The Proposal for a Book-Length Translation

  • First Things First 

  • The Query 

  • The Book Proposal 

  • Queries, Proposals, and Multiple Submissions 

  • Rejections 

  • Appendix: A Sample Query Letter 

Translators are often called upon to write a proposal for a book-length translation, particularly when the translator is initiating the project. However, an author, editor, or agent may request this kind of proposal as well. A translator's proposal resembles the proposal any writer would submit, but it must address, in addition, the special issues raised by a work not originally written in English.

This guide will explain the purpose and describe the elements of a typical proposal for a book-length translation. By following the steps outlined here, consulting the sample query letter, and using the resources listed, the beginning translator should be able to produce a polished, professional proposal. More experienced translators will find tips and resources here that can help them improve their proposals.

First Things First

Before you prepare a proposal, you should

 ·  determine that the translation rights to the work are available, and

 ·  draw up a circulation list.

As early on as possible, the translator must determine the status of the translation rights of the work he has chosen. The importance of this step cannot be overemphasized. A publisher cannot legally publish a translation without obtaining the English-language rights to the original work.

Usually this means contacting the foreign rights manager of the work's original publisher. In addition, there are a few specialized agencies that negotiate translation rights between foreign and American publishers, and they can be very helpful. For example, if you are dealing with a book published in France, the French Publishers' Agency (Le Bureau du Livre Français) (www.frenchrights.com/USA) in New York can help you determine the status of a book's translation rights, i.e., whether they have been sold, and if so, to whom. This type of agency may also be willing to contact an American press to let them know you are interested in translating a given title. The German Book Office in New York (www.gbo.org) and the Nederlands Literair Produktie-en vertalingenfonds/Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature (www.nlpf.nl) serve similar functions as the French Publishers' Agency. See both “ALTA Guides to Literary Translation: Breaking Into Print” (available on the ALTA website or from the ALTA offices) and the PEN American Center's “Handbook for Literary Translators” (available at the PEN website) for a thorough discussion of the exceptions to this general rule of translation rights.

“I had never considered becoming a translator. But it happened that I fell in love – with a book. My first foray into translation was a novella by Mexican writer Sabina Berman. I was standing in a bookstore in Cuernavaca one January afternoon in 1991, killing time while my students were in grammar class, when I picked up the slim volume that would eventually lead me to my new vocation. This book, La bobe, traces the relationship between a young Mexican girl and her grandmother, an Orthodox Jew and a Russian émigrée. I felt as though I might have written this book under different circumstances, and I needed, somehow, to make it mine. After learning that the author held the translation rights, I went on a single-minded quest to get permission from the author  to translate the novel, a mission that involved a great deal of letter writing, phone calling, and finally a trip to Mexico City, manuscript in hand. But my persistence paid off, and Bubbeh was published by Latin American Literary Review Press in 1998.  That was the beginning. I've translated nine books now, six of which have been published.”

-- Andrea G. Labinger

Once you have chosen a book that you would like to translate, or you have begun to translate it, and once you have determined that the rights are available, your first question is likely to be: “How do I go about getting this book published?” In fact, finding a publisher is often half the battle.

It is natural to feel daunted by the vast array of publishers and the paucity of those that ever publish literary translations in what is largely an English-language market focused on works originally written in English. Don't let this discourage you, though, because there is a market, albeit limited, for book-length translations.

Each publishing house has a unique profile. The trick is to choose a publisher known to be interested in your type of project. In the United States, there are basically three types of publishers, which are characterized primarily by the markets they target:

1. Commercial presses publish translations of fiction (only rarely of poetry), as well as of biographies, histories, letters, and other literary nonfiction with broad appeal or potential for substantial sales.

2. University presses publish poetry, fiction, nonfiction and scholarly works that are of high quality but that do not necessarily have the sales potential required by commercial publishers. Books in any of these categories may be translations. In addition, university presses often have series that focus on special topics, writers, or geographical areas, for example, Latin America, or women writers.

3. Independent presses (as they prefer to be called, although they are often listed in references as “small” presses) often focus on a few areas of special interest to their editors; these are the presses most likely to publish works that lack significant commercial potential. The range of

these publishing houses is great -- from those able and willing to compete with the major houses on their own terms all the way to those functioning as glorified vanity presses. They usually can not offer as much money up front or status as commercial or university presses, but the reliable ones are more likely to keep a book in print and to back it up in the long run.

