The art of translating a book My experience as a literary translator




  • Greater than 5 minutes, my friend!

    As I sit down to start translating another book, my heart starts racing with anticipation, my brain calculates all the possible translations for its title, all the concepts I will have to research, all the synonyms I might need, all the nuances each character will present, the number of chapters and how long they are, how many words I will have to translate per day, per week, per month, to finish on time and still turn this into a credible narrative in my native language… All this while my eyes glide through the first pages. Want to know more? This is my experience as a literary translator.

    I started translating books over 5 years ago. The first time was incredibly scary; it took me over 3 months to translate around 350 pages. I had no method, no clue on how to manage my time properly and no idea how many words I could translate per day. 5 years later, I can give you some tips on how to even start and not be so overwhelmed. In the end, it’s up to you to find your own way, but here are some pointers I believe will be very helpful, regarding the process of translating a book, finding clients and how to succeed as a literary translator in general.

    The process

    1 – Time is key. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a publisher or an independent author (we’ll get there later), you can always negotiate and if you’re not sure you can deliver on the proposed deadline, be honest and tell them that’s not feasible for you and when you can deliver. And I mean, do this BEFORE accepting the translation. If the client accepts your offer, great; if not, it’s better to turn down the job than to not deliver on time, because that certainly means losing a client. Publishers work with very tight deadlines and before the book you’re going to translate ends up on the shelves, it still has to go through the hands of at least one proofreader, a designer and a printer. Think about this: if you don’t deliver on time, the whole publishing process will be delayed, which will cost your client a lot of money, meaning they will most certainly never hire you again.

    From my experience, the best way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to plan ahead and adjust along the process. For instance, check how many words/pages you can get done in the first week and calculate how long it will take you to do the whole translation if you keep up that pace. Don’t forget to include time for proofreading the whole book before delivery, for other projects that might come up and for unexpected circumstances (getting sick, computer breaking down, time to rest – which you might forget about if you really enjoy the book!). I would advise asking for 3 to 4 months for your first book translation.

    2 – Regarding fiction, get to know the characters and the story before starting the translation. The same applies for non-fiction books, try to understand the message that the book is trying to convey, whether it’s a self-help book or a book of recipes. Usually, there’s no time to read the whole book before starting, but it helps to at least read a few chapters.

    3 – Research. If you don’t know the author, check their website. What kind of books they write, how light/dark is their style. Read the short biography on the back of the book, sometimes it tells you a lot on what kind of person wrote the story. Try to capture and reproduce their style as best as possible, adapting it to your own culture.

    4 – Get a good thesaurus. This isn’t technical translation, so you don’t have to say the same thing over and over again, using the exact same words. Actually, you definitely shouldn’t. Use your imagination and remember you are rewriting a story in your own language. Would you like to read something repetitive and boring?

    Find your niche

    1 – Clients! You can either work with a publisher or an independent author. I won’t tell you the magical formula to get work from them, I can only tell you how it worked for me. In the beginning, I contacted around 50 publishing houses. Three of them replied: two weren’t hiring and one of them asked me to take a test and nowadays I still work with them. At the time, I had no experience, but now it’s not so hard for me to get a reply. If you already have some experience as a translator, especially working in advertising and transcreation or anything that’s creative, you shouldn’t find as many obstacles as I have. But bear in mind that this is still a niche market and it can be hard to get your foot in the door.

    2 – If you want to get some real experience translating a book before even trying to contact publishing houses, you can always try Babelcube. To be clear, I wouldn’t recommend this to a professional translator who has their schedule full. But if you’ve just finished your degree and want to get some experience before going out there, and especially if you can afford to get involved on such a huge project without – most likely – getting any money from the effort, there are a lot of books – fiction and non-fiction – waiting to be translated there. The downside? Like I said, there’s usually no money involved, there’s no guarantee that the book will sell and it would have to practically become a bestseller for you to get a decent pay. The upside? The experience, and the fact that your name will feature on a published book that will be on sale on huge platforms like Amazon, Kobo or Scribd.

    3 – Contacting independent authors directly. I personally haven’t tried to do this yet, but LinkedIn should be a good place to find them. Also, look for authors’ forums and Facebook groups. Again, do your homework and find out what they write about before contacting them.

    4 – If you already have some experience translating books, create a portfolio with samples. Also, it helps to send out a list with the titles you’ve translated, mentioning the date, author, publisher and the original title and translated title. It will make it easier for potential clients to have an idea of what you’ve been doing, in a few seconds. Mine is also organized by literary genre.

    Success!

    Like I said before, this is a niche market and it can be very hard to get in. But once you’re in, it’s also very unlikely that you’ll leave. Publishers tend to work with a handful of translators and keep them for years, if not decades. Just remember to always, always, always and I mean ALWAYS meet the deadline, proofread your own work as many times as you can, try to put yourself in the author’s shoes and most of all translate books you can relate to and actually enjoy, otherwise you will be dragging a boring project for months and this will show on your work.

    Best of luck, and get reading!

     

     

    Maria João Trindade

    About Maria João Trindade

    Literary translator and proofreader, occasional photographer and full-time cat lover.

    13 thoughts on “The art of translating a book

    1. Awesome article. Maria! And congrats on publishing your first Open Mic story. This must be very exciting 🙂 Some really great advice in there both for those who’re just starting out in this industry and people who’d love to move to this market segment.

      I got a question: how do you handle money and payments when working with publishers or authors? Do they pay in advance, in installments or after the work is complete?

      P.S.: I just featured your article on our home page 🙂 Enjoy!

      1. Hi Dmitry! Thanks, you’re very kind!
        Regarding your question, usually publishers pay me after the work is delivered. When it comes to authors, I’ve only worked with one through Babelcube, so the payment is based on royalties and the other one was for a charity project, which I loved to help.
        Thank you so much for featuring my article!

        1. I wonder how does that affect your cash flow? Say, you’re translating a book and it takes you 4 months to finish the translation. Do you wait 4 months to be paid or you can deliver the work in chapters and get paid after each batch?

    2. Great article. I’ve been translating books (English to Turkish) for almost 9 years. When I read your article, I remember all the steps I’d to take when I was just beginning. Thank you. I’ll share this with people around me.

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