Literary Translation & The London Book Fair


This month I attended the London Book Fair for the second year in a row. And for the second year in a row I found it exhilarating, scary, intimidating, friendly and informative. All to greater or lesser degrees than the previous year. This year, I went with a definite plan, a series of appointments and a better idea of the maze layout at Kensington Olympia. Did these three elements help me in my goal to gain more of a foothold in the world of literary translation? Immeasurably. I would advise anyone who’s attending an event of any sort to do the same. But this post isn’t about any old event, it’s about the London Book Fair.


Like many translators, I’ve always wanted to translate books. Not just for the thrill of seeing your name in an actual book. Not just for the buzz of being given a book to read and that being your job. Not even for the steady work for a number of months. For me it was about being entrusted to give life to a book in another language; allowing people to read it who would never have otherwise had the chance. Like letting them in on a secret. The first time I contacted an author (and got a response) I, quite literally, squealed with excitement. I mean, they said no, but getting a response was a major win.

(Side note: an author doesn’t care about your CV or your university transcript…take it from me.)

When I finally got a positive response, and started to go through the process of producing a sample, I practically needed to borrow one of my children’s nappies. So yes, it meant a lot.

However, the road to publication is paved with pitfalls (…and PEN Contracts for Literary Translations – if you haven’t checked out this great resource, do so at the PEN website). Negotiating a contract can be tricky, and as a “junior” in the publishing world, you have no idea if your dream of appearing on the inside, outside (hell, any side) cover of the book will disappear in a puff of smoke, when the publisher says it’s “not policy” to credit the translator. Royalties can be another royal pain in the as…piring translator’s backside; as you can run into roadblocks around “reducing the author’s income from the book”.

But we can’t let these little idiosyncrasies put us off. So let’s just say that becoming a literary translator can be tough, but with tenacity, perseverance, a bit of luck (which, let’s not forget, we make ourselves) and (this is a given) bucket loads of talent, you can get there. So how can attending an event like the London Book Fair help you achieve this dream? Here are a couple of tips I picked up:

Love literature

Through the events, seminars and informal chats I had with people at the Fair, I picked up a wealth of information on literary translation. I spoke to fellow translators, and heard how they got into the world of literary translation, how they found opportunities and how they keep finding opportunities.

The common theme was a love of literature.

Reading great translated literature is a top priority. Not only will it open your eyes to different styles and themes, but by studying the author, the publishing house and the translator, you’ll see who’s publishing (and translating) what; and you’ll be able to draw comparisons and judge market trends.

All of this is important when it comes to establishing yourself as a literary translator. Why? Because one day you might be pitching a book you want to translate to a publisher. You’ll have found out that the rights are available (more on that later) and, because you’re well read and researched, you’ll know the right publishers to approach. You’ll be able to tell them how the book’s performed in its source language, which books it’s similar to (publishers like to hear this), and give some educated speculations on how it might perform in the target language market.

Read voraciously in your source and target languages.

For many, this is a pleasure. If you aspire to being a literary translator, it’s productive too. The English PEN Translated Literature Book Club is a great place to start (there is a waiting list, but you can join the Facebook group) – its aim is to encourage translated literature, so it should give you a great idea of what’s out there.

Know Your Rights

No, I’m not taking about contracts again. I’m talking about foreign rights. Specifically whether or not they are available. If the rights aren’t available for the language into which you wish to translate the book, then, sorry, game over. In all likelihood you won’t be able to translate that book. Move on. The publisher owns the rights to a translation, so that’s where you’ll find out this information. At the Book Fair, one of the most useful resources for translators is the dozens of foreign rights catalogues that publishing houses leave strewn about their stands. Grab them.

Most of the meetings I had whilst at the Fair were with Foreign Rights managers.

As a translator, they’re often your best starting point. Many translators like to nurture relationships with authors, and this is also a valid route to translation for many titles. But don’t forget that when it comes to the rights of a book, unless you’re going for a self-published title, the rights are not the author’s to grant. The publishing house owns them.

So for traditionally published books, your best bet is the Foreign Rights’ Department.

Sample size

What was the top recommendation for getting started as a literary translator? Produce samples.  Getting in touch with publishers (yep, that Foreign Rights manager we talked about) and offering to produce samples is an excellent route into the industry. How come? Well, it…

  • Gives you practice

  • Familarises you with the industry

  • Gets your name on to editors’ desks

In case you’re not familiar with samples, they’re often required by publishers ahead of awards and events, to showcase a book (usually one they wish to market internationally). For example, these might appear in promotional materials or catalogues. Contacting a publisher and offering to submit a short sample for free (200-300 words max), so that they may gauge your style, is a way you can demonstrate your talent, not to mention your willingness to work with them.

