - how does the industry operate? Who decides that a book needs to be translated? What languages will this book be translated in? Who translates the book? And - how do we, simple freelancing mortals, get in touch with the people who make all those decisions?
Please, all tips will be greatly appreciated.

Elena


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Sarah Puchner  Identity Verified
Local time: 09:04
French to English
Try American Literary Translators Association? Feb 8, 2010

Hi Elena,
I'm not sure how helpful this will be to you because I think most of the resources here are for translators working into English, but you could try looking at the website for the American Literary Translators Association to get some insider information about the literary translation industry:
http://www.utdallas.edu/alta/

There is a tab labeled "publications" that lists publishers & journals interested in translated works.

Good luck, if I think of anything else I will post again,

Sarah


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 17:04
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
Contact the publishers Feb 8, 2010

If you want to translate English or German literature into Russian (according to your working languages) you should find a Russian publisher that is in want of a literary translator. Phone them and present some samples.
If you know someone who has written a book and wants you as a translator things are easier. I guess many start translating for journals. You could first train yourself by translating an anthology of a writer that you think interesting.

Regards
Heinrich


Direct link Reply with quote
 
solange trad
Portuguese
+ ...
Look to Russia, not USA. Feb 8, 2010

For English to Russian literary translation, your market is in Russia, not the States.
So researching how the industry functions in the USA will not necessarily help at all.

To find out how it works in Russia, my advice would be to research the area of literary publishing in general, learn as much as you can about how it works, and network as much as you can with people involved in publishing - whether virtually or in person.

Translation is not about "the translation industry" but about the specific market, which in the case of literary translation is the publishing industry.

If you start doing this now, then hopefully later on you should be able to answer your own question yourself! Good luck!


Direct link Reply with quote
 
JoFP
Local time: 16:04
French to English
+ ...
Ways and ways Feb 8, 2010

Elena Markina Harrison wrote:

Who decides that a book needs to be translated? What languages will this book be translated in? Who translates the book? And - how do we, simple freelancing mortals, get in touch with the people who make all those decisions?
Please, all tips will be greatly appreciated.

Elena


Beh, in some cases, the translator decides. I myself have translated about fifteen book-length literary works, simply because I liked them, and because I thought I would like to be able to have a conversation about these books with speakers of my native language. For the moment, only one, one of these books, has been published, but for the sake of my sanity I must hope that someday at least some of the others will be. My method makes for a lot of frustration, of course, but the advantage is that it can be adopted by anyone.

The listing of magazines and publishers on the ALTA site that Sarah gives you a link to is a good start--if you're planning to translate into English, that is. I would probably start by translating a story I liked--or a chapter of a novel--and sending it to a magazine or publisher. It will be rejected again and again, of course, and if it is ever accepted you will either have to contact the holder of the translation rights yourself--usually the author or the foreign publisher--or have the publisher of your piece do it for you--which it will only do for a book, not for a story.

Book publishers also seem to have their "stables" of free-lance literary translators; I've never met any of these translators and don't know how they got through the barn door, as it were. Nor am I sure I want to know.


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Peter Linton  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:04
Member (2002)
Swedish to English
+ ...
Some answers Feb 8, 2010

Elena Markina Harrison wrote:
How does the industry operate? Who decides that a book needs to be translated? What languages will this book be translated in? Who translates the book? And - how do we, simple freelancing mortals, get in touch with the people who make all those decisions?


I have done a small amount of literary translation, but I know several literary translators, and the first key point is that it is a very different business from normal technical translation.

How does the industry operate?
By word of mouth. Publishing houses have their own lists of tried and trusted translators. The job involves far more than sitting at home translating. You need to be involved in each country's literary scene, know what is hot, know the right people, attend book fairs, perhaps even write reports on books that you believe deserve to be published.

