Do you really need to wait that long to work in literary translation?
Thread poster: Trisha F

Trisha F  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:01
English to Spanish
+ ...
Dec 8, 2014

I came across this not exacty recent blog entry today: http://maskedtranslator.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/so-you-want-to-be-literary-translator.html.

The author affirms that most successful literary translators around may be 55 or older and that basically you have to be an insider in the industry and work a lot for free to get that big shiny prestigious novel commission. I have always wanted to work as a literary translator but have given up on that a long time ago. Recently, I have been doing not too badly in other areas I also enjoy but do not see literary translation as a plausible career path, which is a shame because I think I have the skills and the passion for it but reading online that literary translators are often retired people that do not need the money and do it as a hobby is a bit of a turn-off. Is this field really doomed to be a passtime, just like golf or embroidery? Do you have to be best friends with the top people at a publishing house to be considered? Why are there so many degrees specialised in literary translation when this field seems to be a dead-end and it is perhaps more a matter of time and connections than qualifications?

My partner is a native English speaker and, although not exactly monolingual, he does not have enough proficiency in the languages he speaks to work in translation. However, as he holds a Ph.D. in English literature and is a good poet, I had been thinking of translating interesting Spanish / Latin American authors. He could help me edit the English version and beautify the language, if required, so to speak. We have done this before just like a game of sorts but we have got a fab result. I had been toying with the idea of maybe, in a few years time (if I work a lot for free and submit enough translation samples, I don't know), being able to callaborate with him. I have also published fiction in my native language, as well as bits in English. I love reading, writing and translating literary texts but the more I read on literary translation, the less I see it as a choice, unless I earn good money elsewhere and do it as a hobby in fifteen years or so.


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Susana E. Cano Méndez  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 00:01
Member
French to Spanish
+ ...
What I know about literary translation... Dec 8, 2014

Hello, Trisha.

My field of speciality has nothing to do with Literature, although I enjoy reading XIX century novels in EN, FR and ES.

I have always dreamt of translating such well-built pieces of art.

Having to wait till you are 55 to translate these texts is not a "boutade", since people reach their greater knowledge and performance in language around 45 years old.

When I was at the university, one of my teachers translated a XIII century French poem without having agreed upon anything with anyone. Just for free. He then offered his finished work to a publisher, who thought it was a worthly work and finally published it.

I don't know if things work as you say and have read, but... don't give up. If you feel you can do great things collaborating with your partner, just do it.

Greetings and good luck!

[Edited at 2014-12-08 18:28 GMT]


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philgoddard
United States
Member (2009)
German to English
+ ...
. Dec 8, 2014

I've done quite a bit of children's literature, and have never come under any pressure to lower my rates.

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Trisha F  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:01
English to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Children's literature Dec 8, 2014

Susana, thanks for the reply. I do agree that one's linguistic performance could get better with age but I suppose that in the meantime one's bound to make a living elsewhere until the right time comes, if it does. I do not have a problem with doing translation samples or offering bits of work for free. Perhaps I should try an interesting and unsual literary work to pitch but it's always that "getting one's foot on the door" that seems to drive me a bit mad, especially because I am not very good at making connections / contacts. I will keep trying but, even if I would like to, I cannot put all of my energy and effort into making it into literary translation as long as there are more pressing financial issues in the horizon.

Phil, I love children's literature. It is great you are working in this field.


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The Misha
Local time: 18:01
Russian to English
+ ...
Unfortunately, no one owes you a "foot in the door" Dec 8, 2014

Whether we like it or not, commercial art and literature in particular is a business like any other. For any publisher, you are an unknown risk, so why take it if they have a proven provider and don't have to? Just like they told you, it takes tons of time, effort and schmoozing to get in, and then, statistically speaking, chances are you still won't. Or you can simply get lucky and land that coveted first novel tomorrow. You never know.

I hate giving unsolicited advice but you may want to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness (or his second, better known book Black Swan where he, basically, rehashes the same thing over and over again) that explains the role of the random factor (i.e. chance) in life. If you've never thought of that before, it may really be an eye opener. Essentially, you may do everything right and still get nothing to show for it if you don't find yourself at the right time at the right place. And that's on condition that you are indeed as good as you think you are. Is it fair? No. There is no such thing as fair. There's statistics.

On a positive note, if you think making it as a literary translator is hard, try making it as an author.

And one last thing. I don't know about your language pair, but the two or three novels I translated in mine were such drivel they almost made me puke. I'd take international litigation instead ten times out of ten.

Good luck to you.


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Trisha F  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:01
English to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Statistics and luck Dec 8, 2014

The Misha wrote:

Whether we like it or not, commercial art and literature in particular is a business like any other. For any publisher, you are an unknown risk, so why take it if they have a proven provider and don't have to? Just like they told you, it takes tons of time, effort and schmoozing to get in, and then, statistically speaking, chances are you still won't. Or you can simply get lucky and land that coveted first novel tomorrow. You never know.


That's pretty much the way I see it but the tricky bit is that literary translation seems to be a bit of a secret world. You pretty much have to work hard to get into most professions and it might be indeed that you make a massive effort and you are nowhere near what you wanted. It is life, I suppose. Although, I find literary translation a particularly elusive and impenetrable area and have not really bothered pursuing it, not anymore, because I know the odds are not brilliant and I cannot afford to spend my working life translating content for free, hoping to be commissioned that great novel one day.

I hate giving unsolicited advice but you may want to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness (or his second, better known book Black Swan where he, basically, rehashes the same thing over and over again) that explains the role of the random factor (i.e. chance) in life. If you've never thought of that before, it may really be an eye opener. Essentially, you may do everything right and still get nothing to show for it if you don't find yourself at the right time at the right place. And that's on condition that you are indeed as good as you think you are. Is it fair? No. There is no such thing as fair. There's statistics.


