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Posted on Feb 19, 2020

How to Find the Right Book Translator in 8 Steps

The right book translator can do wonders for a literary career. Through the magic of skillful translation, plenty of authors have become more famous abroad than they were at home. For a prominent example of a book translator’s power, let’s take a look at the iconic Edgar Allan Poe.

When it comes to name recognition, few American writers can beat Poe — at least, these days. But if you could tell him about this posthumous popularity in the States, he’d probably shoot you his trademark grimace. Poe won acclaim as a literary critic in his own time, but his creative work was much more hit-or-miss. But while his fellow Americans considered his poems and short stories so much pulp, the French worshipped him as a “titan of Shakespearean dimensions.”

So how did a polarizing American scribbler become a literary genius across the Atlantic? Through finding the perfect book translator: the Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire. Baudelaire’s renderings of his work were bestselling masterpieces that secured Poe’s place among the greats.

These days, plenty of English-language writers find success in foreign language markets. If you’ve ever wanted to bring your work to a global audience, there’s no better time than now. But to make sure your translation soars, you’ll need a book translator who understands you as well as Baudelaire understood Poe.

We can’t promise you’ll be hailed as the next Poe in France. But if you follow these steps, you can find a book translator who brings out the best in your writing. Here’s how to join forces with the right book translator and take your career to the next level — with tips from top translators on the Reedsy marketplace.

1. Understand exactly what you’re asking for

How was Baudelaire able to do such a phenomenal job at translating Poe? Well, he was a gifted writer himself — and so is every good book translator. In order to capture an author’s voice, a literary translator needs to be a sensitive reader and a beautiful prose stylist. Just knowing the grammar and the vocabulary isn’t enough.

Unlike someone translating, say, a legal document or a technical manual, a good book translator needs to evoke the right feelings in the reader and paint the right pictures in their head — a merely accurate translation won’t cut it.

That’s exactly why you shouldn’t rely on an all-purpose professional translator, who might take on anything from business correspondence to medical records. You need someone who specializes in books: capable of capturing subtle emotions, replicating the music of the original language, and getting all the details picture-perfect.

Book translators are psychologists

Just take it from Rita Kloosterziel, who translates from English to German. Kloosterziel emphasizes the emotional intelligence at the heart of her work:

“Love, hate, happiness, envy, and compassion are the universal stuff of fiction in any language. So the words are all there, I just have to find them. It may take time, it may take some digging and reading around and thinking and rethinking, but once a word or expression has clicked into place it’s immensely satisfying.”

Whether they're evoking powerful feelings in a foreign-language audience or describing nuanced emotional states that don't translate easily, literary translators need a thorough understanding of psychology.

Book translators are stylists

Good book translators spend a lot of time reading their work aloud, making sure the music of the syllables hits the ear just right. Italian-to-English translator Laura Liucci emphasizes the importance of getting an author’s unique style just right, puns and all:

“What I like best is chasing the ‘rhythm’ of the book and rendering that as best as I can in Italian. I like ‘challenging’ writing styles, full of puns and crazy scenes. They keep you on edge from the translational point of view.”

Book translators are researchers

Book translators don’t just passively render whatever’s on the page — they actively make sure they’re nailing down the details. For Olaf Knechten, who translates from English, French, and Dutch into German, much of the process involves fact-checking:

“Literary translation involves a lot of research about subjects as diverse as the Vatican, the Chicago transit system or how to build a nail bomb (the police haven’t knocked on my door yet).”

Overall, literary translation is a subtle, multilayered process, and its practitioners are artisans with a wide variety of tools at their disposal. That’s why English-to-Italian translator Alessandro Achilli describes literary translation as “research mixed with handicraft mixed with the pleasure of reading, interpreting, understanding and retelling a story in a different language.”

2. Set a reasonable budget for high-quality work

By now you have a sense of what a good translator can do for your book — and why you should invest in one that specializes in literature. It’s time for your next step: drawing up a budget.

If you want to see your work in one of the main European languages, plan to set aside about $0.08 to $0.12 for every word you need translated. Of course, it’s important to talk rates with the specific translators you have your eye on: they’ll be able to give you a more precise quote.

Keep in mind that, on Reedsy, these fees pay for fully edited, ready-to-publish work that’s been edited and proofed by a separate book translator. That means it pays for two professionals’ time and expertise.

3. Narrow down your shortlist by identifying your niche

With a translation budget in hand, you can start looking for the right person to help your book make its international debut. Trusted marketplaces like Reedsy give you access to a lot of translational talent. But in order to find the Baudelaire to your Poe, you’ll need to approach that talent with a thorough understanding of your own book.

If you’re already on the hunt for a book translator, we assume you’ve done the work of researching which foreign market to enter (although if you haven’t gotten around to it, we’ve got a handy how-to for you). Now, it’s time to make your next move: pinpointing your book’s niche so you can narrow down your list of candidates.

Remember: Certain niches require particular translation skills

Some translators work comfortably in multiple niches, and that’s perfectly fine. You just want to make sure that your book’s niche is one of them. After all, you need someone who’s fluent in the specialized vocabulary of your subject area; used to writing for your target audience; and comfortable with your genre’s palette of emotions.

The book translators on Reedsy work across a variety of niches
Reedsy's book translators work across a variety of genres, from thriller to romance to literary fiction.

Certain genres exert particular demands on style that won’t faze experienced translators, while others require subject-area expertise. A romance translator, for example, is a master of swoon-worthy scenes, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the local idioms for falling in love. A mystery specialist, meanwhile, has mastered the techniques for keeping readers on the edge of their seats, while a fantasy guru can come up with suitable equivalents for made-up words on the fly.

