The New York Circle of Translators held its first-ever conference on the topic of literary translation this past March. The Saturday event, held at NYU SCPS’s space in the historic Woolworth Building, featured a two-hour morning session of presentations by three professional literary translators, an hour-long lunch and networking break, and a two-hour afternoon roundtable discussion with a panel of five experts discussing the field from an editing and publishing perspective. Some attendees came to earn the four continuing education points offered by the American Translators Association, and all of us were there for the wealth of inspiration everyone had to offer. It was a dreary, rain-drenched, mid-March morning, so the fact that we packed the room with people coming from as far afield as Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Connecticut, and even Rochester and Pittsburgh says a lot about our collective dedication to this curious and challenging field.
TWO SIDES OF THE COIN: TRANSLATORS
“Trotsky’s house in Mexico smelled like a dacha.”
NYCT Program Director Kate Deimling introduced the morning speakers. First up was Russian-to-English translator Antonina Bouis, who spoke about translating contemporary writers. The straightforward subtitle of her presentation, “The Many Pros and a Few Cons,” told only half the story: she not only addressed some of the perks and pitfalls of starting out in the field, but did so with refreshing enthusiasm and delightful anecdotes—like how surprising it was to walk into Trotsky’s house in Mexico, only to find that the books and other objects gave the place the scent of a dacha so familiar from the time she’d spent in Russia. It was both amusing and depressing to hear that, invited to represent one of her authors at a major international prize ceremony for contemporary literature in English, it became clear that the award committee wasn’t even aware that all three titles up for the prize that year had originated in other languages. Another interesting point she made was that professional writers don’t interfere, because they know that the translator is their greatest resource and ally, whereas unprofessional or inexperienced writers are the ones who tend to run to the dictionary and question every decision. As a translator, you have two main options: if you have the time and energy, you can educate the writer; alternatively, you can stop taking on that type of client. Speaking for myself, as someone who still does a fair amount of client education even with relatively experienced writers and editors, Bouis’s observation really resonated. She also addressed cons like work-for-hire agreements and the common practice of splitting royalties when working with contemporary authors. While working on classics or other texts in the public domain carries the advantage that—if a reasonable contract is negotiated with the publisher—all royalties go to the translator, that kind of work doesn’t offer the potential of rich experiences that working with a living author can. Ultimately, Bouis opted for the adventure of working with living authors and bringing new voices into English over the purely economic advantage of (re)translating classics by dead authors.
“Authors—the deader, the better.”
Which brings us to the morning’s second presenter, Spanish-to-English translator G. J. Racz. The entire audience erupted in laughter when he recalled what another translator had once said to him: “Authors—the deader, the better.” Racz’s talk covered his experience retranslating Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s Los empeños de una casa. Decontextualization is always an issue when brining a text from one language, place, and culture to another, and Racz cited Venuti’s considerations about it as well. Decontextualization has both spatial and temporal effects: geographic, sociopolitical, and other space-related differences come into play, and with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s text the time-related difference is key as well. Models in the receiving culture necessarily affect the translator’s choices. One specific example Racz mentioned was poetic form; tightly structured meter was the norm when Inés de la Cruz was writing, but most contemporary English-language readers are more accustomed to free verse. Also, the text in question was originally written to be performed, whereas his translation will likely only be read. He had thought-provoking reflections on how to navigate such factors.
The morning’s third and final presenter was French-to-English translator Lee Fahnestock, who spoke about her work bringing French author Francis Ponge into English. Her author was born in 1899 and lived until 1988, so she hand a chance to meet him after she’d already begun working on his text. Fahnestock was one of the first translators of Le parti pris des choses, first published by Gallimard in 1942, and her version was titled The Nature of Things. She also discussed their related book, The Making of the Pré, which was her English rendering of La Fabrique du pré, first published in French by Skira in 1971, and issued in English by the University of Missouri Press in 1979. Because her text involved a lot of word play and potentially playful misreadings, she emphasized the oral and aural aspects of translation and the role of the reader as hearer. She caught my attention by mentioning the role of the copyeditor, as copyediting and proofreading are key stages where, especially with linguistically unusual or challenging texts, things can go very wrong. Luckily her author was amused by the misguided “correction” to their text that made it into the final book, but not all texts are so flexible, and not all authors so understanding. My personal solution to that problem has been to step out of my translator shoes and temporarily don the editor’s hat, submitting a style sheet outlining any quirks particular to the text in question. Yes, it’s extra work that clients don’t always want to factor into the per-word rate, but it can save a lot of strife later on, and repeat clients quickly learn its value. You probably don’t want to spend countless hours on e-mail or the phone defending choices you already spent a lot of time thinking through, and nobody wants to pay for changes once the project has gone to proofs.
