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 Major presses are reluctant to take a chance on an unknown author or an unpublished translator, literary translation can be more a labor of love than an income-generating activity, and the process of landing a contract is often much less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.
Elias Jacob says
Great tips, Corinne. I didn’t know you had a mailing list, I just subscribed.
Some days ago I found the Spanish version of your book on Amazon, and I found interesting how the title changed a little. “Cómo triunfar en la traducción freelance”, which would be something like “How to triumph in freelance translation.”
What was the process of having your book translated into another language like?
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Elias! So, for the translations of my book (so far into Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Arabic), I essentially followed the same model that traditional publishers do, even though my book is self-published. The person purchasing the rights had to be a professional translator, but other than that, I did not screen the translators or exercise any control over the translation itself. I guess that every model has its pluses and minuses, but I felt that this model worked well for me. But you’re also correct that I can’t assess the quality or fidelity of the foreign language editions.
Alison Penfold says
It still never ceases to amaze me just how many students on translation courses seem to think that they’re going to be doing literary translation – and high-level literary translation at that, no potboilers – once they’ve graduated. I wonder what percentage of the work available is actually literary translation, as opposed to the more bread-and-butter legal, financial, commercial, technical and so on? It can’t be that high, surely?
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Alison! I agree: a significant number of the students in my “Getting Started” class start out thinking that they’re going to do literary translation, or translate things related to their non-work interests (i.e. travel, cooking, music, etc.). I’d be interested to see some numbers on the demand for literary and commercial translation, definitely!
Peter Winslow says
I am a professional legal translator (sworn in Germany), and I did a version of Tip 4, which landed me a version of Tip 5.
One of my intellectual heros is the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus. Back in 2013/2014, I began work on translating into English a few pieces of satire by Kraus (all his work is in the public domain), as there are so few translations of his work, and — at some point — it occurred to me that I might want to publish my translations on a website, free of charge (in the spirit of Kraus’s own views; generally speaking, he published his work at cost, and what profit was generated he donated to charity). I contacted a webdesigner, worked out a design with her, and got to work. I launched the site on October 15, 2014, with just three translations. Now there are over 20 translations short and long, some 44 blog posts, and a few translations in the pipe line. I am far behind on the blogging, but that is because …
Late in 2015, I was approached, because of both certain connections and my work on Kraus, to do a translation of the family correspondence that a famous philosopher — another of my intellectual heros — carried on with his siblings. I reached an agreement with all involved (publisher, editor, etc.), began work in 2016, and was able to submit the manuscript last month, and we are in the process of finalizing it. The translation is scheduled to be published early 2018.
I think it is important to realize that literary translation is entirely different from commercial translation. In commercial translation, you deliver your work product, and the client is happy or not. Collaboration crops up, but it is well defined and, unfortunately, much rarer than it ought to be (much more is needed). In literary translation, you collaborate intensely with known and unknown people (editor, publisher, reviewers unknown to you in name, designers you don’t know, and others), and the more collaboration there is, the better the translation becomes. At some point, the work takes on a life of its own, and you have to grow as a translator in order to ensure that you remain up to the task and see the translation through. It is incredibly time-consuming, cost-intense, and demanding on both personal and professional life. Of course, it is also very rewarding both personally and professionally.
The trick, I believe, is to find a niche, and work hard to be good at it. And then there is social media. Twitter was amazing for me right after the lauch of my Kraus website: I quickly found others who are interested in Kraus personally and Kraus researchers who are interested in him professionally; at least two of these contacts I now count as good friends. This has been the best part of this whole adventure.
Corinne McKay says
WOW!!! What a cool story, thank you so much.
Peter Winslow says
My pleasure. 🙂
Zara Tucker says
Yes, literary translation is a tough game but the tips you have shared are really helpful. Thanks!