4. Consider the translator’s credentials

Once you’ve drawn up a shortlist of book translators who work in your target language and niche, it’s time to take a deep dive into their credentials. On talent marketplaces like Reedsy, the translators come pre-vetted: our professionals have translated top-selling titles and logged stints with their country’s top presses. So as you browse through your shortlist, keep an eye on each candidate’s credentials.

Some of our translators have extensive experience in publishing and self-publishing — making them highly qualified to help authors navigate new book markets. French-to-English translator Tina Kover, for example, got started “by self-publishing a translation of George Sand’s 1860 novel The Black City, which was then bought by an established publishing house.”

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Above all, pay attention to each book translator’s publication records. What have they translated in the past, and for whom? How did it perform? As we’ve mentioned, many of Reedsy’s translators have worked with award-winning authors and on bestselling books. Alessandro Achilli, for instance, has translated Booker Prize winner Anne Enright into Italian, while English-to-Italian translator Maria Laura Capobianco worked on Neil Patrick Harris’s hit children’s fantasy series, The Magic Misfits.

Still, as you browse through our translators’ list of accolades, don’t forget to keep your own niche in mind. Bestsellers are enticing, but steady sales figures in your target genre might be more important than a huge blockbuster out of it.

5. Think about fit

As we mentioned, a book translator’s credentials are important, but they aren’t everything: it’s just as important to think about fit. At the very least, that means finding a translator who works within your niche. But fit also means asking subtler, more intangible questions. You’ll want to think about your translator’s communication style, your working dynamic, and how well they understand the emotional core of your book.

As in all collaborations, communication between author and translator is key. For some book translators, like Cristina Popple, who works both ways between English and Italian, it’s the heart of the whole process:

“My first step is a dialogue with the author, by email, Skype or any other means, so they can explain what they feel is most important about their work and we can agree on a strategy. I am open to a discussion on certain translation choices as long as it’s constructive and we keep an open dialogue. I enjoy this kind of dialogue very much and I believe it is at the core of a good translation.”

Do you want a constant flow of communication, where you weigh in on every tricky bit of diction? Or would you prefer to take a hands-off approach, leaving the translator to their own devices until their work is polished to a mirror-shine? Look for a collaborator who works the same way.

Remember: Fit goes beyond genre and category

If you’re seeking translation for a book that means a lot to you, look for a collaborator who gets it on an intangible level, beyond the rational realm of genres and categories, as English-to-Spanish translator Bruno Álvarez points out:

“I've mainly worked on books by LGBTQ+ authors, since I'm part of that community and feel like those stories need to be heard. If I were an author, I'd want to know that my book is being translated by someone who also belongs to the community. That way, I could expect a certain level of accuracy and appropriateness.”

Of course, personal experience isn’t always a requirement for fit. A translator may develop an emotional connection to your work through more abstract means. Tina Kover, for example, told us why two recent projects have meant so much to her:

They’ve been particularly enriching for me because they offer vivid portraits of a slice of life I’ve never experienced — the difficulties faced by immigrants as they try to forge new lives in Western societies that aren’t necessarily very welcoming of them. Stories like this are more important now than ever, as national and social isolationism seems to be making a resurgence.

6. Ask for a sample translation

Once you’re in conversation with some promising collaborators, you’ll want a taste of what they can do. Luckily, many Reedsy translators are willing to work on a small portion of your book as a courtesy, to give you a handle on their process.

If the translator you’re contacting is in agreement, send over a short snippet of your text, around 250 to 500 words, and see what they do with it. To make this process as illuminating as possible, pick a passage that’s either unusually challenging, or particularly representative of the whole work.

Once you’ve gotten your translation sample, get a fluent friend or beta reader to look it over. That way, you’ll be able to get a sense of the translation’s style and mood — and whether the translator is a good match for you.

7. Pick a translator and work out a timetable together

With your sample translations in hand, it’s time to pick a book translator and set a schedule together!

All the professionals we surveyed agree: literary translation can’t be rushed — at least, not if you’re hoping for a rendering that does your work justice. By now, you’ll have a good idea as to why: all that reading, research, and hunting for le mot juste all take time. That’s why it’s important for you and your translator to decide on a timescale together. You can even specify check-ins to make sure you’re on the same page.

Keep in mind that the best translators in your language and genre are in demand — they may not be available to work on your book right away. However, if you’re in a rush, you may be able to negotiate an expedited translation at a higher fee.

8. Enjoy a fruitful collaboration

By now, your shortlist has been vetted, your sample translations examined, and your mutually agreed upon timetable set. You’re ready to embark on a literary partnership with the Baudelaire to your Poe.

This is the fun part, as enjoyable as it is enlightening. But it’s also going to be intense, as translator Cristina Popple emphasizes:

“I believe that the process should be fun and satisfying for all parties involved. The translator has to dive into the writer’s process and imagination, and become one with it, and to some degree the writer will have to do the same with the translator. It’s like wearing each other’s skin.”

Emotions can run high when you’re engaged in a process as intimate as literary translation. But in the hands of the right translator, you’ll feel inspired and understood. Once the work is done, you’ll have a polished, readable book that captures your voice and brings the images you crafted to life in another language. Next stop: an international readership!

Do you have a self-published title that you're looking to get translated? Tell us about your plans in the comments below, and we'll do our best to help you find the perfect literary translator!