Saturday, August 11, 2007

Lost in (the process of) Translation

I have some questions about how translations work. If I see a book I love and translate it into English, would I submit that manuscript the same way I would if it were an original work? Or does the publisher acquire the rights to a non-English title and then find a translator for the book?
The latter. Unless the book was originated in an out-of-the-way country where publishing is a tiny industry, chances are high that the book's publisher is seeking or has sought a U.S. publisher for English translation rights. The U.S. children's book market is the largest in the world, so there's motivation.

Foreign publishers send us their catalogs and we request any books we'd like to see. And of course we send representatives to the Bologna Book Fair, where many translation deals are made.

English is the international language of business, so getting a rough translation of a picture book from the foreign publisher is not hard. (That's assuming it's a language no one in the office speaks, in which case we might not bother to ask for one.) Often an editor in house will then smooth the translation from broken English to fluid, and send it back to the foreign publisher for approval.

Longer texts require a translator.
How would one go about getting on that translator list?
You would send a letter to the publisher, advancing yourself as a freelance translator of X language, and you would include your qualifications. "I speak French" is not a qualification you should bother with. We want assurance that you do indeed speak the language fluently, and more than that, can translate it into an English that respects the style and flow of both written languages.
Do publishers tend to keep the original illustrator?

We occasionally get slush submissions that are translations of books the submitters found on vacation and fell in love with. This shows a very feeble grasp of how foreign rights work. Essentially, they're asking: "Wouldn't you like to figure out how to contact this [Israeli, eg] publisher, figure out who's in charge of foreign rights there, and see whether the rights to this book are even available?" The answer is most likely no.

But if this describes you, you're still a step ahead of the person who sent us a translation of Bili Bili.


Elizabeth Fama said...

I don't get the subtler joke about BILI BILI, other than the obvious mistake of offering a translation before the publisher has the rights. Is it because the English version was already in print (as GUJI GUJI) when the person approached you?

Editorial Anonymous said...

That's right, Elizabeth. Though it was fun to see Guji Guji in French.

Anonymous said...

In case this is relevant... I am a commercial translator for English/ French language pair. Contact me at jacproc at

Elizabeth Fama said...

Well, then, Anonymous, I'll see your plug and raise you my mother-in-law, Lydia G. Cochrane. She's a highly respected academic translator with a CV that's taller than me. She translates French and Italian into English. I've always wished someone would approach her about a children's book.

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