Tips for Beginning Translators

It’s not as if every young and/or aspiring translator is the same as every other one, but I do get a lot of notes asking basically the same thing: If I’m interested in breaking into the field of literary translation, how do I start? How do I get published? Here’s the sort of advice I tend to give out, starting with the question: You do understand that being a literary translator is probably not a way to make a living without a day job, right? If that’s all right with you, keep reading.

For starters, you should be submitting your work to literary magazines. These don’t have to be magazines that specialize in translation; most literary mags are happy to consider translated work, especially if you let them know in your cover letter that you’ve already looked into the rights situation. As with any other work you’d submit to a magazine, you should take care to match your submission to the magazine’s aesthetic preferences and literary tastes, which you can determine by reading the magazine. You shouldn’t be in the business of trying to get published in magazines you don’t actually read. So your first order of business is to head over to your local bookstore or library and check out the rack of literary magazines; get to know which ones specialize in what sort of work (plot-driven realistic stories? formally experimental work? the fantastic?), and then you’ll be well prepared to place your work sensibly; mention in your cover letter what made you think the particular work you’re submitting would be a good match for the journal in question. Well, you might say, that’s a lot of work! Indeed, it is. Getting work published in magazines will help you confirm both to yourself and to other potential publishers (of books, say) that you are capable of producing professional-level, publishable work. As the list of your publications grows, so will your desirability to publishers. Note that there are also a number of journals (online and paper) actively seeking translated work; this list comes to you courtesy of the PEN Translation Committee. Oh, and speaking of literary magazines, you should also make a point of reading journals published in the countries where the language you translate from is spoken; it’s a great way to discover newer authors who haven’t been translated yet.

The second thing you should do is to network with other emerging translators. Go to readings in your town and make a point of meeting other translators there. Join ELTNA (the Emerging Literary Translators Network in America). Check out the yearly conference of the American Literary Translators Association, which offers a lot of opportunities for networking (as well as competitive travel fellowships to attend the conference). If you can find peers interested in getting together to swap and critique work, that’s a great way to hone your skills if you’re not in a position to do coursework somewhere and are still learning.

The third thing you should do is get on the mailing list of any cultural institute relevant to the language you translate. Many countries have these – they promote a country’s language and/or culture internationally, and many of them sponsor readings, competitions, and other sorts of events.

The fourth thing you should do is to enter any competition relevant to your language (which you’ve found out about through the relevant cultural institute) and apply for grants, especially the PEN/Heim Translation Fund grants, which are open to emerging translators and are a great way for someone new on the scene to come to the attention of potential publishers. Since you apply with a specific book project, it’s a great grant to try for if you already have your heart set on translating a particular work.

When you’ve gotten your first magazine publications under your belt, then it’s time to shoot for the big league: book publishers. Look for publishers that print the sort of work you’re most interested in, and send around a few letters of introduction, including samples of your work and a list of your publications. Often publishers need translators to prepare sample translations from books they’re thinking about acquiring, and often the professional translators who regularly work for these publishing houses don’t have time for these samples, so this is your easiest way in. It’s also a good idea at this point to introduce yourself to the program staff at any relevant cultural institution; they too sometimes need sample translations and synopses for books they’re promoting.

Finally, here’s a paragraph for brand-new translators who’ve discovered a fantastic unknown-in-English author they want to pitch to publishers: Sure, you can do that, but first, imagine the situation from the publisher’s point of view. To publish (acquire, edit, print, distribute, promote) a book involves a seriously substantial investment of money and time on a publisher’s part. Even if you’ve produced a strong short sample from the book (which you might have gotten help with, for all the publisher knows) – for an editor to trust that a translator without a track record is really going to be able to produce a translation of the entire book that is of the same quality as the sample within a reasonable time frame is a leap of faith. The more previous publications you can demonstrate (including in journals), the easier you make it for a publisher to decide to take you on. And of course if you win a competition or a grant, that’s an excellent calling card right there. In preparing a pitch, think about what you yourself would want to know about a project before deciding to invest in it; among other things, that will probably involve an assessment of where the author you’re proposing fits in the context of international writing as well as in the English-language literary landscape.

There’s no one right way and no easy way to get into the translation business, but it’s definitely quite possible to break in to the profession if that’s your goal. Did I remember to mention that it’s a really really hard way to pay your rent?

P.S. I’ve been hearing from annoyed colleagues who are professional literary translators who do make a living translating literature, so obviously it’s possible, particularly in the U.K. (where the Translation Association of the Society of Authors sets minimum rates that are widely adhered to), and particularly if you live in a place with a lower cost of living than, say, New York. In the United States, surviving as a literary translator without also performing other sorts of work (or having resources from another source) is much less common, and I myself have never managed to make a living that way, even though “literary translator” has been my primary professional identity for a long time now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, of course, and it doesn’t mean a translator shouldn’t negotiate for a living wage with publishers. Two years ago I posted a discussion of translation rates in the U.S. that covers a lot of bases – check it out!

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