The following was original published on The Savvy Newcomer blog, written to serve newcomers to the translation and interpreting professions.
One way to build the foundation under the château of literary translation is to collaborate with self-published authors.
Many of us first became interested in translation because we wanted to translate books or, more specifically, novels. Even if we ended up specializing in marketing, insurance, or patent translation, we never quite gave up that literary dream. The thing is, if you don’t already have a track record as a literary translator, the chances of a publisher emailing you out of the blue to translate the current bestseller in your source language are slim to none. I don’t know about the rest of you, but, so far, nobody has asked me to produce a new version of any of the French classics I love so much.
Does this mean you’re doomed to pine away as your bookish hopes slowly crumble like a gothic ruin? Not at all! As Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” One way to build the foundation under this château of literary translation is to collaborate with self-published authors.
Where Can You Find Self-Published Authors?
Lots of places. I’ve gotten projects through online platforms (like Upwork), my listing in ATA’s Directory, and a post on a translator listserv. I also belong to Facebook groups for self-published authors, and although that hasn’t brought me any work yet, I’ve chatted with authors who showed interest in hiring me in the future. Another option (which I haven’t tried) is to approach successful writers and ask them if they would be interested in having you translate their novels. Finally, there are platforms like Babelcube. Under their model, you’re only paid in royalties. While I’m not willing to spend weeks or months on a translation with no guaranteed payment, if your goal is the satisfaction of translating a book and you don’t care so much about payment, then it’s worth knowing it’s out there.
Can You Make Money Working with Self-Published Authors?
Yes! Will you make as much per word as you would if you were translating a chemical patent or financial report? No, probably not, but it can still be worthwhile. I always give writers two pricing options. The first is at my normal rate—not my highest rate ever, but what I would be happy to get for any project—and with a relatively short deadline. The second is several cents lower than my normal rate, but with a much longer deadline. Then the author can decide. If they choose the shorter deadline, their project will be my priority, even if I have to turn down other work to finish it on time. If they choose the longer deadline, that will allow me to continue to take on most of my usual projects and focus on the book translation when higher paying work is slow. If someone says I charge too much, I just move along. I am more expensive than many translators they can find online, and that’s fine. They’ll find a cheaper option and I’ll find someone who’s willing to pay more.
If you connect with an author who would like to hire you, make sure you get everything in writing and approved by the author before you start translating. You can draw up an agreement based on ATA’s Model Job Contract and/or the Pen America Contract for Literary Translations. Some of the details you need to spell out are:
Payment: How much are you going to be paid and how and when will you get it? Depending on the project, I request ½ or ⅓ of the total fee at the beginning. It would be great to be able to ask for the total upfront, but realistically I think most people would hesitate to pay thousands of dollars before they’ve seen any work. And I don’t blame them!
Timeline: When is it due? Make sure you’re realistic about how long it will take and don’t forget to leave time for editing. Will you send the author the entire finished translation at the end, or will you set up milestones along the way (e.g., submitting sections of a novel, or
sending short stories as you complete them)?
Editing: Who is going to edit your work? Will you use your own editor and include their fee in your own? Will the author pay your editor directly? Does the author have an editor they want to use? Will you have the option to accept or reject the suggested changes?
Credit: Will your name go on the cover? On the title page? Or are you expected to be a silent partner with no mention of your name on the finished product?
Royalties: Will you receive any royalties? If yes, you need to agree on the terms at the beginning. If not, you should still mention it.
Copyright: Will you own the copyright or is it a work-for-hire project?
You probably won’t get rich working with self-published authors, but I’ve found that it’s a nice source of extra income alongside my usual marketing translations. If you’ve always wanted to translate a novel, some short stories, or even a nonfiction book, this is a viable way for you to do it and still make money. Why not give it a try?
Beth Smith, CT is an ATA-certified French>English translator specializing in advertising and marketing (especially cosmetics and luxury goods), entertainment, and literary translation. She has translated two novels, a short story collection, a memoir, and a book about finance and happiness. The 2020 recipient of ATA’s Rising Star Award, she is chair of ATA’s Honors and Awards Committee, serves as the assistant administrator of the French Language Division, and is a member of ATA’s Mentoring Committee. firstname.lastname@example.org