The Business of Literary Translation, or #ETN14: A Day of Nuts, Bolts and Whistles, And A Toolkit in the Making

When I co-founded ETN almost three years ago with Anna Holmwood and Jamie Searle Romanelli, after an excited discussion at the Free Word Centre, we wanted to create a new space for early-career literary translators. The Translators Association, or TA – the subsidiary group of the Society of Authors that acts as a kind of union for translators – provides an essential and excellent-value service for those of us who are lucky enough to have a contract to do a book, and I would urge any translator to join it once they are in a position to do so.

But Anna, Jamie and I felt there was a gap: what about all the eager would-be literary translators, or not-quite-yet translators (proto-translators?) who did not yet fulfil the criteria to join the TA, but who nonetheless still required answers to their many questions and the backing of a supportive network of peers and colleagues? We wanted this space to be a place where members could ask questions that perhaps some members of the TA hadn’t had to ask themselves for a while: how do I write a reader’s report? What IS a reader’s report, even? What exactly happens throughout the whole process of seeing a book go from something much-loved on your shelf to a fully-finished translation with your name on the cover? What else does a translator do, aside from re-creating texts in another language? How do you let publishers know who you are and work productively with them? Does literary translation pay? And how can I ensure I’m getting the best deal, for the book, for the author, and for myself?

Thus ETN was born, and it swiftly moved from being a tentative Google Group with only Anna, Jamie and myself as members to being what it is today: a thriving community with 450 members and growing, in places as diverse as Bradford and Brasilia, Cheltenham and Chicago, Winchester and Warsaw. The group covers languages from Catalan to Ukrainian, by way of Polish, Kurdish and Korean. There is a now an active US branch (ELTNA), many regional groups within the UK who meet regularly in places such as Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds and Norwich and, after discussions I had recently with a Buenos Aires-based translator, there may well soon be an Argentinian branch – watch this space! We have members who are recent graduates, and others who have worked in a range of jobs for years, from commercial and technical translation to teaching, agenting, theatre lighting, bookselling, conference organising, journalism and academia, and the breadth and depth of experience and wisdom out there is quite astonishing.

The network has grown organically and become a place where early-career literary translators feel welcome and able to ask all manner of questions of their peers in a safe, supportive environment. Its greatest strength is this peer-to-peer learning – we’d like that to continue, and it was from this spirit that the idea for ‘The Business of Literary Translation’ event emerged, specifically after a chat in a pub in Cambridge last September. Tired from punting in the rain but cheered by Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies, a group of ETN top brass started talking seriously about what was next for the group. It soon transpired that Ruth Martin and I were in similar positions of having very little work (Ruth was in fact about to quit her day job, the fool, I mean, brave soul!), so in between applying for a bizarre array of part-time work and hoping the next big translation project would pop into my inbox, I started talking to her about how a big ETN event might look.

It was clear, after ETN’s first few years of enjoyable meet-ups and socials, that the network had outgrown Google Groups. Ruth and I both had a hankering for it to be something more than it was, plus a shared recognition of ETN’s immense value that was at times obscured by its frustrating platform. So we put together a plan for a conference, filled out funding applications, and generally bounced ideas around until we had something living and breathing on our hands: Monday the 21st of July was to be the ETN’s debut as a Very Important Organisation. We were immensely lucky to receive funding from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation via the Writers’ Centre Norwich in order to achieve this (whose chief executive Chris Gribble also acted as our wonderful chair on the day).

When the morning of the 21st came around, I woke at 6am in a panic: what had we forgotten? What would go wrong? Would everyone have fun? It was a little like when you plan a house party and worry (generally needlessly) about all your guests for some reason finding themselves incapable of talking to each other, of having fun without you coming round and introducing everyone like mad, over-zealously topping up their wine glasses. I was determined not to end up acting like Beverly in Abigail’s Party, desperately trying to over-manage things with a slightly unhinged smile on my face, and so I calmed myself down by thinking, ‘Well, it’s OK – it’s the ETN. I’m going to know everyone there; it’s a nice crowd, a really easy, friendly audience’.

