Where’s a literary translator when you need one? While this is not a question commonly heard shouted in frustration on street corners or even posed hypothetically in conversations at social gatherings, there are answers, and some answers are more likely than others to get you pointed in the right direction. This quick guide is a good place to start.

Translation work, by Erik Tjallinks, via Flickr.

Where do I look for a literary translator?

There are multiple professional organizations for translators. Some offer online directories you can search, job boards specifically for their members and/or can put you in touch with someone who knows where to direct you for your project needs. Others offer valuable resources, information on how to work with a translator, model contracts and FAQs. In addition to the list below, most countries have professional associations, so it’s possible to search for those associations online by source language.

  • American Translators Association (ATA)
  • Literary Translators Association of Canada (ATTLC-LTAC)
  • PEN American Center (PEN)
  • The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)
  • The Authors Guild (AG)
  • The Society of Authors (SoA)

Where should I NOT look for a literary translator?

In short, avoid work-for-hire situations and websites that promote crowdsourcing or royalties only for literary translation. Most professional translators’ organizations discourage work for hire and instead promote a combination of royalties, fees and copyright. Intralingo has written extensively on this topic for literary translators:

Rights and Contracts in Literary Translation

Rights and Contracts in Electronic Books Part 1

Rights and Contracts in Electronic Books Part 2

An Author Asks: Why should a translator get royalties when the story is mine?

And PEN American Center even offers a model contract for literary translations.

 Once you have a potential literary translator or two who are interested in your project, it can be tempting to flip a coin or go with the translator who seems the nicest; however, there are a few additional steps to follow that will help you make an informed decision. You want to ensure you are hiring someone who has the experience, time and professionalism for your project, so it’s appropriate to approach this as a job interview.

 What should I ask the translator?

The following questions will give you insight into the translator’s past projects, working relationships and availability:

  • May I speak with authors you have worked with in the past?
  • What is your view of the author/translator relationship?
  • What is the best way for us to communicate when necessary?
  • How much time will you need for this project?

Note: For a translator to answer this, you will need to have provided details and an excerpt of the piece, at the very least

What documents should I request from the translator?

This is a short list of potential documents that will help you evaluate the translator’s work thus far:

  • Curriculum Vitae or Résumé
  • References and/or letters of recommendation
  • Links to published work or copies of published work
  • A sample translation of an excerpt from the work you are looking to have translated

Note: the length of a sample translation can vary – as short as four pages or an entire chapter. You should expect to pay for the sample translation and ask that the cost of the sample be deducted from the entire project price if you decide to work with the translator.

A translator who has not been working in the field that long may not have an extensive list of projects and references, but should still be able to provide you with enough information for you to feel you are making an informed decision.

One thing in particular you will determine through this process is whether you and the translator are compatible enough in your approach and viewpoints to build a solid relationship grounded in trust that will be necessary for your book to succeed in another language. (More on that in future posts…)

These first steps should point you in the right direction and the translator’s responses and documents can help you avoid some common pitfalls in the future, so instead of shouting, “My kingdom for a literary translator!” into Siri, Alexa or Google Home, start here, and let us know how it goes.

Readers: Have you had success finding and working with a literary translator? Please share a bit of your own experience.

Stacy McKenna received her MFA in English and Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California. Her translations have appeared in The Other Poetry of Barcelona, Códols in New York, 580 Split, Cerise Press, and Río Grande Review. She has taught English and ESL throughout the Bay Area and worked at several nonprofit organizations including the Center for the Art of Translation. She has recently returned to the Bay Area after teaching literary translation and English at the Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro in Querétaro, Mexico.