Who decides that a book needs to be translated?
Varies. Publishing houses keep an ear to the ground, listening for hot new trends. Literary translators also keep an ear to the ground, and may sometimes suggest interesting books, either ones that have commercial potential, or ones that are so impressive they deserve to be published. Particularly books by authors likely to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

What languages will this book be translated in?
Depends on track record, previous sales, etc
By the way, literary translators do tend to focus on their strongest combination. To be a successful translator, you need a comprehensive knowledge of both countries' culture, traditions, history, idiom, swearwords, etc. Almost a full-time job. You advertise several language combinations. Publishing companies mioght wonder about that.

Who translates the book?
Last week, for the first time ever, I received an e-mail from a publishing company seeking a translator. I put in a bid, so did several others, but the job went to an established literary translator with an outstanding track record.

And - how do we, simple freelancing mortals, get in touch with the people who make all those decisions?
Simple freelancing mortals stand little chance. The professions of technical translator and literary translator are actually very different, though there are people who do both.

I suggest: read lots of books. Find a short novel you like, and which you think would be profitable in translation. Crime, perhaps, or science fiction. Do your translation (for love) in sparkling readable prose. Send the first three pages to several publishers (one at a time) with a covering letter explain why this should be published. Keep trying despite many rejections. Meanwhile, do not give up technical translation (for money).


Direct link Reply with quote
 
JoFP
Local time: 16:04
French to English
+ ...
More advice Feb 8, 2010

Peter Linton wrote:

Send the first three pages to several publishers (one at a time) with a covering letter explain why this should be published. Keep trying despite many rejections. Meanwhile, do not give up technical translation (for money).


Peter's advice is good, for the most part, but I suggest you not send out samples one at a time; send them out simultaneously. I find that I average fifty or sixty rejections for every acceptance, with many of the rejections coming as much as a year after I send out the samples. In other words, if I sent out samples one at time, it could take me fifty years to find a publisher. It is standard practice for agents who represent writers to send out manuscripts simultaneously (even to whip up bidding frenzies); translators should do the same.

Of course, if you get an acceptance it is common courtesy to let any other publishers you may have submitted to know, so you should keep good records of your submissions.


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Elena Markina Harrison  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 10:04
Russian to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you so very much! Feb 8, 2010

Wow! So many helpful comments and answers! Guys, thank you very much.
Well, it looks like a tough market, but then again - persevere and you will success. At least I would like to believe it..

Sarah,
Thank you very much for the link. I will definitely check it out.

Peter,
Thank you for a very contsructive answer. I agree with you regarding the strongest language combination point. It is something I have to clarify on my webpage/profile.

And once again - thank you, everybody - now I feel less lost - still lost, but at least I can see the way.

[Edited at 2010-02-08 22:04 GMT]


Direct link Reply with quote
 

Lang-uages
Local time: 03:04
English to German
+ ...
Same situation here - but Germany/New Zealand Oct 12, 2010

Hi everyone,

I am in pretty much the same situation as Elena (hi, Elena!).
I have been doing freelance translations for the past 11 years (press releases, contracts, some software, handbooks, legal documents etc. etc.etc.). I am native in German but live and work in New Zealand.

A few weeks ago I came across a novel that I really liked, and when I recommended it to my mother (who lives in Germany) it turned out that there is no translation (yet). It is a novel with historical background which I think could be a good seller in German bookstores. Since I live here in NZ and have a reasonably good background and understanding of NZ history and culture, I thought this could be really fun.

I did a little bit of research and found a Germany-based literary agency that lists this title as "rights available" for German.
I am not familiar enough with the German "world of books" to know whether it makes sense to approach an agency or if it is wiser to approach some publishing companies directly.
Does it make sense to translate a few pages as a sample?
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO TACKLE THIS??

Some figures for translation rates of literary texts have been thrown around in some other threads of this forum. I have also found a survey, however this contains a huuuuge range of figures.
What is a reasonable rate to ask for? Do you get paid per page of 1800 keystrokes and thats all?
What about royalties? Does this generate a steady (if meagre) income over a period of time to make the work worthwhile in the long run (provided it sells well)?
Does anyone have any experiences with royalties paid via a membership with VGWort? Is it worth the trouble?