If they like what they see, they may contract you (on a paid basis) to produce the longer samples they need. Translating this sample doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be commissioned to translate the whole book, but, as DE>EN literary translator, Ruth Martin, said, during a panel discussion on getting started as a literary translator,

the more editors who see your name on samples, the better.

Resources rock

Whilst I was at the Book Fair, I gathered a number of resources and heard about a range of programmes and events for translators. Here are some of the highlights:

European Literature Network – a true champion of European literature and foreign writers. Set up by Rosie Goldsmith, this network provides endless information on what’s going on in the world of European literature (as well as workshops, meetings and events.)

The International Literary Translation and Creative Writing Summer School – run by the British Centre for Literary Translation, this is a 6 day, residential course for those wishing to hone their skills and receive focused coaching on their translation and creative writing skills.

Sample Translations ©POLAND – This program is directed at translators of Polish literature (who have already translated at least 1 book), with the aim of promoting Polish literature abroad. Financing is given for 20 pages of translation and translators can apply for up to 3 grants per year.

Emerging Translators Network – This is a forum and network aimed at supporting, as its name might suggest, emerging literary translators, so translators within the first few years of their literary career (although there are also lots of “emerged” translators in the network to offer support). It seems like a fantastic group – I think I might join!

In the “event” that you want to network….

Here are some of the key Book Fairs that I’ve heard about over the past few months in literary translator circles:

Frankfurt Book Fair

Guadalajara International Book Fair

Bologna Children’s Book Fair

London Book Fair

Over to you…

I’d love to hear of any resources or tips you’ve picked up along your road to becoming a literary translator. It doesn’t matter if you’re already well-established, or just starting out, sharing your experiences is a vital, and generous, gesture for other translators. Leave your thoughts and notes in the comments – I’d love to hear them!



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  • Elisa says:

    Hi Jo,

    That was a useful and entertaining post! I would add a word of advice from my own experience… have friends! My first (and, so far, last) two book translations came to me through a friend whose friend had started working in a Spanish editing house. They were looking for someone who could translate into Catalan, my friend gave my name, I did a sample translation and got that job and another one before I decided it was time to do something more profitable. But I learnt a lot from the experience and it opened many doors.

    Payment and deadline terms were not great and there was not such thing as a real contract, royalties or anything like that. When considering work in this field, it is well worth knowing what you should ask for beforehand, so thanks for the link to the ETN forum! I managed to get a couple of things right: getting paid for the sample translation (but only if selected to do the job), having my name on the book (not the cover, but hey, that’s my name in there!) and being allowed some time to review the reviewer’s and editor’s changes to my translation before publishing. Though of course they forgot about the cover and added a mistake to make it more appalling… appealing, sorry!

    So that’s my two cents. Good luck to you in getting loads of literary translations, your name on book covers and a fair amount of money!


    • Jo Rourke says:

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Elisa. Time and time again at the Book Fair the literary translators I met emphasised the importance of “making friends” with the publishing industry! Additionally, they also mentioned the importance of moving within literary translator circles; many of them credited colleagues with getting them their first literary translations, either through proofreading a more experienced colleague’s work, or because a colleague received a translation that wasn’t in their own language combination and referred it. I love making friends so this is all good news for me! 🙂 What genre were the books that you translated?

  • Thanks Jo for this very interesting post! I just finished up my fifth book translation (two for self-published authors, one for Barron’s Educational Series, two for Mountaineers Books) and I agree with everything you said in this post. The book translation market is much less straightforward than the commercial translation market; you can pretty much explain to someone how to market to agencies in 10 seconds (“Write a translation-targeted resume; make a list of agencies; apply to them”). But the book translation market has a lot more oddities and nuances, as you’ve very thoroughly described here (who owns the rights; who does the author want to translate the book; does the publisher care who the author wants; how well-known are you and how much does that matter; how do you get your name in front of good publishers; how much do you care about money and/or fame, and so on). These oddities and nuances make the book market much harder to navigate, and your post is a great resource!

    • Jo Rourke says:

      Thank you for your comment, Corinne, I’m delighted you found it interesting. How did you get your first literary translation “gig”? Did you pursue it, or did it find you? I’m also intrigued about the experience of working with a self-published author. I had the opportunity to do so recently, but it didn’t work out due to budget constraints on the author’s side. I was absolutely gutted, and tried to come up with some alternative arrangements (because I loved the book), but it wasn’t to be. How did you find the process?

      • Thanks Jo! I found my literary translation gigs through: a referral from a colleague (book 1), a cold inquiry via my website (book 2), an agency (book 3) and a warm/prospecting e-mail I sent to the publisher (books 4 and 5). Working with the self-published authors actually worked fine, and I enjoyed the direct contact with them. As you mentioned, the constraint is always money, which depends on how much the author is earning from the original-language edition. Although in that sense, translating into English is a big advantage because it’s such a huge market. Hopefully in a couple of months I can report how I got the gig for book 6! Best of luck to you with your book translation ambitions too.

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