“More than once, the announcement of a Nobel-prize winner (Szymborska, Seifert , Aleixandre) has found the works of that writer available in English only from a relatively obscure press. It may make a difference to a translator whether or not a press is run for profit or not. A non-profit press has access to grant funding and other kinds of support that greatly enhance the attraction of publishing literary translations. A non-profit press may also ask a translator to contribute to looking for grant money to help in the publication of the work. This is a legitimate collaboration, but watch out for the ‘vanity' end of the continuum that simply prints the book at the translator's expense.”

--Jim Kates

It is often difficult to decide which type of publisher would be most appropriate for your book project. In recent years, there has been increasing overlap of mission among the several types of publishers. In particular, many university presses have begun to take over the mid-list books once published by commercial publishers, and independent presses that do the same have won critical respect. The point is to choose a press appropriate to your project. Don't spend your time approaching commercial presses with proposals that are extremely unlikely to interest them. This is not to say your book is more likely to be published by a university or independent press because it is somehow more specialized or “obscure.” Many of these presses do make quite an effort in their marketing strategies, with the intention of selling translation titles to a larger audience.

One way to locate potential publishers is to find other books similar to yours and see who published them. You can also consult the wealth of references available on publishers. Look through the catalog at your public or college library, ask a reference librarian for help, and search the Internet and the writers' references listed below under “References.” Also, consult publishers' catalogs. Another good way to identify presses that might be interested in your work is to talk to published translators. Such personal references can be very fruitful. For additional discussion of this important topic, refer to the “References” section below, as well as to “Breaking into Print” and PEN's “Handbook of Literary Translation.”

Publishing houses are usually more than willing to send you their catalogues and title lists. University and independent presses usually post these also on their web-sites, often with “mission statements” and other useful information. These will give you an overview of the activities of

the publishing house.

Keep in mind that what a publisher wants to publish can change, depending, for example, on who the editors are at any given time. Be aware of this fluidity in the publisher's choice of works.

Once you have found some prospective publishers for your translation, draw up a circulation list. When your proposal is not accepted--and the statistical likelihood is that you will receive many more rejections than acceptances--you should be ready to send it off again immediately.

The Query

Before you write a lengthy proposal, it is a good idea to send out a brief prospectus to prospective publishers. Your prospectus should include: a cover letter (see Appendix) describing the project, some information about the author of the work you intend to translate, your own resume with a short sample (2-3 pages) of the translation in question, or if available, a few pages of some of the translator's already published work.

“If you are translating from one of the more unusual languages, it is helpful for the editor to know whether the book has been translated into French, German, or Spanish. If your query/proposal piques the interest of a publishing house, it might want to send out a French or German translation for readers' reports. Some translations have been commissioned after editors read, for example, the French translation. These books might not have been bought for translation otherwise.”

 --Peter Constantine

The entire prospectus should comprise no more than a few succinct pages but it should give enough information about the importance of the project to spark interest. You may send this initial prospectus to many editors at the same time without having to face the delicate question of multiple submissions (see below). It is also useful in your cover letter to ask the editor what other presses she might suggest you contact if she is not interested in your project. Another advantage of sending out many such short queries is that an editor will probably be able to respond more quickly if she has less material to read. By narrowing down the group of potential publishers, you will be able to decide more easily where to send your full proposal.

“Chance encounters, networking, and third parties have played some part in almost all book length translations I've been part of. Nonetheless, I've assembled and sent out tons of proposals, and it's crucial for two reasons: 1) Sooner or later, the interested editor needs to convince a colleague or boss. At that moment he needs from you—instantly—the descriptions, reviews, samples, and any other evidence. This also means you have to keep adding to the file. For example, the very week a university press editor decided he wanted a Cuban novel I was working on, a review of several published translations had lamented that this book deserved to be in English, too, but no commercial house was likely to do it. My editor's boss needed to see that review, but the editor himself didn't know about it; 2) An editor may reject a proposal, but if it's a good proposal, then you're on her map; she may even feel bad about having to turn you down. Then, if a translator she's counting on for some other book in your area of interest/expertise falls through, she might very well call you, and you get to work with a good author you barely knew about. This has happened to me, too.”

--Dick Cluster

Always direct your letter and query to a specific person by name. You can ask in your letter that the person to whom you wrote forward it to another editor at the company if that editor would be the more appropriate one to consider it. You can often find the names of acquisitions editors and others on the publishers' websites. Other members of ALTA are an important resource when it comes to finding out editors' names.

