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On January 22, 2022, I attended an online seminar organized by the literary division of the ATA. Two seasoned literary translators, Shelley Fairweather-Vega and Mercedes Guhl, offered the attendees a primer on how to find material for translation, how to get it published and how to get hired as a literary translator. The discussion addressed the following topics:

Public domain texts: The definition of what texts are in the public domain varies from country to country, although a commonly used benchmark is 100 years after the death of the author. These texts present attractive possibilities for translation since the translator doesn’t have to deal with copyright issues or translation rights. However, over the years language and points of view change, which may present a challenge to today’s  translators. Lesser-known works by well-known authors could also be attractive targets for new translations. Digital libraries such as Project Gutenberg may help the translator to unearth hidden gems not yet translated.

New works by contemporary authors: Translators should read extensively in both source and target languages and follow online journals and book reviews which can help identify hot trends in source language literature. Social media platforms like Facebook can be used to contact authors, many of whom are flattered and happy to be contacted by translators for an eventual translation of their works.

Invitation by the author to translate a non-published work: While an offer from the author to translate a non-published work can be a good experience, there is always the possibility that the author will not like the translation. A good course of action may be to translate a sample chapter to see if your styles are compatible. You can ask the author to pay for your sample chapter.

Working with publishing houses: it is not easy to pitch to publishers with a translation project because they generally work only with vetted translators. However, there are possibilities for other kinds of work within publishing houses, such as proofreading, copyediting and writing reports for books. Since these opportunities generally come through agents or personal connections, the best way to uncover them is to make contact with publishers and agents at translation or publishing conferences.  It was also suggested to consider joining a freelance editor’s group in one’s local area.

Self-publishing: in this arena the translator will have to deal with securing the translation rights which are usually held by the author or the publisher. The point was made that book publishing is a team exercise with first drafts subject to corrections by editors and copyeditors. Many translators view editors antagonistically but editing can also improve a translation before it is published. The self-publishing translator could hire an editor or copywriter to review the work before publication.

Other possible venues for publication:

  • Calls for submissions by journals: some will pay, some will not.
  • Non-literary magazines which publish articles by distinguished scholars. The site was mentioned in this context.
  • Small independent publishers are sometimes open to hearing pitches from translators. The best way to have your pitch looked at is if you have developed a personal connection with the press.
  • University presses: could be a good opportunity if the targeted university has a center for cultural studies in the source language. However,  university presses often do not pay.
  • University professors who may have large translation projects and may be looking for translators
  • State-sponsored cultural institutes and embassies in the source language, if they exist in your locale.

The seminar was useful in spotlighting some overlooked areas of potential business but it was obvious from the discussion that the best road to translation publication is by fostering personal relationships with authors, agents and publishers.

Patricia Stumpp


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