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You can’t be a good literary translator if you aren’t an avid reader of literature in your own language(s). Devour books, articles, magazines, poetry, plays, journalism, comics… anything you love, and the occasional thing you don’t (you never know where the work’s going to come from).
Attend International Translation Day (tickets selling out fast!), the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair, book launches of authors you admire, Society of Authors events, ETN socials, literary events at cultural institutions and embassies, summer schools (the BCLT, ETN and ‘Translate in the City’ ones are the best) and lectures (the annual Sebald lecture at King’s Place is an excellent place to start). If you see it as a chance to talk about the books you love with other people who also love them and can make things happen with them, rather than that horrible word networking (or schmoozing), it becomes less scary. And the more you network, the more emergers you’ll meet, so each subsequent event becomes more like just hanging out with your mates.
Look into publishing houses, magazines, prizes and literary trends in both your own language and the one you want to translate out of. Keep abreast of who’s hot and who’s not, while also keeping your ear to the ground for undiscovered gems. It’s helpful to know what’s selling, but even more so to know what you like and to be able to articulate why.
(And, once you’re eligible, the Translators Association). As solitary freelancers, we can sometimes feel alone in the wilderness, which can lead to all kinds of bad things: isolation, depression, madness… not to mention quoting ridiculously low rates because you’re not aware of current trends. You might have picked translation because you prefer working alone, but nothing is produced in a vacuum, and the ETN and its older sister, the TA, provide an invaluable space where translators can come together and discuss their work, problems, promote events and generally gripe about publishers. It helps build confidence and a sense of a community, which means we can argue for better rates with the backing of everyone else and have the time and morale to produce more, better quality work. We are better united!
This essentially means, don’t assume that you can make a living out of translating literature! Have another job, ideally a part-time one that will give you enough stability in order to focus on your translation without worrying unduly about paying the rent. Having a non-translation related job is also a great way of having a mental break from what can be an immensely tiring, intellectual pursuit, not to mention giving you material for your own writing and a sense of having at least one foot in the ‘real world’ (see above re: madness).
Pitch stories to online magazines (bearing in mind that some pay, some don’t) such as Words without Borders, Asymptote, the Stinging Fly, In Translation (http://intranslation.brooklynrail.org/home), etc. Once you have published a few shorter pieces you can go to publishers with them on your CV.
This one is by no means obligatory, and plenty of translators get where they are without a specific qualification, but if you can afford to do one it’s a good way of meeting fellow future translators, honing your writing skills and acquiring theory (which can be useful in terms of justifying one’s choices and making you feel like a ‘real translator,’ as well as coming in handy if you ever need to teach in the future to make ends meet…).
Also not obligatory, but I’m afraid to say that it does really help, in this day and age. Authors and translators alike are more and more present on Twitter and the like, and it is a great place to promote your and your colleagues’ work and events, as well as actually finding work. If you learn how to filter out all the cat pictures it’s also a great way of keeping abreast of literature-related articles and news.
The BCLT runs an excellent mentoring scheme, currently the only one of its kind in the UK, and there is no better way to learn about what it is to be a translator. You have to demonstrate ‘promise rather than experience,’ and it has already produced 40 ‘graduates.’ Apply here.
Being a literary translator is one of the best jobs in the world, but it can also be one of the most frustrating if you rely on it for income or stability. It’s vitally important to develop a clear sense of what you want to translate and to fall in love with your authors (that’s the head in the clouds bit), as that’s how you can sell yourself and your skills to publishers, but also to learn when to say ‘no’ to stuff you won’t be paid for or to a book you don’t truly believe in (that’s the feet on the floor bit). You’re going to spend at least 3 months living inside that book, so only take it on if you think you can do that without tearing out your hair.
* * * Good luck! * * *
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If you missed any part of International Translation Day 2017, then you can find recordings and some notes from many of the day's sessions here.
How translated works push the boundaries with language and form | The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo | Translated by Janet Hong | Reviewed by Alex Duffy, English Literature Work Placement