The Book Proposal

Each press has its own guidelines for a book proposal, from fairly short and informal to highly structured and lengthy. Sometimes a one- to two-page cover letter and a short sample translation--a query, essentially--will suffice for the book to be accepted. More often than not, though, you will be expected to write a more formal and detailed proposal. An editor may tell you in a letter or phone call what to include in your proposal. The press may have written guidelines for proposals. In any case, follow proposal guidelines carefully. Many presses require a vote by their editorial board before approving a book for publication, so it is in your interest to follow the requested guidelines and give information that is as complete as possible.

Always assume that you are addressing a general audience, i.e., an editorial board composed of people who do not necessarily know the language from which you are translating and who may have minimal familiarity with the culture and country from which the text has emerged. You should be prepared to supply all of the following information, even though not every editor will require it.

1.  A cover letter (similar to the query letter, see Appendix) briefly introducing the author and the book and explaining how it relates to the United States and/or English-language market. Although a book may have done very well in its country of origin, here it is much more critical to explain its value for an English-language audience. Be prepared to address this question in your cover letter and to discuss it with an editor either in person or over the phone.  Depending on the project, it might be important to discuss your role in the bringing the project to this point.  In any case, you should be able to state that the translation rights are available. Any experienced editor will want that assurance from the beginning.

2.  An author biography and an introduction to the author and his work, which should list principal publications, previous translations into English or other languages, and any literary prizes or honors received.

3.  A synopsis of the book with a statement explaining the work's literary and cultural significance.

4.  Reviews of this book and any others by the author, particularly in English, that seem relevant. You may also be asked to provide translations of reviews of the original work; e.g., a selection of reviews from the most reputable Japanese literary magazines and journals, for a work from Japan.

5.  A bibliography, including the author's books and all literature cited in the proposal.

6.  Your resume and bibliography, including principal publications, previous translations into English, and literary prizes or awards received, if any.

7.  An excerpt from the original text with an accompanying, polished sample translation. Expect to be asked for twenty to thirty pages.

8.  If you already have ideas about the cover and illustrations, you may suggest these in your proposal. Some presses will expect ideas and even sample photos from you, and others will make these decisions internally. You may even be expected to secure rights to photo and illustration reprints, so be prepared to do this early on. Also, if possible, ask the author whether he or she has any suggestions or strong feelings about the cover, as the latter can be critical in setting the tone for the entire work.

9. If the press or series in question requires an introduction to the work (for example, a scholarly introduction in a university press series) and you feel competent to write it, mention that you would be prepared to write this yourself. If you don't feel you have the necessary background, suggest to the editor someone else in the field whom the press might contact to write the introduction. Such introductions are usually just a few pages when they are intended for the general list but can be forty or fifty pages and include a bibliography when they are meant to be read by students or scholars.  Naturally, the issue will arise later, once the project is under way. However, it may be useful for your proposal to explain your level of expertise early on.

In some cases, there may already exist a brief piece (by the author about his work or by a critic about the author's work) that can serve as an introduction or as part of it.

10. If any financial support is available that will cover all or part of the additional costs of translation, this possibility should be mentioned first in the query and then repeated in the proposal. The translator should research this as carefully as the rights situation. For example, the French government subsidizes some translations from French into other languages. American publishers are often aware of such funds and how to obtain them, but it is worth it to a translator to have this kind of information available when proposing a book.

Queries, Proposals, and Multiple Submissions

How do you decide whether to send a query or a proposal?  How many editors can you target at one time?

The query (see above) is the briefest type of inquiry.  In it, you are making a quick pitch and asking whether an editor wants to see more.  You can send the same query to as many publishers as you think might possibly be interested.

The proposal (also see above) is a more substantial pitch, but it is a pitch all the same.  It requires much more of you--and asks for much more from the editor.  While a query can be read in a few minutes, a proposal will take an editor much longer to review in a serious way.  Although you can certainly bypass the query stage, often it makes more sense to send the query widely and follow up with the proposal for those editors who express a desire for more. 

Does this approach constitute “multiple submissions,” and if so, is it wise to adopt it?

There is a taboo inside the publishing industry against multiple submissions. It is a bad idea to submit a complete manuscript to more than one publisher at a time, and understandably so. If an editor is so impressed with a project as to read the entire manuscript, he or she would be understandably indignant at the translator if the manuscript was also being considered elsewhere.

A good proposal, on the other hand, is concise. If the cover letter and supporting materials persuade the editor to read the sample translation, he has still spent only an hour or so on the proposal.  It is entirely reasonable to submit a book proposal to as many editors as are likely prospects. If and when an editor shows interest, you will follow one of two routes, depending on your situation.

