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Translation FAQS

What is literary translation?

Traditionally, Literary Translation is one of four broad categories of translation, the other three being Interpreting, Scientific and Technical Translation and Commercial/Business Translation; there are also a number of special fields such as Legal Translation. Literary Translation is not confined to the translation of great literature. When the Copyright Act refers to 'literary works' it places no limitations on their style or quality. All kinds of books, plays, poems, short stories and other writings are covered, including such items as a collection of jokes, the script of a documentary, a travel guide, a science textbook and an opera libretto.

How do I Become a Literary Translator?

What qualifications are required?

It is possible to be a translator without holding any formal qualifications. Some translators develop their skills naturally through having a bilingual family background or having lived for long periods in different countries. However, there is no doubt that a formal university education in Modern Languages is helpful, especially if it includes classes in Translation. There are courses and workshops designed to improve translation techniques and these may be useful even though there is no guarantee that after attending such a course the translator will actually obtain commissions. People with qualifications in addition to Language diplomas often find they are in great demand. For example, a publisher who wants someone to translate a book on Genetic Engineering may be keen to commission a translator with a degree in Biology.

Where can I find information on university courses in translation?

Many UK universities offer undergraduate and post-graduate courses in translation. To find current information about the courses available in your area, contact the Careers Advice Service.

What qualities are required in a literary translator?

According to experienced members of the Translators Association:

  1. 1) The translator needs to have a feeling for language and a fascination with it.
  2. 2) The translator must have an intimate knowledge of the source language and of the regional culture and literature as well as a reasonable knowledge of any special subject that is dealt with in the work that is being translated.
  3. 3) The translator should be familiar with the original author's other work.
  4. 4) The translator must be a skilled and creative writer in the target language (i.e. the language into which the translation is made) and nearly always will be a native speaker of it.
  5. 5) The translator should be capable of moving from one style to another in the language when translating different works.
  6. 6) The aim of the translator should be to convey the meaning of the original work, as opposed to producing a mere accurate rendering of the words.
  7. 7) The translator should be able to produce a text that reads well, while echoing the style and tone of the original - as if the original author were writing in the target language.
Can I make a career as a freelance translator?

Almost without exception, translators of books, plays etc. work on a freelance basis. In most cases they do not translate the whole of a foreign language work 'on spec': they go ahead with the translation only after a publisher/production company has undertaken to issue/perform the translation and has signed an agreement commissioning the work and specifying payment. As in all freelance occupations, it is not easy for the beginner to ensure a constant flow of commissions. Some may earn the equivalent of a full salary from literary translation alone, but many literary translators may have another source of income, for example: from language teaching or an academic post; they may combine translating with running a home; they may write books themselves as well as translating other authors' work; or they may be registered with a translation agency and accept shorter (and possibly more lucrative) commercial items between longer stretches of literary translation.

How do I make a proposal to a publisher?

As you may know, literary translation is not an easy profession to break into, and a relatively small number of the books published in this country are translations (somewhere around 3%). However, for the beginner, the usual method of obtaining commissions is to send a letter and a short sample translation to selected publishers, letting them know that the translator is seeking commissions. Details of British publishers are to be found in regularly updated publications such as The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (A & C Black). If possible, write to a named person.

Opportunities may also arise at or shortly after some of the large book fairs, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Bologna Children's Book Fair where publishers and literary agents are busily engaged in buying and selling translation rights.

Here are some suggestions for presenting a sample to a publisher:
  • First, ascertain whether the translation rights are available, and whether the rights owner is willing to authorise you to approach potential publishers
  • Identify potential publishers and write to a named person
  • Be professional in your approach
  • In your covering letter, describe the book and explain why you are enthusiastic about it, and why you think it is appropriate for that publisher. Include a sample translation – the first chapter, perhaps – enough to give a flavour of the book. Give the publisher some facts and figures – how many words/pages is the book? What were its sales figures in the country of publication? Can you include any press cuttings? And don’t forget your resume.
  • The publisher’s decision may be affected by the length of the book, the cost of the translation, the skill of the translator, whether the country of origin is ‘fashionable’, whether the editor needs to rely on an outside reader… and whether they will be able to convince their colleagues that the book is worth the risk.
  • If you don’t receive a response within 6 weeks, it is worth following up with a phone call.

What grants, bursaries and prizes are available?

There are very few grants payable direct to translators. For up to date information about bursaries abroad, it may be worth contacting the Cultural Attaché of the relevant embassy or bodies such as the Institut Français or the Goethe-Institut. Arts Council England (and Scotland) gives grants directly to publishers towards the cost of producing translations under its Grants for the Arts scheme, and English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme supports new books being published for the first time in English translation, which have a clear link to the PEN Charter.

There are numerous prizes for published and unpublished translations of poetry and prose, including: 

The Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize

The Times Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry Translation

The Corneliu M Popescu Prize for Poetry in Translation

The John Dryden Translation Competition

What is the translator’s relationship to the author?

Usually, a publisher/theatre/broadcasting organisation decides that it wants to publish/produce a translation, and sign a contract with the owner of the original work. Then it signs a contract with the translator. The translator should bear in mind that usually the author/rights owner has accepted a lower advance payment and lower royalties on the translated edition than on the original edition of the work in his/her own country. Often the author receives a lower royalty on sales of a translated book in the UK than on sales of the work in its original language, and likewise on a theatre production.

The author may also have forgone part of his/her share of secondary rights, e.g. of the proceeds from the sale of American rights. This means that some or all of the payment received by the translator is money that might otherwise have been paid to the original author: i.e. to that extent, the author is the person who, indirectly, bears the cost of the translation. Clearly it would be unfair if the translator did not receive from the publisher the share of the royalties that the author/rights owner believed to have been allocated towards the translation costs.

On rare occasions the foreign author of a work is so keen to see it translated that he/she will offer to pay the translation costs directly. In these cases the author and the translator should be conscious that translating the text does not guarantee that the translation will be published. There should be a written contract between the author and the translator, clarifying the rights of each party and how the proceeds are to be divided if, subsequently, a publisher is prepared to issue the translation.

Are translated works protected by copyright?

As a trade, Literary Translation operates within the framework of copyright law. An article about the UK Copyright Act can be found in The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, published annually by A & C Black. Under the Act, a translation is an adaptation of the original foreign language work, so the translator must ensure that the owner's permission has been obtained before starting work.

It is a golden rule that a translation must be faithful to the original work but translating is still a creative process. There is a popular misconception that translating a text from one language into another is a mechanical exercise - a matter of straight conversion or even copying, yet if two translators are given the same source text, the result may be two quite different but equally valid versions in the target language. In the theatre too, we are used to seeing a succession of new translations of classic plays, proving that each translator creates something original that is specially made to 'speak' to a particular audience.

The law recognises this 'original' nature of a translation and affords copyright protection to the translation, separate from the copyright protection to which the original foreign work is entitled and also separate from the protection of someone else's translation of the same work. The translator's 'moral rights' are also protected: a translation cannot be used in a derogatory way and if the translator wishes, it must carry the translator's name when it is published. In European countries, copyright protection generally lasts until the end of the seventieth year after the death of the translator.

I would like to find work with a translation agency – can you help?

Unfortunately we are not able to help translators find work, and we do not have details of translation agencies – or their requirements. The Association of Translation Companies represents the interests of translation companies and contact details for its members are listed on the website. Working for an agency, or getting a staff job as a translator, are both good routes into the profession. Many who belong to the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) work in this way, and their website has helpful information for those starting out.




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