In actual fact, one of the best things about the day was that I didn’t know everyone there: after I arrived and Ruth – ever-efficient – briskly handed me a clipboard with my agenda and a red plastic whistle attached to it (more on that later), we started greeting delegates and I realised that at least a quarter of them were completely new faces to me. This means we had managed to tap into a hitherto unknown seam of eager wannabe translators, which is exciting in a field that can sometimes seem a tad cosy. This is partly because we targeted all the MA courses, but the newbies weren’t all young: there were a good few more, ahem, experienced faces out there too, a good demonstration that literary translation is something that people come at from all stages of life. I feel this is a salient point when it comes to talking about the many prizes and opportunities out there for young translators – the cut-off point tends to be under 35 – rather than ones at the start of their career. The late-adopters are perhaps becoming less common as more and more MA and even BA courses in translation become available and well-regarded, and some might argue that the opportunities for younger translators are as much about giving confidence to younger people but, as is evident from the many questions they ask on the ETN, older translators who have a wealth of life- and professional experience can also feel nervous about starting out. The translation residency at Free Word is a good example of an institution which recognises that literary translators can emerge at any age.

Anyway, I needn’t have worried about people not having fun at our party, I mean Very Serious Conference, because, judging from the evaluation forms we’ve had back and several comments on the day, most people – delegates and speakers – had a whale of a time. Oh, and that whistle? Ruth had joked about buying me one to help with the timings for the pitching session, but when I saw it bulldog-clipped to my clipboard I knew she was deadly serious. So I’d like to apologise to anyone’s ears I managed to offend, although to be honest, it could probably have been even louder – someone quipped afterwards that trying to round up translators sheepdog-style was not a little like herding cats… I’m just thankful I didn’t have to resort to putting on a Demis Roussos record.

Rosalind Harvey

* If you have a passion for literary translation – or think you might do given some friendly encouragement – and you haven’t yet joined the ETN, then please email to join in the conversation. All you need is a gmail address and a hankering to turn great foreign books into great English ones! We’re launching the ETN’s first even resource, the Translator’s Toolkit, at International Translation Day 2014, this September the 26th at the British Library. Book your tickets here.

This article originally appeared on the blog of publishers And Other Stories.

The business of literary translation – a practical guide for emerging translators

Monday 21st July 2014
The Free Word Centre, London EC1

Download the full agenda
Book online 

This one-day event, organised by the Emerging Translators Network, will give you the tools you need to make a career in literary translation. Speakers from the publishing industry will provide an insight into how foreign rights work, and what to expect from the editing process, as well as what qualities they value in their translators.

Experienced translators will lead practical sessions on making a living, raising your profile, writing a reader’s report, and negotiating fees and contracts.

Have you found a book you love, but are unsure how to approach a publisher? You’ll also have a chance to pitch a translation to editors from UK publishers, and receive some honest feedback.

The day will finish with a speed-networking session with people from the publishing industry and cultural organisations, and an opportunity to exchange tips with other translators working in your language pairs.

Featured speakers:
Chris Gribble, Chief Executive, Writers’ Centre Norwich (chair)
Gesche Ipsen, Editor, Pushkin Press
Meike Ziervogel, Publisher, Peirene Press
Lisa Baker, Rights Director, Faber & Faber
Sarah Burton, Contracts Advisor, Society of Authors
Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Translator

Any queries, please email:

For more information about ETN, to read our eligibility criteria or to request membership, please see here.

This event is kindly supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

International Translation Day

International Translation Day event at King’s Place on Friday 5th October 2012 by Roland Glasser

(this article originally appeared in issue 40 of In Other Words)

Not so long ago, a literary translator’s year was a long and somewhat lonely one. In late November, we would gather for the Translators’ Association AGM, and a litany of not-so-good news that the red wine and friendly greetings could only partially assuage. April would find us braving the hugger-mugger of London Book Fair, hoping to make that vital publishing connection. With any luck, we might just stumble upon an equally weary fellow-translator with whom to share a cardboard cup of cruddy coffee.

