How to Become a Literary Translator

During the 54th annual conference organized November 6-9, 2013 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Antonio, I attended a session titled 10 Tips for Literary Translators, aimed at providing some ideas―or even a-ha moments―to beginner and advanced professionals alike. Speaker Lisa Carter, owner of Intralingo, is a Spanish-to-English translator based in Canada who has six books under her belt.

The main message in her presentation is that learning never stops. “I have tripped, I have fallen, I have face-planted, but I always try to learn a lesson,” she advises. As it happens with anything in life, breaking into the literary field can be a series of trials and errors until translators become flexible and build confidence.


Read more about Lisa's work
on our review of her pre-conference
seminar about Spanish-to-English
literary translations


Starting out her 10-tip list is Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone. As Lisa pointed out, translating a book is a much more different experience than reading it, and she often hears how translators profess their love for a book, but hardly act upon it by attempting to translate it. She recommends that people start getting their feet wet by translating literature in their bedroom, without telling anybody, so they experience the process and learn more about themselves as translators.

Next up on the list is Learn About the Industry, because “literary translation is more about publishing than translating.” Lisa said that reading several publications and websites about the area has already become part of her work routine. We need to know what is going on in the industry, be up to date with the latest trends, check what books are being translated and which are becoming a hit in the respective target markets.

With yet another tip, she said something that sounds very common sense, but that people rarely stop to think about and usually take for granted: Love the Work You Do. As a translator, you must feel comfortable and excited about the story you're going to tell, considering you'll be spending so many months with a book, walking through the places and living with the people depicted in the story, and mostly entering the author's head in order to have a faithful rendition in the target language. “It's absolutely okay to pass on an opportunity that is not the right fit,” she reminded the audience.

Lisa then tells translators to Trust Themselves because they are bilingual experts. Even if the author is fluent in the target language or, on the other hand, the editor can read the original, odds are neither of them will be able to do what a translator does and re-write the story in another language, while sticking to the universe that was originally created.

Talking about the negotiation process, the speaker encouraged members of the audience to Consider Forms of Compensation, especially when translators are starting out―either in the profession or in the specific area, after years of more technical work. Translators should keep in mind the forms of compensation of a non-monetary nature, which are just as valuable. “It's not a per word or per hour endeavor. The time you put into a book goes beyond that,” she says.

Sometimes, it's about having a sample of your work and proving that you can do it. Other times, it's about negotiating royalties, which she compared to an insurance policy. “If a book in translation does well, it's because of your work. If we don't ask for royalties, we're not making things better for colleagues. The decisions you make affect all of us.”


Read a review about
Lisa's presentation on
translating "The Einstein Enigma"



However, still on the subject of negotiation, building your resume and starting from the bottom while you acquire experience in the field doesn't mean accepting all conditions that are imposed on you. Translators should be able to Negotiate Their Worth.

“Of course it is a privilege to translate a book you're excited about, but does that mean a publisher gets to walk all over you?” Lisa asked the audience. In that respect, she recommends the PEN American Center model contract, which helps protect translators and also advocates for royalties.

On a more practical note, Lisa recommended that translators Write, Instead of Translate a book. She recalls her experience with her very first short story, “Sharks” by Bolivian author Edmundo Paz Soldán, Professor of Hispanic Literature at Cornell University. The author himself encouraged her to make the story her own.

Once your job is done and goes through the editing process, the speaker advises that translators Embrace Edits. “Love your editor and be prepared to admit when you're wrong,” she says, reminding translators that you also need to be an advocate for the book you created in another language while having the target audience in mind, since your job is not to simply replace words, but be aware of cultural sensitivity as well.

At the end of the list, Lisa mentions two things that are crucial to career development and continuity: Pursue projects and Promote your work. These two last tips walk hand in hand because publishers usually promote the book and the author, not the translator.

In other words, translators must raise awareness of their work―especially on their own website, or maybe in interviews about their role in having a book enter a foreign market, which will help get their name "out there" and contributing to new deals forming in the horizon.

"Literary translation is about bringing works to new audiences. If no one knows the work exists, it'll never be read and your work will be in vain," she explains. "This is not an easy industry, nor is it a fast-moving one. Your chances of publishing increase the more projects you pursue," she added.

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates two projects to promote Brazilian literature worldwide: Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS) and Cuentos Brasileños de la Actualidad (CBA).