A VIEW FROM THE FLIP SIDE: PUBLISHERS
The catered lunch let us all maximize the hour-long break to forge new connections, as longtime circle members got a chance to meet new members, chat with some of the presenters, and greet some of the non-member guests as well. After refueling both body and mind, the audience returned to its seats as I took the stage with five colleagues to discuss translation from a publishing point of view. The panelists were: editor Peter Blackstock from Grove/Atlantic; editor Tynan Kogane from New Directions; editor Alessandra Lusardi, formerly of Penguin and Rizzoli International, now running her own editorial consultancy; publisher Chad Post from Open Letter Books / Three Percent; and editor Sal Robinson, formerly of Melville House and co-founder of The Bridge Series. Some of them speak multiple languages, others find their career rewarding enough working solely in English, and each had a lot of experience to draw on, so I felt very fortunate to bring them all together under one roof.
We began by looking at the big picture—how each of them got into the field, and how they choose texts to translate (or whoever at their company makes the final acquisition decisions does). Their backgrounds ranged from retail bookselling to working as an agent to just being avid readers, and I think a lot of translators in the audience could relate when many of the panelists said they came into their positions almost inadvertently, via fortunate coincidences and a lot of hard work. Many said that, to varying degrees, their backlist shapes their frontlist. Kogane mentioned the formative role Ezra Pound played in the early days at New Directions, and how much they continue to value writers’ recommendations. Asked whether they feel there are country/language/cultural mandates, most panelists agreed that it depends on the publisher’s track record and readership, but the main goal is to get superb writing into the hands of English speakers who would otherwise have no access to it. Market factors came up all afternoon, and sounded particularly important here: Americans have an easier time relating to the umpteenth book about the natural and cultural beauty of Italy, say, than they do to a book by an undiscovered writer from Albania with a hard-to-pronounce name: those countries are fewer than 70 miles apart, but in many respects exist in separate worlds, so both translator and editor will have to make a strong case to a publisher for why such a text needs to exist in English and how it might best be presented. I have repeatedly heard fellow translators recommend getting a story published in a literary journal (usually done on spec, of course), so as to build the author’s readership in the US and thereby make getting a full book deal easier. Although this approach certainly can’t hurt, and has perhaps worked for some, it might not be super effective for translators just starting out: when I asked the panelists whether they read lit mags scouting for content, not a single one said they do. But they do discuss what they’re reading with their networks of authors, editors, and fellow readers, so simply maintaining ties and staying interested in what your colleagues are up to is always a good idea.
The source language is an obvious factor in what books get placed with US publishers, especially when the acquiring editor or publisher can’t read the original. It was an almost even split between the panelists when it came to who relies on reader’s reports and who reads the originals. Some occasionally work with literary agents (who, by the way, are perceived very differently from country to country), but most rarely do, and Lusardi brought up an interesting point here: she recommended translators cultivate relationships not only with editors working in their target language, but also and especially in their source language. Even without delving into what digital technologies are doing to it, publishing is still a bit like the Wild West, and oftentimes there are many obstacles between originating and acquiring publishers. If translators are able to position themselves as cultural ambassadors who can bridge the divide and help not only bring a new text over into English but also detangle differences in approach, customary practices, etc., they can potentially be invaluable allies.
Next we tackled the nuts and bolts of the trade, which might sound boring but wasn’t, because everyone had so much to say. Although I can’t cover it all here, the panelists were very generous in discussing what they look for in a translation proposal, how they choose a translator, how they edit a translation, and their idea of the perfect publisher/editor/translator relationship. Notably, Post mentioned that he almost never bases a decision on a translator’s cv, but that a 15–20 page sample carries the real weight. This varies from house to house: some publishers only ask for 2-page samples, so translators should definitely ask the editor what to send. Everyone agreed that a cover letter contextualizing the book is essential, and including a list of what houses in other countries are publishing the same book/author is helpful, too. The keys to a successful collaboration were fairly uniform across the board: be punctual, communicate, give the project your best, and be nice.
