I completed my first translation 20 years ago. It was an excerpt from a novel about which I had been asked to complete a reader report for a trade publisher. I loved the novel and my reader report was enthusiastic, but the requesting editor wasn’t confident enough to make an offer without knowing what the author’s voice was like, so she commissioned a sample. I selected a chapter and completed the translation, which was a hit. In the end though, the editor just couldn’t get comfortable enough to buy the novel for their list.

In the two decades since then, the landscape of publishing–including translated literature–has changed dramatically. What seemed like a closed, New York/London–based club of literary tastemakers when I arrived on the scene in 1995 has been blown open by phenomena of the information age—including online media, digital and self-publishing, and the subsequent erosion of old power structures by social movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Just compare an issue of the New York Times Book Review from 2002 to one from today; not only are the authors much more diverse, the reviewers and the staff are, too.

What does this mean for literature in translation? Today translators are accorded more status than they ever have been in the modern era. Movements such as #NameTheTranslator–one means of recognizing the translator’s creative role–have received widespread support, including from bestselling authors. And with a few, unfortunate exceptions, almost all publishers now allow translators to retain the copyright in their work, an equally important means of recognizing the translator’s role as writer (or re-writer).

However, though working conditions have improved, today’s translator is almost certain to perform multiple roles far beyond the old-fashioned job of rendering a work into another language. These include:

  • Scouting (whether formally or informally) for the best new writing by reading widely in their language to discover new voices that will travel to Anglophone markets;
  • Agenting, often unpaid, the works they would like to translate by meeting with editors and introducing their authors’ oeuvres to publishing’s tastemakers;
  • Publicizing, also unpaid, these authors’ works by placing them in literary magazines, sharing them at public readings, and even setting up events for book tours once a book has been published.
  • This kind of multitasking is necessitated not only by the market but also by the nature of the independent publishers that have been and continue to be the main champions of literature in translation.

To that end, let me offer a few suggestions to make things a little easier for translators:

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) holds bi-annual Pitch Sessions, in which translators meet editors online and have eight minutes to make an elevator pitch on behalf of a book. A few years ago, I was randomly matched with an editor at an indie publisher whom I had never met before; she loved the two-page sample I showed her and a few months later she had signed the novel. And if at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up. Last year I met with an editor and pitched him an author who seemed like a great match, but the book wasn’t right. This year there is another novel that looks like it might be a better fit.NB translators: As with trade publishing, the number of literary journals that have published translations in the past few decades has increased dramatically. Placing an excerpt, a poem, or a story in these journals can boost an author’s chances of being picked up for publication–and this is just as true for Anglophone writers as Hispanophone; lit journals can be a sort of literary bellwether. NB editors: If you’re interested in learning more about the landscape of translated literature sign up for the ALTA pitch sessions; they’re free and this is a great place to start.

Attend book fairs and festivals. Many book fairs offer fellowships for translators. Attending such events presents an opportunity to develop relationships not only with editors but with agents, too. Agents need samples for book fairs and, in particular, those based outside the US often don’t know the indie publishers and literary magazines who will be most receptive to their authors; translators can play a critical role as facilitator here. Book fairs also offer an opportunity to meet with foreign rights agents of international publishers, who also need English-language samples to share the books they have published at home with editors in other countries, because English is the lingua franca of the industry, as with the rest of the business world.

NB: I like to band together with a few other translators to buy a table in the rights center so that we have a relatively quiet place to hold meetings; book fairs can be exhausting. And try to go to as many of the after-hours gatherings as possible, because in these more relaxed atmospheres equally important connections are made.

Join the Authors Guild (U.S.) or the Society of Authors (U.K.). Both organizations review contracts and make specific suggestions on how to negotiate in order to improve the terms of your publication agreement so that it best reflects the terms of the agreement with the author.

Apply for translation residencies and grants such as the Heim Awards. Translation residencies and retreats offer an opportunity to work undistractedly on a longer work, and some venues, such as Art Omi’s Translation Lab, even offer the opportunity to work together with an author on polishing a translation. And awards like the Heim don’t just offer money, they offer an endorsement (much like publication in a literary journal) that catches the attention of editors actively interested in acquiring translated literature for their lists.

Good luck and while you’re at the London Book Fair, don’t forget to stop by the Literary Translation Centre for our full roster of activities and panel discussions.

Today In The Literary Translation Centre

Divided by a Common Tongue: Translating a Global Language

With Nariman Youssef, translator and translation consultant; Nashwa Nasreldin, literary translator and editor; Bryar Bajalan, Phd student, Exeter University; and Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi
10 a.m. GMT

Decolonising Eastern Europe: Found in Translation

With Ioane Pezuashvili, author, PEN Georgia; Tanja Tuma, board member of PEN International, president of Slovenian PEN; Nina Murray, translator; and Dr Olha Mukha, congress, committees and new centres manager, PEN International
11.05 a.m. GMT

Europe/U.K.: Opportunities and Challenges Post-Brexit

With Rosie Goldsmith, director, European Literature Network; Mathias Rambaud, co-president, EUNIC London; James Urquhart, senior manager: libraries & literature, Arts Council England; and Alexandra Büchler, director, Literature Across Frontiers
12.10 p.m. GMT

Less Translated Literatures from Spain: Asturian, Basque, Galician

With Dr Olga Castro, associate professor in translation studies, University of Warwick; Dr Olivia Hellewell, founder, Less Translated Languages Network; Xesús Fraga, writer, journalist and translator; Robin Munby, literary translator; and Susie Wild, publishing editor, Parthian Books
1.15 p.m. GMT

Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of Words Without Borders and the translator of numerous works from Spanish.