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A career in literary translation. Is it possible?


literary translationWe all have our own reasons for pursuing a career in language translation, but what originally attracted us to it was an idea that we’d eventually find ourselves in Manhattan on the 10th floor of our favorite publisher—maybe Penguin, or Little, Brown—plugging away at a translation of the next Great American Novel. You’re chuckling, aren’t you? OK, so the Manhattan office never came.

But is there a way to make a career—or at least some money—in literary translation? According to Rafa Lombardino, whose article we came across in the April edition of the ATA Chronicle, the answer is yes. You can read the original article here, but we’d like to share some of Lombardino’s thoughts below.

A career in literary translation. Is it possible?

Skip the big publishers
If you’re thinking about becoming a literary translator, save yourself some time and skip the big publishers. Even if they love your writing sample, it may take months for them to respond to you. And should you accept their pay (which will most likely be much lower than your standard rate), odds are that you will be translating the texts they give you—not those that you are necessarily passionate about.

So if not publishers, who? The alternative is so obvious that we never even thought about it: self-published authors.

Finding self-published authors
Browse Amazon, iTunes, Google Books, and GoodReads; here you’ll find thousands of self-published e-books in every imaginable genre. Most of the books are cheap (often between $0.99 and $2.99) and because the authors have creative control and publishing freedom—not to mention the freedom to set their own prices—they tend to be prolific. Many have developed cult followings and a few have even become millionaires.

Why self-published authors will be responsive to your proposal
Most authors are going to be interested in expanding their readership (one that speaks another language), but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll have the resources, time or know-how to make it happen. The fact that you can is going to be a huge and unexpected bonus to most writers. Odds are that they will accept your offer to translate their book.

Things to keep in mind
Here’s the caveat: Most self-published authors cannot afford to pay you up front and will want to pay you in royalties. Because of this, the authors may be more inclined to give you a higher percentage of royalties. In Lombardino’s experience, some of the writers she has worked with have even given 100% of the profits to the translator simply because they wanted to expose their work to a larger audience.

Although there is no guarantee that you’ll make lots of money, we look at it like this:  it’s an opportunity to build your resume, pursue something you love, and an opportunity work with an author whose work inspires you.

Before you begin your work, you will want to negotiate a contract; you’ll also need to think about how the book will be promoted. Will you be taking care of this? Or will the author? Lombardina discusses much of this in her article, “Translators and Self-Published Authors: A Partnership for the New Digital Publishing Age.” You can find it by clicking here.


Thanks for this excellent post! I think that asking "is it possible to make a living as a literary translator (if you're not translating Stephen King)" is like asking "is it possible to make a living as an author (if you're not Stephen King)." Sure it is! But you can't hide in your office waiting to be discovered. You have to work a new angle, embrace the changes in the publishing industry, display some adaptability, and most of all work harder than the competition.  
I think that Rafa's idea of getting in on the ground floor with self-published authors is brilliant. It also puts the translator into a position of responsibility, sharing the burden (and potential gains) of marketing the translation to the target audience. That's an example of thriving in a changing market!  
As an aside, Rafa's last name is Lombardino (not Lombardina). Thanks for this enlightening post!
Posted @ Friday, August 23, 2013 3:53 PM by Corinne McKay
Thank you for your insight, Corinne. We're big fans of your books, so we're honored that you found our blog and took the time to read it. Thank you for the kind words! 
Thanks, also, for pointing out the typo. 
-The OnlineGrad Team 
Posted @ Monday, August 26, 2013 8:42 AM by Ryan O'Rourke
Well! Translation can be a rewarding career, either as a full-time vocation or as a supplement to your writing jobs. Very much appreciate your insights on this very important topic.
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So if not publishers, who? The alternative is so obvious that we never even thought about it: self-published authors.
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