Now though, there’s a pleasing seasonality to our year. The Literary Translation Centre makes LBF a joy rather than a chore, and International Translation Day gets the year going with a bang!

As befits its growing popularity and scope, ITD has moved to the larger venue of King’s Place. The day started with a spirited consideration of the state of our translation nation, ended with the awarding of the Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, and was filled with an exciting range of seminars and talks.

State of the Nation
Although ‘publishers of translation are still the poor cousins of the industry’ (Christopher Maclehose), the picture is far from bleak. Alexandra Büchler revealed the exciting research being done by Literature Across Frontiers to discover who is really reading what. For example, it’s virtually pointless to focus on translation as a percentage of the whole (the famous 3%), since that includes genres such as cookery or celebrity biography (both accounting for massive sales, but neither likely to be the focus of translation anytime soon). Once you focus on serious literature and drama, the figure rises to 4.5%.

Jonathan Ruppin (Foyles) pointed out that in our globalised culture, ‘fiction is the way people explore the world around them’. At Foyles, they always have a table loaded with staff picks of translated fiction, although we might dream that one day translation shall dwell happily alongside native English literature on the same table! But why only fiction? Boyd Tonkin was not alone in wanting to see much more translation of good non-fiction. Of course, the problem with non-fiction of a journalistic nature (as Christopher Maclehose pointed out), is that today’s news gets old very quickly, making it hard to sell a book a year or so down the line. That said, other types of non-fiction may increasingly find a home outside of conventional publishing, such as through museums or galleries.

Finally, Alexandra Büchler reminded us that we shouldn’t forget the many ways that we access literature beyond books, such as through blogs, magazines (Words Without Borders; Transcript) and at live events.

Reader engagement
What could be more engaging than asking the world’s readers for their book tips? Ann Morgan is close to completing a fascinating project: to read one book from every country in the world in the course of a year ( She knew it would be a challenge, but hadn’t bargained on the flood of suggestions she started to receive just a few hours after publishing her first blog article. Ann is to be applauded not only for her feat of reading derring-do, but also for her well-researched and carefully crafted articles that have stimulated such a wonderful international conversation about literature.

But narrow-minds still inhabit the publishing world, unable or unwilling to fully grasp that reader engagement must include all readers. I was shocked to hear the relatively young co-owner of a fairly new small publishing house question the usefulness of some blogs: ‘what does some 20-year old know about whether a book is good or not?’ she snorted. The audience visibly shuddered.

Poetry in Translation
Speaking in soft, Welsh tones, Stephen Watt revealed that he translates because he is a poet and is therefore interested in languages he doesn’t speak. He explained how he worked with Persian poet Ziba Karbassi. They sat together at a table, her own literal English translation of her text in front of him. As she read the original, he paid careful attention to her body language, to the rhythm and timbre of her voice. This was a truly collaborative process.

Clare Pollard mentioned how many poetry readers deliberately avoid reading poetry in translation. They don’t see the point. Clare, however, is an ardent defender of translated poetry, but insists on the need to make it work in English for the word geeks. She champions the work and ethos of the Poetry Translation Centre, which brings poets and linguists together to produce translations of other poets’ texts.

Nowhere is the tension between meaning and form quite as vital as in poetry translation. How much weight do you give to the sound, the metre, the rhyme? How much to the sense? Stephen explained that different literary cultures place more or less emphasis on meaning or form. For example, the Hungarian poetic tradition places great importance on rhyme, and so it’s really important to keep it. However, the opposite is the case in certain African traditions.

Finally, Clare made the very important point that it is misleading to judge poetry popularity by book sales alone, since most poetry is experienced in other ways, be it readings, magazines or greetings cards.

Funding Translation
Christoph Jankowski (of the European Commission’s Cultural Programme) gave us some good news about EU funding of translation. Apparently, submissions relating to projects for translation into English are nearly always successful, as long as there’s something in the work that will enrich the European cultural space.