I know I have asked a lot of questions. I would really appreciate your help! THANKS!

Cheers!
Sabine


Direct link Reply with quote
 
Colin Ryan  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:04
Italian to English
+ ...
Start small, and talk directly to the authors & their publishers Oct 12, 2010

In the past I wanted to get into literary translation as well, and now I have translated 2 novels from Italian into English. In both cases I simply found a novel I liked and sent an email to the author asking his permission to translate it, and whether their publisher would be interested in the project.

I was careful in selecting my books to translate. It was the beginning of my career as a literary translator, so I aimed for small-press publishers, who would be more likely to seriously consider my proposals. (I would be unlikely to land Umberto Eco's next book, after all, until I had made a name for myself.)

My translation of the first book is being published around now (in Venice only), and while the print run is only something like 2,000 copies, it's still a published translation of a novel (and my Christmas presents for this year are all taken care of!). If you translate a few books by following this model, it looks impressive and your name will eventually be on editors' lips.

If you're going to go down this road, I would add a small piece of advice: choose a SHORT book (60,000 words or thereabouts). Literary translation is REALLY SLOW WORK. It takes absolutely ages. It is so slow in fact that after finishing my second book, I decided to go back to technical translations and stay there. The probability of my ever making real money out of literary stuff is near-zero, and I do have a family to feed, after all. But it was a fantastic experience discovering this, and I'd go through it all again in a flash.


Direct link Reply with quote
 
anarchistbanjo
Local time: 09:04
German to English
One way of breaking in to the literary market Jan 1, 2011

I might have a little imput on this. I started translating Hanns Heinz Ewers because I loved his work and couldn't find any English translations anyway. I started with early material published prior to 1923 and published it POD or print on demand. That got me the attention of a publisher and of the author's estate!

After doing a volume of short stories I tackled the classic horror novel "Alraune" that had been previously translated by Guy Endor and published in 1927 by John Day. It turned out that existing translation was poorly translated and censored! My translation is now the definitive translation of this famous work!

Another novel "Vampire" is known to be heavily censored and poorly translated as well. I am halfway through translating that.

I currently have a list of over ten books that the estate would like me to translate and Dr. Kugel's biography of HHE as well. SideReal Press of England published "Alraune" as a limited edition and now Centipede Press wants to do one as well. In the meantime I am publishing it as an ebook. As more books come out the word will get out and more sales will come.

I currently make about five POD sales a month and get $7 for each sale, whether it is print or ebook. My agreement with Side Real Press was for 35 books from the signed and numbered limited edition of 350 or 10%. I sold most of them in one month at $60 each and kept a few under the bed for when they are collector's items.

To summarize: I got about $2000 from sales of the limited edition as well as continuing ebook sales. This spring I can publish my own edition unless I decide to let Centipede press do one. I barely made a wage doing this project but it is a long term investment that will pay off in the long run. Translation of such work is very time consuming and difficult but immensely rewarding!

There is the added benefit of getting know as a translator of fine literature!

-joe


Direct link Reply with quote
 
larisa0001
Russian to English
+ ...
Another way to get started Feb 15, 2011

I got my literary translation jobs by knowing the authors. I'm on my third book now. This is self-published material, in both Russian and English, and not Great Literature by any means (shhh, don't tell the authors that!), but I'm enjoying it.

Direct link Reply with quote
 

Cécile Sellier  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 16:04
English to French
+ ...
Interesting and instructive thread! Mar 20, 2011

Hi everybody and thank you all for the posts above!

I started my business only a few months ago, and so far have only translated short, technical documents, and subtitled a few videos - but I'd love to get started in literary translation.

I recently read a book which I really liked, written by an American who publishes his own work (he's written 4 so far). I visited the writer's Facebook page and posted a nice comment saying I enjoyed his book, and that if he was interested in having it published in French he could get in touch with me, as I would be happy to do it.