Moving on to address the business side of things, the clear message was that translators, editors, and publishers are ultimately allies, not adversaries—although when you get into nitty-gritty details like pay rates, royalties, whose name goes where, production schedules, etc. that might sound a bit kumbaya. When it comes to contract negotiation, the larger houses have entire legal departments, whereas many of the smaller houses make it the managing editor’s responsibility (as if they didn’t have enough to take care of already). Although I hadn’t given territory much thought, the panelists emphasized how key it can be. How much give-and-take there is in contracts really varies, too. The PEN Model Contract came up here, as some editors have used it as a template, and others have received proposals based on it that ultimately weren’t feasible for their publisher. If ever I do another panel like this, I’d love to pick apart a publisher’s P&L, as few translators ever get to see one and it’s an eye-opening experience. But for now I can point you to a related podcast from Three Percent that looks into who really earns what. We touched upon: how are fees set (usually per word or flat rate); what percentage of any given publisher’s projects are work-for-hire (hint: from a translator’s perspective, way too many!); who holds the copyright, and whether their standard contracts include a reversion clause—most editors agreed this was an important thing to secure, so that if the publisher of your work goes under, the work can find a new life elsewhere; and who, if anyone, earns royalties (in theory and in practice). Cover art came up as well—many people do judge books by their covers—and we could have a whole other conference on that topic.
We then considered the post-partum period. After your book is out, what happens? All too often, not much—meaning yes, it might sell okay, it might get a few reviews, but it must be said that after the author, translator, editor, and publisher have invested so much time and energy into a project, their expectations must remain realistic. Most panelists agreed that the translator can play a role in helping promote a project—by writing about it or having colleagues write about it in magazines and online, tapping into their various communities (based on language, genre, location), etc. All publishers have a marketing or PR department of some sort, even if it’s only one person, so it behooves the translator to be as available as possible to provide additional info. I then naïvely asked whether any of the editors’ houses bring their authors on tour or organize other events: the short answer was no. It sounds like this practice is rapidly becoming a relic of the past even for native English-speaking writers, and the language and geographic distances can make it even harder for writers published in translation, but it isn’t unheard of—especially for authors coming from countries whose governments actually support the arts. Foreign government funding or underwriting from private grants sounded more possible than a publisher ponying up enough to cover author/translator appearances.
I had a few fun random questions I’d have loved to ask—like what panelists’ favorite translations are, or what the most egregious line from the worst hatchet job one of their projects has ever received is—but time was running short. I ended by asking what advice everyone would give to an aspiring literary translator, and was surprised when the answer was not only unanimous, but took us back to an earlier point: be nice. If you’re pitching a project remember that, if the editor is open to considering your proposal, that editor will likely in turn be in your same position as they pitch it to their publisher, so there’s more empathy and solidarity out there than many translators often think. If a publisher has already acquired a project and is coming to you, they might be considering several translators for the job: it’s an honor to be in an editor’s stable of trusted translators, and diligence and trust will get you far, but being a pleasure to work with is often what sets someone ahead of the rest.
The panel had a few more tips. Sal Robinson gave a great answer “straight out of 1998”: have a website. Peter Blackstock reminded us that the reader is king, so an awareness of what and how people are reading helps. Chad Post recommended engaging with your readers and colleagues on social media; he couldn’t prove that tweeting and re-tweeting book-related stuff actually boosts sales, but he did say it feels good.
The audience had some great questions. One participant asked about Babelcube and whether it might be a useful resource. Tellingly, none of the panelists seemed to have ever heard of it, and an award-winning literary translator in the audience recommended we all tread cautiously: a lot of crowdsourcing platforms for translation are popping up online, and we all need to do due diligence in evaluating who we work with under what terms, because there’s always someone looking to get something for nothing.
While most of the attendees work into English from other languages—Spanish, French, German, Korean, Czech, Chinese, Russian, Italian, and others were represented in the room that day—we were also fortunate to have a few translators in the audience working from English into their native language. As mentioned earlier, publishing-industry dynamics vary from country to country, but the vast majority of pointers the panelists gave us are equally applicable outside US borders.
My spirits were buoyed when some of the panelists mentioned that they’d learned a lot from one another and from audience members, and I was grateful to have had the opportunity to moderate the discussion. All in all, it was a great conference, so we’re considering organizing more events like this in the future. As always, we’re open to hearing your feedback and ideas (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I’d like to extend particular thanks to NYCT Administrator Louise Jennewine, Program Director Kate Deimling, President Valeriya Yermishova, Secretary Melissa Mannis, and Treasurer Osei Prempeh for making this event possible. Extra thanks to Margarite Heintz Montez for her excellent work compiling the Gotham Translator. Updates on this and other events are available on our Facebook page as well. A networking evening with CLMP is already in the works for later this spring, so we look forward to seeing many of you again soon.
Written by Alta L. Price