Ross Ufberg, translator from the Russian and co-founder of New Vessel Press, has just made a modest proposal, in print. He says: why not establish an online database where translators can record works they’ve translated bits of (samples) or all of (madness), or works they’d be interested in translating? It’s a sort of literary matchmaking. That way a publisher who hears about an author and is interested in reading a sample can quickly find a translator who’s got one ready to send in. It’s definitely an interesting concept. I’m sure it happens all the time that publishers hear from foreign contacts that this or that untranslated author is really interesting – but finding a translator and commissioning a sample is an involved process, involved enough that a publisher who’s only moderately interested might not follow through. A database like this would make this initial checking-out-the-author process much easier, increasing the likelihood that a book project would result from it. It would also provide a way for up-and-coming translators who don’t yet have strong publication records to put themselves in a position to get noticed if they’ve picked interesting authors to do samples of. To be sure, that would involve unpaid work on their parts, and this is certainly an issue, but it’s inevitable that up-and-coming translators have to do a certain amount of work of this sort to prove themselves. No one will hire you for paid labor without first seeing what you can do. This wouldn’t be the worst format for getting this done.
Here are some issues likely to come up:
- “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” A database entry posted by a talented underdog will be indistinguishable from one posted by someone who can’t translate at all. And the format might encourage people who aren’t yet ready to be showing their work publicly to give it a try. In the worst-case scenario, someone might offer a sample poorly enough translated to turn a publisher off an otherwise worthy project. Should there be some sort of initial hurdle to membership? That might be tricky to institute and maintain.
- The issue of “dibs.” What if someone wants to post a listing that duplicates one already present in the database? The second translator has no way of knowing whether the first translation is any good. Might the existence of a weak translation prevent the posting of a better one? I think the site would have to make it clear: no calling of dibs allowed. Multiple sample translations are fine. In fact, I would imagine publishers would prefer to see more than one sample of an author’s work.
- To whom will the work be visible? If the actual samples were visible to everyone, the database would basically just be a huge anarchistic online magazine (no editor), and that would be a big copyright mess. I don’t think any work at all can be published on the site – just basic database information about the work so that a publisher can request the sample translation directly from the translator. And maybe links to online information about the book in question?
- What about work that’s already been published? I think that in the case of samples that have been published in magazines, links to those publications could/should be provided. I can imagine that Words Without Borders, for instance, would get linked to a lot.
In Ufberg’s piece, which was just printed in Publishing Perspectives, he invites emails from anyone who has ideas about what Litfinder.org should look like or is interested in working with him on setting it up. You can reach him here.
As tantalizing as the idea sounds, I suspect there would be other messy bits even beyond the important ones you’ve cited. I have the nagging feeling that there could be additional copyright issues, possibly involving the need for the holder of the English rights to grant some kind of permission for this use of the work because, as you point out, a work could easily be badly represented, through no fault of the rights holder, and in such a way as to jeopardize the author’s publishing prospects. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic.