The coffin fell apart.
There was the sound of decayed wood crumbling, and a cloud of smoke surged out, like water vapour from a hot steamer.

Yan Lianke / Carlos Rojas

Frequently Asked Questions for Translators

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How do I put a pitch together?

Publishers are always on the lookout for new writers, and approaching them proactively is a good way to build contacts. It isn’t easy: only 3% of published works in the UK are translations, as compared with 40-50% in other European countries. But a number of literary translators have launched their careers by taking suggestions to publishers (myself included), so it is not impossible. The main thing to bear in mind is that publishers are deluged by books already in English, so a foreign book needs to be really special for them to consider it. Below are some guidelines:

First, check that the English language rights for the book are available. Contact the foreign rights manager of the publishing house, and, if the rights are free, ask for permission to seek a publisher for your proposed translation. Some countries work through agents, but most foreign publishers are delighted that a translator wants to do their job for them!

Identify potential publishers. Publishing directories such as The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook list all publishers with descriptions of their spheres of interest and the names of the editors. It is important to write to a named person.

Professional presentation is very important. Put together a ‘pack’ which should include:

  1. A letter describing the book and, most importantly, explaining why you are so enthusiastic about it and why you think it is appropriate for that particular publisher (reference to other titles in their list);

  2. A synopsis and sample translation (a chapter, around 2-3,000 words, enough to give a flavour of the book);

  3. Facts and figures: length, number of words/pages. Sales figures/bestseller placings in the country of publication and in translation in other countries (which you can obtain from the original publisher);

  4. Translated excerpts from press cuttings;

  5. Information about the author (previous books, sales history, prizes, films based on their novels etc.);

  6. Your own résumé.

Factors affecting the publisher’s decision:

  • Length
  • Cost of translation
  • Skill of translator
  • Is the author alive, ‘promotable’, available for launch?
  • Is the book part of a series?
  • Is the country of origin fashionable?
  • Can the editor read the language or will s/he need to rely on an outside reader?
  • Can the editor fight for and win this book in an editorial meeting?

It is advisable to approach several publishers at once. If you don’t receive a response within a month, follow up with a telephone call. The publisher may not be interested in the book you are proposing, but might ask you what else you’ve been reading in that language, so have another couple of titles up your sleeve! There are numerous grants for translations, which most publishers seem unaware of. Contact The Arts Council of England or the Cultural Attaché of the embassy concerned for details of subsidies and remind the publisher that funding is available.

I believe translators have an important role to play in bringing foreign works of literature to the attention of publishers. Not only does this create individual opportunities, but it raises the profile of our profession as a whole, showing that translators can be instigators and active partners rather than humble slaves grateful for any crumbs publishers deign to throw our way. And hopefully it will help remedy the woeful lack of literature available in English translation.

The above was kindly provided by Ros Schwartz, Chair of The European Council of Literary Translators Associations (CEATL), Vice-Chair of the advisory panel to the British Centre for Literary Translation and translator of more than 30 works of fiction and non-fiction from French.