He got back to me, really nice and enthusiastic about my offer - the problem is, he wants me to translate the book for free, only offering to do some publicity for me in return... He justifies this by saying he's "a very small operation" and that two other people have already translated some of his other books for free (one in Spanish, the other one in German).

Obviously I'm not happy about the idea of spending weeks and weeks working on something that's not going to put any food on my table (at least in the short term). He says I can just do it in my free time, so I won't have to turn down other (paid) job offers...

On the other hand, I think that if I do translate this book, that could open new doors to me, and enable me to get new (paid) jobs like this, which is really what I'd be interested in translating in the future (although technical translations on the side sounds like a good idea, just to make sure I can pay the rent and everything!).

I'd really like to have your opinions and advice about this situation: can I consider this as some sort of investment to get other literary jobs in the future and make a name for myself, or should I just forget it?

Thanks a lot!

Cecile


Direct link Reply with quote
 
JoFP
Local time: 16:04
French to English
+ ...
Hard to say Mar 23, 2011

Cécile Sellier wrote:

Hi everybody and thank you all for the posts above!

I started my business only a few months ago, and so far have only translated short, technical documents, and subtitled a few videos - but I'd love to get started in literary translation.

I recently read a book which I really liked, written by an American who publishes his own work (he's written 4 so far). I visited the writer's Facebook page and posted a nice comment saying I enjoyed his book, and that if he was interested in having it published in French he could get in touch with me, as I would be happy to do it.

He got back to me, really nice and enthusiastic about my offer - the problem is, he wants me to translate the book for free, only offering to do some publicity for me in return... He justifies this by saying he's "a very small operation" and that two other people have already translated some of his other books for free (one in Spanish, the other one in German).

Obviously I'm not happy about the idea of spending weeks and weeks working on something that's not going to put any food on my table (at least in the short term). He says I can just do it in my free time, so I won't have to turn down other (paid) job offers...

On the other hand, I think that if I do translate this book, that could open new doors to me, and enable me to get new (paid) jobs like this, which is really what I'd be interested in translating in the future (although technical translations on the side sounds like a good idea, just to make sure I can pay the rent and everything!).

I'd really like to have your opinions and advice about this situation: can I consider this as some sort of investment to get other literary jobs in the future and make a name for myself, or should I just forget it?

Thanks a lot!

Cecile


It's not entirely clear what you would do with the French translation. Submit it to a proper publisher? In which case, the financial arrangements are usually made between the target-language publisher and the translator, not the author (not when it comes to paying the translator, anyway). Or, as it seems the writer does with his work in the US, self-publish it? What happens if you do the translation for nothing and don't find a French publisher for it? You'd be altogether out of luck. If you and the author are planning to self-publish the translation, you could sign a profit-sharing agreement (50/50 maybe). Of course, fifty percent of nothing doesn't amount to much. Whether you want to take the risk is up to you. A writer shouldn't be asking a translator to translate his work for free (and if he can't afford to pay the translator an advance or an upfront fee he should be very generous with any income made from the sales of a translation done "on speculation").


Direct link Reply with quote
 


To report site rules violations or get help, contact a site moderator:


You can also contact site staff by submitting a support request »

Literary Translation: how to get started?

Advanced search







Across v6.3
Translation Toolkit and Sales Potential under One Roof

Apart from features that enable you to translate more efficiently, the new Across Translator Edition v6.3 comprises your crossMarket membership. The new online network for Across users assists you in exploring new sales potential and generating revenue.

More info »
SDL Trados Studio 2017 Freelance
The leading translation software used by over 250,000 translators.

SDL Trados Studio 2017 helps translators increase translation productivity whilst ensuring quality. Combining translation memory, terminology management and machine translation in one simple and easy-to-use environment.

More info »



Forums
  • All of ProZ.com
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search