In the past couple of months, I’ve noticed a growing trend for agencies to promote themselves as offering literary translation services. There is something innately wrong with this, something so offensive that my whole being prickles with indignation.

But why? What is it about agencies offering literary translation that bothers me? Is it the age-old independent translator/agency rivalry? No. But not being able to put my finger on the precise reasons, I spent some time pondering this question. In the end, I think what bothers me is that everyone loses in this equation — everyone but the agency, that is. And of all three parties, the translator stands to lose the most.

Here’s how I see it. The author or publisher:

* Pays more because a middleman is involved
* Is unlikely to have direct contact with the translator
* Is unlikely to participate in the translation and/or editing
* Has little assurance the translator is experienced with literary work

Meanwhile, the translator:

* Gets paid less because there is a middleman
* May possibly have two middlemen (agency and publisher) to contend with
* Has no direct contact with the author
* Has a contract with the agency and not the publisher
* Is therefore unlikely to get copyright and/or royalties
* Is unlikely to have any creative control over the final product

When an agency wrote a few weeks ago to ask me about a literary translation, my first instinct was admittedly to write a snarky reply. But after a moment’s reflection, I knew it was much better for all of us if I simply took a minute to do some client education. The following is our email exchange, verbatim (including typos/errors), with names replaced by initials:

Dear Lisa,

I am approaching you with a special request. This is something we never did before, but our new Sales Dir was contacted about it.

This would be a book translation, Latin Am. Spanish to English, 240,000 words. I am trying to get a sample, if possible. I understand it it fiction.

I know this is a huge job, 600 pages, and I also understand they are in a hurry.

From your experience, how much time would you need to translate a tome like this?

Would it make sense (I don’t think so, but I will ask) to have more than one person working on it?

Please let me know your thoughts, so I can tell R. what we can work with.

Thanks a million



Thanks for your message.

Obviously, as you say, I would need to see the book before I could reasonably give you any specifics about doing this sort of project.

First of all, the word count doesn’t seem right for 600 pages. I’m finishing a 450 page novel right now that is about 110,000 words so you might be looking at a much higher word count.

Literary is, unfortunately, not something that can be done in a hurry, particularly if you want the job done well. As an idea, this 450-page book I’m just finishing for a publisher took well over six months. While that’s not a short amount of time, it was the minimum needed to do the best job.

It is possible for two translators to collaborate on a literary work, but to be honest this will take double the time rather than half as you might expect. Literary translation is writing, transferring all the nuances of a work into another language and for there to be consistency between two people will require decisions to be made on an ongoing basis, involving discussion and each revising the other’s work.

In my opinion, a work done by two people independently will result in words on the page, yes, but not a well-written piece of literature that does justice to the original.

Also, I don’t know whether you have considered this or not, but most professional literary translators will not do this as a work-for-hire (one time payment). In other words, any contract would need to specify that copyright of the English would be in the translator’s name and a royalty scheme.

Price would of course be another consideration and publishing rates would have to be factored in for a professional to consider doing this work. I can’t quote on this specific job because price involves much more than per word, but what the whole contract entails. However, you may want to keep in mind that the upper echelon of literary translators will charge the equivalent of $0.20 or more per source word.

If you want to discuss this further or run anything by me, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. I hope the info I’ve provided this far is helpful as you consider this job.


Good morning dear Lisa

Thanks for your detailes reply – much appreciated.

I will forward it to R, and he has to look into it, then discuss it with the potential publisher.

As I wrote you before, we never did such projects, so we are like babes in the wood.

But your e-mail gives us a pretty good idea about what one can expect.

Since I am an avid reader, I know how long it takes to read a book… and that is only reading the thing. A translator has to do much, much more than that.

It is a major endeavor, the birth of a new being, and it has to be done the right way. Otherwise, it might end up to be a disaster..

Thanks again – I do hope that with all the caveat, the client will go for it, giving enough time, money and other resources necessary

 Have a wonderful day


I never did hear anything further. Am I surprised? No. Disappointed? No. However, at the very least, this agency now has a slightly better idea of what needs to be considered if ever approached about doing a literary translation again. I just hope they politely decline and kindly refer the author or publisher directly to a competent translator.

What are your thoughts on agencies and literary translation? I’d *love* to hear them…