Literary translation: An introduction for translators interested in the field

Back in 2013, hosted a virtual event on the topic of literary translation. Prior to the event, I did some research, starting with a review of the relevant site forum. I released the following overview of the field of literary translation to those at the event, but never did anything else with the material.

Now, with a new Pool of literary translators, I remembered this information. Hopefully it will be useful to some in the community. I would be happy to receive any feedback and corrections from readers. Also, if you know of or are involved with other resources related to literary translation, please let me know so that I can update the relevant sections.



Literary Translation -- FAQs


Q: I am interested in literary translation. What sorts of work are there?

Books, short stories, poems, lyrics, comics, plays, operas, subtitles, jokes, etc.


Q: When it comes to literary and poetic translations, what formal qualifications are normally required of a translator?

A: There are no particular certifications that are commonly required. Rather, clients tend to consider previous work -- particularly published work.

Q: How is the pay in literary translation, compared to commercial? Can one make a living at it?

A: Although rates can vary considerably, in general, rates paid for literary translation tend to be lower than rates paid for commercial work.

CEATL published detailed information on literary translator pay in various European countries in 2008/2009 -- see -- suggesting that it is difficult to earn a living as a literary translators. Discussions in the literary translator forum are not entirely inconsistent with this conclusion -- although occasionally those earning a living in literary translation will comment -- see: ( member Attila Piróth’s also published results from his independent survey:

Q: Who decides that a book needs to be translated?

Peter Linton wrote this in the forums: “Varies. Publishing houses keep an ear to the ground, listening for hot new trends. Literary translators also keep an ear to the ground, and may sometimes suggest interesting books, either ones that have commercial potential, or ones that are so impressive they deserve to be published.” See:

Q: I read a good book and I’d like to translate it. How can I look into this?

A number of translators at have reported success in approaching publishers concerning translation of a particular book. Colin Ryan said: “In the past I wanted to get into literary translation as well, and now I have translated 2 novels from Italian into English. In both cases I simply found a novel I liked and sent an email to the author asking his permission to translate it, and whether their publisher would be interested in the project. “

The organization ALTA has published a useful guide on how to approach authors and/or publishers in a knowledgeable and professional manner. See:

Q: What are "translation rights" or “foreign language rights”?

A: Translation rights, or “foreign language rights”, are rights that the original publisher of a book can sell for individual languages, thereby granting another publisher legal permission to publish a version of that book in another language. (Source: user urbom: )

Q: Is there a way to translate literature without getting involved in negotiations with publishers, etc.?

A: You might consider works whose copyrights have expired and have therefore come into the public domain (usually because 70 years has passed since an author’s death). Nothing would stop one from translating such a work and either contracting with a publisher, or self-publishing.

A user reported: “I started translating Hanns Heinz Ewers because I loved his work and couldn't find any English translations anyway. I started with early material published prior to 1923 and published it POD or print on demand. That got me the attention of a publisher and of the author's estate...”

Q: Is a portion of the amount payable for a book translation typically paid up front?

A: Yes, in most countries -- at least in Europe. See page 29 of the CEATL survey:

Q: How should I charge for literary translations such as poetry or song lyrics?

A: Some suggest by the hour, with a minimum charge per poem. As one point of reference, the Society of Author’s Translator Association in the UK recommends a minimum of £1.10 per line for poetry, with a minimum of £32 per poem.

Q: When translating a book or other literary work, can I expect attribution, royalties or other such rights?

A: It may be possible to have your name appear in the publication, earn a percentage of royalties on an ongoing basis, etc. -- it all depends on what you can negotiate. Model contracts are available online from PEN and other sources. A non-legalese discussion of negotiating terms can be found here:

For additional reference, CEATL has published data from a survey carried out across Europe that indicates typical agreed terms in various regions.  

Q: I’ve been asked to do a translation for free, in exchange for ongoing royalties. Is this commonly done?

A: Most professional translators advise against this, unless either (1) the work has already enjoyed significant sales in its original language, or (2) you don’t really need to make money on the project.

Q: How can I find out whether or not a given book has been translated previously?

A: Try a web search or the Index Translationum maintained by UNESCO:


Additional Free Information About Literary Translation


Additional FAQs related to literary translation:

Getting Started in Literary Translation -- The Making of  Literary Translator (ALTA) -

* ALTA Guides to Literary Translation - Breaking into Print -

* ALTA Guides to Literary Translation - The Proposal for a Book-Length Translation -

* Translation Literary Prose: Problems and Solutions

* PERFORMING WITHOUT A STAGE; The Art of Literary Translation, Robert Wechsler (available for free online):

* "Towards a cartography of literay translation in Europe" (pdf) (Petra)

* Towards New Conditions for Literary Translation in Europe (PETRA recommendations):

{Please suggest additional}

Resources for finding international literature / literature in translation

  • Index Translationum - The Index Translationum is a database maintained by UNESCO that catalogues translated books from many countries throughout the world. The database has more than 2 million entries. This database is used by librarians, researchers, publishers, booksellers, journalists, translators, students, etc., to find out if an author or book has been translated, into what language and by whom.

  • Words without Borders is a non-profit organization that regularly presents contemporary international literature from countries around the world, making this material available via its website and sometimes in print. -

Blogs by Literary Translators

Forums for literary translators

* Literary Translation Forum:

* World Literature Forum -

Events for literary translators


Any suggestions, anyone? Please post...

Places to do literary translation on a volunteer basis

{Please suggest additional}

Literary translation contests

* Translation Contests -

{Please suggest additional}

Professional Associations for Literary Translators


Most of the translator associations in the world are oriented toward commercial translators. But fortunately, there are also a number of associations (and divisions of associations) in various countries dedicated specifically to literary translation. Among them are:

- International

PEN is a worldwide association of writers, that has “Centers” in countries throughout the world. Some of these Centers have departments dedicated to translation. (For example, the page for the PEN America Translation Committee is here: ) To find PEN Centers in other countries, see:

- USA:

American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) -

ATA literary division:

- Europe:

RECIT is a network of European literary translation centres offering residencies for translators and organising events bringing together writers & translators. Réseau Européen des Centres Internationaux de Traducteurs littéraires -

Europe Council of Literary Translators’ Associations -

(members of that association include the following associations:

PETRA (European Platform for Literary Translation) is an organization seeking to seeks to bring about change in the situation for literary translators in Europe. The group brings together the initiatives and expertise of organisations active in the field of literary translation in Europe, including translators' and writers' organisations, literary networks, policy-making bodies and organisations dealing with education, publishing and copyright.


Schools / educational programs for literary translators

{Please suggest additional}

Books (in print) about literary translation


Any suggestions?

Sources of grants/funding/prizes for literary translation

Topics: literary translation


Written by Henry Founder

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