From Legal and Commercial to Literary Translations

During the 54th annual conference organized November 6-9, 2013 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in San Antonio, I attended a session titled Making the Leap from Legal and Commercial Translations to Literary Translation. It was presented by Marianne Reiner, owner and co-founder of TransConnect, a translation agency specializing in English/French legal translations.

In this inspirational presentation, Marianne told us about her journey in the translation industry and how she came to balance work in her expert field and English-to-French book projects. She started out by saying that there are several similarities between working as a legal translator and a book translator: "We have a sense of precision, an analytical mind, love to tell stories, and are aware that errors can be fatal," she summarized.

When advising the audience where to start if they want to follow in her footsteps, Marianne said that looking for a publisher is like looking for a direct client. "Learn as much as you can about the publishing industry and target market. Be familiar with the editorial lines of a publisher. Also, know your style, likes and dislikes." Considering her legal background, she also told us that it is a good idea to think like a lawyer and have the tools to translate like a writer: "Research publishing contracts, negotiate what is negotiable, and be in good standing with the IRS."

Thanks to her researching skills and persistence, she got in touch with a book editor at Éditions Allia and was selected to translate David Grann's "Trial by Fire." Once she had a book under her belt, Marianne went on to invest on her literary translation career and sent a copy of the first book she translated to an editor in France and arranged a meeting. 

“I had nothing―or almost nothing―to lose and everything to gain,” she recalls. That was how she came to translate Mary Johnson's An Unquenchable Thirst: A Memoir as Une quête infinie into French, published by Éditions Robert Laffont.

Marianne told the audience that her next step is now contacting self-published authors, whom she have found to be very approachable. "Their success stories can also become translation success stories," she pointed out. However, she is realistic when it comes to self-publishing ebooks, which she recognizes to be undoubtedly breaking barriers in the industry: "Some markets are still resisting them, including France."

Lastly, she offered her perspective on why translators are the perfect people to work with publishers. "We speak at least two languages and can scout for books. We are more adequately suited to fully grasp the source and target text. We understand what could work and what won't work in the foreign market."

On a personal note, I myself believe we could even go a step further: We should advocate for translators to become publishers and help authors reach an international audience through book translations.


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).