Koen Van Bockstad, Director of the Flemish Literature Fund, explained that they fund up to 60% of translation costs (including for graphic novels/comics); 100% for poetry or if the work is one of the 25 or so titles considered to be in the Flemish literary canon. He also mentioned alternative models such as crowd-funding, subscription or sponsorship from the private sector, although he stressed that none of these potential methods should be used as an excuse to cut public funding. Indeed, the Flemish regional government is currently experimenting with a scheme where every €1 crowd-funded would be matched by them.

Promotional Strategies
Rosa Anderson from Fiction Uncovered and Bethan Jones from Harvill Secker ran through some promotional strategies they have used to generate interest over the past year. Fiction Uncovered had a pop-up radio station (FictionFM) broadcasting from Foyles for 20 hours over four days, in addition to a podcast and a live stream on their website.

Harvill Secker have their International Writing blog, which is updated every Thursday to tie in with #translationthurs on Twitter. Ah yes, Twitter! The key seems to be to keep the dialogue active and fresh once you’ve engaged with your audience. @harvillsecker has approx 3,000 followers – what people like most is consistency of messages and tweets.

The Vintage podcast is a monthly 30 minute arts programme (no need to fight for space on Radio 4), allowing the publishers to speak directly to listeners/readers. The podcast (whole programme and individual interviews) is downloadable from iTunes. They reckon this has brought 37% more traffic to the Harvill Secker website in the past year.

Getting started in Translation
Experienced translator Amanda Hopkinson and former Free Word Translator in Residence Rosalind Harvey held a capacity crowd of emerging and aspiring literary translators enthralled as they talked about getting started in translation, discussed training and mentoring options, and dispensed generous helpings of advice and wisdom!

Other seminars
ITD participants also enjoyed seminars focussing on Translation in Schools, Touring and Live Literature Events, and The Rise of the Small Press, with contributions from acclaimed literary translator Sarah Ardizzone, teacher Sam Holmes, Sarah Sanders of live literature production company Speaking Volumes, Eleanor Livingstone of StAnza (Scotland’s International Poetry Festival), And Other Stories editor-at-large Sophie Lewis, and Marek Kamierski of Polish/English bilingual publishing house OFF-PRESS.

Shakespeare in Translation
Dominic Dromgoole and Tom Bird gave us a fascinating look behind the scenes of the amazing Globe to Globe season this summer that saw 37 of Shakespeare’s plays performed in 37 languages. They spoke of how cosmopolitan London was in Shakespeare’s time (‘swilling with languages’), of the English companies who toured Northern Europe to great acclaim, and that in many (mainly Eastern European) countries, Shakespeare’s plays have arguably become considerably more revered and well-known than in Britain. We learnt that not only is King John one of the most popular plays in Armenia, but that Prospero, Hamlet and Ophelia are all common first names there.

Next we were treated to a smörgåsbord of clips of international stage and film versions of Shakespeare’s plays, accompanied by insightful and highly engaging commentary from Tony Howard of Warwick University.

Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize
Chinese was the chosen language for the third annual Harvill Secker Young Translators’ Prize, following Spanish last year and Arabic in 2010. First prize is a six-month mentorship with experienced literary translator Nicky Harman.

BCLT National Programme Director Daniel Hahn discussed the art of translation with Nicky Harman, writer Andrei Kurkov and Harvill Secker editor Briony Everroad, who explained that the prize was established to encourage the next generation of literary translators. Speaking from the floor, acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz spoke of how her experiences as a mentor had taught her much about her own practice.

Finally, Philip Hand walked onstage to accept the prize for his translation of Han Dong’s story The Wig (runners-up were Michael Day and Graham Faulkner). You may read Philip’s translation here.

The Long Day Closes
International Translation Day 2012 was a great success all round, with a wonderfully wide range of contributions, opinions, information and connections flowing through Kings Place’s warm wooden spaces.

See you next year?