Every now and then I present questions that readers of Intralingo have asked regarding different aspects of literary translation, along with my answers.
I have been working as a freelance translator for the last three years and would like to do some literary work.
I’ve done some Internet research which seems to indicate that luck plays an important role in obtaining such work—while confirming that it’s a small market without much opportunity.
Strangely, this does not seem to be the case with shorter, ‘commercial’ translations as distributed via translation agencies to freelance translators. Via this channel I’ve translated a couple of text books and the translation agency client was a publisher in all cases. Is this also true of the literary translation market, i.e. should one just approach likely-looking publishers for work?
For the most part, very few literary translation jobs are obtained by contacting publishers directly, unless you have a contact on the inside.
Indeed, if you browse through the Spotlight feature on my site, where published translators talk about how they got their start, very often there is some sort of personal connection: with an author, an editor, an agent.
I believe one good way to get started is by having shorter pieces published in literary magazines. This allows you to pursue various opportunities and begin to make a name for yourself. The more editors and people you know in the industry, the more likely it is you can then propose or become involved in a larger project.
Personally, I never recommend doing literary work through an agency (unless they are literary agents, not translation agencies) because they afford translators none of the rights that are normally due literary translators, particularly copyright and royalties. I discuss this in more detail here, if you’re interested.
Two of my classes discuss the where’s and how’s of breaking into literary translation, from writing a literary CV to approaching authors to potential publication venues and compensation in the industry.
Hopefully this is somewhat helpful as a start!
Thanks for your advice and for taking the trouble to make it prompt, extensive and good!
I hadn’t considered the royalty aspect—at all. My work for agencies was indeed at a per word rate. As I suspected, there’s a lot to learn. The good news is that while the per word rates seem similar to those for ‘commercial’ work there is at least an opportunity for passive income via the royalties.
While it all seems a bit of a mountain to climb I am spurred on by the ineptitude of writers, translators and proofreaders reflected in the translations I have comes across so far and the (hopefully realistic) idea that I can do better.
One of the most important aspects in your future success as a literary translator is the drive to climb up over those learning curves, do your absolute best and bring great works to another audience.
Try not to judge the translators or editors of the translations you read too harshly, however. You never know the true/full circumstances around any project or work. And because translation is all about decisions, well, no two of us will ever make exactly the same choices. In time there may be critics of your work, too, who think this or that could have been done better. It happens to us all. 😉
Best of luck!