Several times a year, I get e-mails from aspiring literary translators who want to learn more about the profession. I’m always thrilled to receive these and appreciate the opportunity to offer what I have learned to those who are starting out. I remember only too well how difficult it was to get concrete information or assistance early on in my own career, and I hope to change that in some small measure.
I thought I would share three of the most common questions asked and my answers.
1. Do you need to study to become a literary translator?
It never hurts to learn more, but no, you don’t *have* to study to become a professional literary translator. Not one author, agent or editor has ever asked me for my CV or educational qualifications; they are more interested in seeing what I can do by means of a translation sample.
That being said, I have noticed more and more Masters programs being offered in Translation and Creative Writing. Such studies can only help you grow as a writer and translator. Though the following is not an exhaustive list by any means, here are just a few of the programs I have heard about in the last couple of years:
- MA in Translation, Writing and Cultural Difference at Warwick University
MA in Literary Translation at The University of East Anglia
- Literary Translation at Columbia University School of the Arts
- Master of Arts in Literary Translation at University of Rochester
- MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College
- MA in Literary Translation at Swansea University
- Master of Arts in Literary Translation at New York University
(Note: I have no personal knowledge of or affiliation with any of these programs.)
I am also a huge proponent of non-formal education through partnering or mentoring. There is no official program for this that I am aware of, but this does not mean you can’t simply reach out to working literary translators whom you admire. It might feel presumptuous or as if you are being a bother, but don’t let that stop you. Quite likely you will be surprised at how willing an established translator may be to share their knowledge.
2. What does literary translation pay?
There are no established “standard rates” or “minimum fees” that I can quote with any authority. There is, however, one reference I noted a year or more ago from Chad Post of Three Percent. (Unfortunately I can no longer find the original article or I would link to it here.) If I am not mistaken, he said that the average pay for literary translation was $100-125 per 1000 words ($0.10-$0.125 per word), whereas top translators can earn $175-200 per 1000 words ($0.175 to $0.20 per word).
Obviously, pay will depend on many factors: Are you translating for the author or a publisher? Is the publisher big or small? What are your credentials?
To give you a concrete example, let’s look at my own experience. My first book translation project for a major publisher paid approximately $0.08 per word. As my portfolio of publications grew, so did the pay, creeping up to $0.09 and then $0.10 a word. With each subsequent project I negotiated a rate that I could live with — and live on. More recent works have earned me approximately $0.18 per word, and one project reached as high as $0.23 per word.
As you can see, it is a misconception that literary translation always pays less than “regular” translation. If you compare these rates to what many agencies are willing to pay (anywhere from a pitiful $0.02 to a moderate $0.15 per word), literary translation can actually be profitable.
3. Is there enough full-time work?
Ah, if only there were a simple answer to any of these questions… Once again, I have to say that it all depends. Factors include your language combination, what sort of conditions you are willing to accept and how aggressively you are willing to pursue projects.
If you are working into English in North America, you have no doubt heard of the dreaded 3% figure — the amount of all books published per year in the United States that are works in translation. That alone will tell you that literary translation is a very small industry. However, if you follow publishing industry news you will also have read that this is, in fact, improving. There has been a rising trend in terms of the acceptance and therefore quantity of works translated; this is to be applauded and encouraged.
Even so, very few translators find enough work to keep them occupied full time, year after year. It can, however, be a significant portion of your income if you are willing to negotiate your worth and consistently seek out opportunities.
In my own case, I have translated an average of one book for publication every year over the last seven years, while also translating samples and building relationships that will hopefully lead to more.
Now, do you have a question about literary translation? If so, ask away! I would love to take your questions and provide answers in a series of posts that will help you, the reader, achieve your dreams.
Intralingo Inc. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.