Fairness is not easy to define but no, we cannot expect things to be "fair". Chaos and luck play an important role. Perhaps what we call "luck" is just a matter of statistics and good timing anyway.

On a positive note, if you think making it as a literary translator is hard, try making it as an author.


True, but if you do make it big time as an author, the income you generate is far superior. You may work extremely hard and never make it but if you do make it big, financial success may not be far behind. Literary translation sounds a bit like, even if you become established and well-known, you might not necessarily be able to pay your bills comfortably, if you manage to do it at all. I have tried my hand at writing, and this has been indeed a leisure activity but I expected it to be so from the very start. Oddly enough, I have got to publish stuff professionally whilst I do not even know what to do to get work translating books. More than a hobby, this sort of translation is starting to sound like a strange privilege.

And one last thing. I don't know about your language pair, but the two or three novels I translated in mine were such drivel they almost made me puke. I'd take international litigation instead ten times out of ten.


LOL, that's the glitz and glamour of literary translation! That could happen in any language pair, surely.

Good luck to you.


Thank you.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 06:01
Chinese to English
Research your market Dec 9, 2014

I've done some literary translation. It's not a massive market, but it exists, and if you research your field and stay in touch with the right people, then I'm sure you'll find opportunities. Poetry is always going to be hard - it takes a long time, and poems are short, so it's hard to generate a good income. But short stories can keep you busy.

I see you say it's elusive, but the links are right there on the internet. Read Renditions and other similar magazines of translation, work out what they're looking for, and offer them something. Get to know other literary types - introductions are always the best way. There's nothing mysterious about it, really.


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Heinrich Pesch  Identity Verified
Finland
Local time: 01:01
Member (2003)
Finnish to German
+ ...
You can publish yourself Dec 9, 2014

Nowadays everyone can publish in electronic mode and get paid for it. You can freely seek an author which seems worth translating and agree with him/her about terms. Or you might find an author who died more than 70 years ago and whose works have not been translated for a long time.
The future lies with e-books. You can set your price freely or sell free of charge.


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Amel Abdullah  Identity Verified
Jordan
Arabic to English
+ ...
Some Ideas Dec 9, 2014

Hi Trisha,

I kind of "fell into" literary translation a couple of years ago and think it is something I would like to do more of. My research indicates that there is, indeed, a market for short stories. Right now I am working on identifying authors who are interested in having their short works translated to English. The translated works can then be submitted to literary magazines, many of which are paying markets. The payment offered by such magazines can range from low/non-existent to medium or even reasonable in some cases. Find out which magazines are "reasonable" and focus on those.

Children's magazines may also be a good source of work. Many children's magazines publish short stories and are interested in works that show slices of life in another culture.

Another potential market, especially in your language pair, is the indie-novel market. The key would be finding authors who are already selling well in either English or Spanish as the successful authors are the ones who will be more willing to pay for quality translations. Amazon is one platform that allows indie authors to self-publish in both English and Spanish, and the market is really wide-open at the moment. Join some forums where indie-authors hang out, and get to know the authors. Many authors are interested in having their work translated, but they do not know where to start. You can help them by participating in conversations and marketing your services on such forums.

Each time you finish a new translation, add the new credit to your website, including links to your published work and samples of your writing. The more visible your writing is, the better. Authors may contact you for your translation services (invite them to do so on your website), and you will also have a growing body of work to show to publishers.

The more projects you do, the more you will start making the contacts needed to succeed in literary translation. Magazine editors are good contacts to have and may commission you to do more work if they like your submissions.

It's true that you can also self-publish your own work, but this is likely to result in little to no pay unless you hit it big with a particular story or novel. I'd rather work with authors, publications, and publishers that pay up-front than take a chance on translating something on my own that may or may not sell.


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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 18:01
Russian to English
+ ...
I would say go for it if you love it Dec 9, 2014

but do not treat it as your main source of income--you have to do something else as well--language related or not--something like legal translation, medical, teaching, or even interpreting if you are an interpreter as well.

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Trisha F  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:01
English to Spanish
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Top advice Dec 11, 2014

Thanks to everyone who has taken the trouble of replying and commenting / offering advice.

Having taken some of the ideas I have read on here I have just gone for it. I have realised I do not necessarily have to wait that long so I made a rather drastic move. It may be that I might not get paid and there is no guarantee I will get the work published but... I contacted a fabulous author and she said yes. Now, I must start translating and then, at the right time, pitch the book. I should do my research to find the best publisher as well as submit the work in the best possible way.

She is a Facebook friend and a great artist but I had been a bit shy and had never dared ask. She has been invited to BBC radio shows, has had reviews of her work in papers like The Guardian and is an icon in alternative subcultures. Her style is sensual, feminine, powerful and poetic. However, she is not that well-known in the Spanish-speaking world so I have got the go-ahead from her and her publisher but I must present my case to a Spanish publisher flawlessly. I am obviously doing this as an additional project and shall continue with my freelance work as a source of income, of course. I am not expecting money but if this works I will be well chuffed so thanks everybody for insipiring me.

[Edited at 2014-12-11 22:50 GMT]


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Russell Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 23:01
Italian to English
Into English Dec 12, 2014

There is a particular problem in the Into English market. Publishing House editors are snowed under with manuscripts from English native speakers and simply can't be bothered with the hassle of securing foreign language rights, getting the original author's agreement to the accuracy / quality of the translation etc.
I don't have the statistics to hand but they make depressing reading.
There are of course one or two exceptions of small publishers who specialise in this area. The "big name" foreign authors mostly have an established working relationship with favourite translators whom they trust.


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