How to get started as a literary translator

So, how do you get started in the wonderful world of publishing? I spent a fair bit of time looking for a blog about the process and never really found an answer. Some people modestly put it all down to luck: knowing a friend who happened to have a publishing company or living next door to Roch Carrier.


But there was no step-by-step recipe to success. Because there isn’t one, obviously. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I did and it’s what I plan to keep on doing as I hopefully rack up a list of translated novels next to my name, each one better than the last.

1) Read. Read about reading. Before I found a project I wanted to work on, I spent months listening (OK, read and listen) to literary podcasts and scouring the book pages of reputable publications. These gave me ideas about the kind of thing that was being published (and by whom) as well as a long list of books that sounded like they would be fun to read and (hopefully) translate.

2) Read. Read novels you might like to translate. This is the fun bit! Although a baby and plenty of other commitments meant that my reading rate never got close to the heights of a literature degree at Cambridge, I read (and continue to read) enough to give me plenty of food for thought. Sometimes I stopped after a few pages. Not my cup of tea at all. Sometimes I kept on reading right to the end, just to find out what happened, even though I had no intention of ever translating it. Sometimes I read right to the bitter end just because I don’t like putting a book back down once I’ve started it and even though I thought it was nothing better than average and really not the kind of thing that was going to set the world on fire.

3) You liked that last novel you read? It sounds like something other people would like to read too? Something that would sell? Something that deserves a wider audience? Check that the rights are still available.

Library and Archives Canada has a handy list of everything that was translated (and then published) in Canada at http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/index-e.html. I’ve also been known to have a quick look on Google and Amazon, but what I usually do is write to the publisher and the author (it’s amazing how much quicker the authors are to reply!) and ask if the rights are still available.

When I pitched François Barcelo‘s J’haïs le hockey to Baraka Books, they wanted to know if the rights were available and if they were held by the author or the publisher, so I now ask that too. In the long run, you’re best to write and ask if the rights are still available. An Internet search isn’t going to tell you if someone has had the same idea as you and has already been in touch with the publisher.

4) Work out if it’s worth your while to translate this particular novel. Unless you’re prepared to embark on a real labour of love, you’re going to want to be eligible for a Canada Council grant. Of course, the grants are given to the publishers (not translators) who use the money to pay you for your translation. The full eligibility requirements are here, but in short, as I understand it, publishers must already have published three others novels translated into the target language and translators must be permanent residents or citizens of Canada and “recognized professional translators” who have completed a translation degree or already had a translation of theirs published.

“The program provides financial assistance for the first translation of literary
works written by Canadian authors. Translation must be into French, English, or
an Aboriginal language for publication in Canada.”

I have no clue how things work if you would like to work with a publisher in Europe or the United States. By the looks of things, it is quite clear that the translation would not be funded by the Canada Council. The likes of SODEC appear to offer some support to Québec publishers seeking to sell their books abroad, but there is nothing explicit on their website about helping to pay the costs of translation. Of course, translators routinely translate novels from France and publish them in Britain and the United States. Clearly other funding channels exist, but this is something to be researched and discussed another day.

5) So you’ve found your novel, the rights are available, and the translation would be eligible for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. Now you’re only missing a publisher! What I did was read literary translation magazines, blogs, and newsletters (the American Literary Translators Association newsletter, for example, provides detailed information on member publications, and magazines like World Literature Today give you a good idea of who publishes what) to find out more about what publishers were interested in. There’s no point sending your sample translation of The Next Great Canadian Novel to a publisher who is only interested in non-fiction, of course. The most frustrating thing about this process is how reluctant publishers seem to be to pin their colours to the mast and actually say what they like to publish. Amid all the puns and witty instructions on how to reach them, you seldom find anything clear-cut. “We look for literary fiction that takes chances” is about the best you can hope for.

Rather than relying on vague “About Us” sections, I did what every publisher pleaded with every visitor to their website to do and looked at their catalogue. Baraka Books describes itself as follows, for example:

Baraka Books is a Quebec-based English-language book publisher specializing in creative and political non-fiction, history and historical fiction, and fiction. Our belief is that books are a haven of freedom and that they remain the foremost vector for change.”

Of infinitely more help to me was that I was pitching a Québec novel about hockey and I knew that Baraka had already published BREAK AWAY: Jessie on my mind by Sylvain Hotte and translated by Casey Roberts — a Québec novel involving hockey — as well as Discrimination in the NHL: Quebec Hockey Players Sidelined by Bob Sirois (translated by Jacqueline Snyder). So they already had a few hockey titles on their website and it looked like they might be interested in what I had to say.

6) The Pitch. Different publishers have different submission guidelines (most of the biggest publishers don’t even let you near them without an agent. Can literary translators have agents? Does the author you’re translating need an agent if you’re going to be able to pitch your translation of his latest novel to Penguin? I’m not sure. Again: a question for another day) but after a half dozen submissions I now more or less have a submission format that covers all the bases and can be applied to nearly any publisher after a few tweaks. Most of my applications are made up of five Word documents: author and translator bios, a cover letter, my translation sample, a synopsis of the novel, and my CV.

7) In the hands of the publishing gods. Of course, it seems to me that pitching any translation is a bit like sending your CV to a prospective employer. Publishers, like all companies, receive more applications than they could ever possibly read. Which means they are constantly looking for ways to weed out the wheat from the chaff – or throw as many of them away as they can get away with to lighten their workload. So I’ve read that some publishers automatically bin anything that’s not in Times New Roman. Or that’s not double-spaced. Or that’s smaller than 12 point. Or that begins with “Dear Sir or Madam”. Or is addressed to the woman who held the position just before them and is now on maternity leave. It really does seem to be in the hands of the gods. The golden rule seems to be don’t do anything that’s likely to offend (one example that sticks in the mind is an application letter that began “Yo bitch!”), read the application guidelines thoroughly… and there’s not really much more you can do. If they’re still determined not to read your application or to throw it away for no good reason, do you really want to work with someone like that anyway? After all, pitching your translation is like sending in your CV. You have something to offer them too. And if they’re not interested, then too bad for them. It’s their loss, and there are plenty more publishers out there, right?

8) A contract. All being well, the publisher that’s right for you will email a prompt response to your neatly typed letter, telling you he’s heard good things about this book already and he’s keen to find out more. In my case, Baraka wanted to know if the rights were free (they were), who held them (the French publisher), and if the publisher would send them a copy of the novel to read in French for themselves. They liked it, they were happy with my sample translation, and a contract soon followed.

So that’s my story. I’m happy that it didn’t rely on outrageous luck and that it seems to be reassuringly run of the mill. Because this is how I believe the system is supposed to work. Feel free to chip in in the comments if you’ve had a similar (or entirely different) experience.

4 thoughts on “How to get started as a literary translator

  1. Very generous of you to post this info. Unusually so. Creating a win-win-win situation for translators (and not only newcomers), publishers, authors, and the reading public.Many thanks,Robert Blouin, C. Tr.

  2. Hello Peter,Even though I am not a literary translator (yet), I enjoy your blog and appreciate all of the useful information! But since you are, I thought you might be interested in this study on fictional translators that's been underway at the University of Sherbrooke since 2009. This is the link:http://www.usherbrooke.ca/grelq/recherche/projets-de-recherche/les-traducteurs-fictifs-dans-la-litterature-quebecoise-depuis-1960/Thanks again for sharing your work!Natalie Newman French to English TranslatorQuebec, QC

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