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Literary Translation

Jo Rourke

"Translation is that which transforms everything so that nothing changes." - Günter Grass

It’s safe to say that in 2015, translated works are no longer relegated to an unvisited shelf in your local bookshop. “Foreign literature” is now not solely the domain of espresso-drinking wearers of black polo necks. We have universally come to the conclusion that good writing is good writing, so if your published or unpublished book needs to be translated, either into or from English, this is not the unscalable summit it once was. That’s not to say it isn’t a daunting prospect. It’s likely that your book took months, if not years, to produce and polish. And, whether your characters are based in the United Kingdom or the United Arab Emirates, there will be cultural, historical and geographical references, either explicit or inferred. Sometimes, the entire plot hinges on the reader’s understanding of these references, and that’s where a talented translator can weave in subtle explanations, or, if appropriate, provide an equivalent term. Having a relationship with your translator will mean you can discuss and agree on the appropriate course of action in these circumstances.

But how does the translation process work in practice? Your first port of call is obviously to find a translator. In the translation world, a translator usually translates into their native language; from your perspective and the perspective of all of these cultural, historical and geographical references we mentioned, this can only be a good thing. You also need to think of the language variant, e.g. are you translating for a US audience or a UK audience? A Brazilian readership or a Portuguese readership? Make sure your translator translates into the language variant you need. This will be very important for all those references, as well as slang, colloquialisms and wordplay. 

When it comes to the translator you choose, from a financial point of view it’s always best to work with a translator directly. An agency, by their very nature, will take their own cut and will effectively just hire the translator to do the work. This means that it’ll probably cost you more, as they’ll need to inflate the cost to pay the translator, but, more importantly, it’ll also mean that you’re unlikely to develop a relationship with your translator. We talked in the first paragraph about discussing the nuances of your text with your translator - having a middle man in the, well, middle, makes this difficult. 

How to actually find a translator isn’t difficult now. A quick Google search with “literary translator” plus the languages you need will yield an impressive number of pages. Opening a topic on Linkedin is another way. You could contact your country’s professional translation association and ask them for a list of members. What about asking other authors and colleagues for recommendations? Using the forums and groups to which you already belong is a great way to find “pre-vetted” translators.

Once you’ve got a few names on your list, start thinking about your email to them. A brief description of the subject matter of your book is very helpful, so the translator knows the genre, along with an approximation of length. You’ll also need to provide the language your book is currently written in, and the language into which you wish it to be translated. If you have any ideas on timescales, it’s very useful to provide these too. Depending on the language and the topic, output for literary translators, i.e. the number of words they are able to translate per working day, can range from as few as 500 words per day up to 2000, so keep this in mind. Just as you agonised over finding the perfect word to end the chapter, so too will your translator. 

When asking if they’d be interested in the project, bear in mind that many translators may have experience in the subject matter, without necessarily having translated dozens of books – this doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t be a good fit for you. Asking for either a sample of their past work, or, if they are willing, a small sample translation from your book (no more than 300-400 words) allows you to get a feel for their style, without taking advantage. It goes without saying that you’ll have to get this checked by another translator, but it’s a (very) small price to pay in exchange for finding a translator with whom you can work. 

On the subject of cost and credit, these can be sore points in any line of work, and creative industries are no exception. Your translator will usually provide either a rate per source word, i.e. per word of your original text, or a “global” price, which will give you a total. When it comes to crediting the translator for their work, they will probably request that the translated version be credited to them on at least the inside cover of the book. Similarly to your own contract negotiations, expect that they will want to discuss payment schedules and royalties. 

At the beginning of this post, I used one of my favourite quotes on translation in the hope of conveying what we translators view as the holy grail of our daily life. Put simply, a good translation conveys the meaning of the original text, nothing more, nothing less; a great translation makes you think it is the original text. Seeing your work come to life in another language, is as much of a privilege as it is thrilling. Enjoy it.

Jo Rourke was born and raised in Northern Ireland. She has been a Spanish to English translator for 12 years, weaving the work around full time jobs until finally taking the plunge to translate full time and launching her small company, Silver Tongue Translations, where she collaborates with other linguists, in 2012. Jo now lives back in Northern Ireland, having lived for a long time in London, with sojourns in the Netherlands and Spain. She lives with her husband and two small children in the middle of the country, and is on a constant quest to protect the wild rabbits digging up their garden from her husband. You can visit her website here,  follow her on Twitter here or send an email to