If for some reason you have already translated the complete manuscript, you can explain that the query is being read by others as well but that you would be happy to submit the full manuscript to this one editor exclusively for a specific length of time, say, three months. Should you receive another request for the manuscript, you can then tell the second editor that the manuscript is being considered elsewhere and it will be available again for review when the three months are up. If no other editors express interest, of course, there is no need to withdraw the manuscript from the first editor at the end of the three months.

Another approach would be to choose the two or three publishers one is most interested in among those who responded to one's initial query and ask all of them if they would object to sending the manuscript to two or three editors at once.

Not everyone will have a full manuscript at the proposal stage, and indeed there is a strong argument in favor of not translating the book or manuscript first. (This allows you, for example,  to wait until you have a more definite commitment or expression of interest before continuing with your translation, thereby giving you more time to explore other books and send out other queries. However, see below for an exception regarding poetry.)  If an editor expresses interest in pursuing the project, the translator can submit as much as is available or can come to an agreement with the editor about how much of the manuscript should be submitted by what date.

Another major consideration is whether your project involves poetry or prose. Two chapters of a novel or nonfiction work, or several short stories from a collection may suffice, in addition to other supporting materials, for a prose project to be accepted. But for poetry, usually the publisher will want to read the whole manuscript first.

Rejections

Although it is easy to say, try not to be too disheartened by rejections. They are part of any writer's life, no matter what the field of writing. By drawing up a circulation list of potential publishers, you make it easy to send the proposal out again immediately and in this way may soothe some of the sting of rejection. Again, it can be quite useful to ask a press for ideas about other publishers that might be interested in your translation. Most editors are happy to suggest other contacts if they can.

Sometimes rejection letters provide a brief explanation of why the proposal was not accepted. Glean from these what you can. Decide whether the editor has said anything useful that may then help you to improve your proposal.

Appendix: A Sample Letter

[Editor's name/address]

Re: Russian Booker Prize Nominee

Dear [Editor's Name]:

I have translated Here Comes the Messiah! , a Russian-Israeli novel nominated for the Russian Booker Prize. Might you have an interest in considering the manuscript for possible publication?

Here Comes the Messiah! is in its second printing in Russia, its fifth printing in Israel, and is currently under contract for publication (in translation) in Germany. Also, the novel is being included in a fifty-volume Russian edition of select twentieth-century Russian literature.

The author of Here Comes the Messiah! , Dina Rubina, has been publishing in Russia for the past twenty years and now lives in Israel. Her work has been translated into twelve languages, she has won literary awards in the former Soviet Union and in Israel, and a translation of her work into French was voted the best book of the 1996 literary season.

Here Comes the Messiah! is both a satire of Russian émigré life in Israel and a spiritual exploration. Its narrative tones vary from contemplative to cynical to satirical.

The novel begins with the story of Ziama, a Russian Jewish émigré woman living in Israel. What the reader gradually realizes is that Ziama's story is being written by another character, Writer N., the central protagonist. The text moves back and forth between Writer N.'s own “real” life and Ziama's “fictional” life, all of which is actually being written by yet another narrator. We see Writer N. populate her novel with characters from her own life, we watch them struggle, sometimes hilariously, sometimes tragically, with the dangers and absurdities of life on the West Bank, in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, in the Israeli army, in Russian émigré cultural institutions and society. We follow characters who seek the Messiah, characters who claim to be him, swindlers and the swindled, crooks, prostitutes, rabbis, secular Jews, observant Jews, Christian pilgrims, homosexuals, journalists, Holocaust survivors, Palestinian Arabs, Israeli soldiers, children, pets. Writer N. seeks, through the writing of her novel, a sin offering to redeem her Russian émigré community, a sacrifice, a character who can fill the role of Messiah and bring order out of chaos. This novel is very much a classical biblical story of a people gone astray and in need of redemption, a story told with as much humor as pathos.

Over the past year, Ms. Rubina has generously responded to questions I posed while translating the text, and during a visit of hers to Boston last fall, she and I discussed strategies for rendering, in English, her text's mix of Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew and Yiddish word play.

At Princeton University, I concentrated in Russian Studies, and was awarded a fellowship for language study in Russia. I also hold an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Norwich University. My own short stories and personal essays have been published in The Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, The Greensboro Review, Oxford Magazine, South Dakota Review, Fiction and Drama (Taiwan), The Abiko Quarterly (Japan), and elsewhere. My translations of contemporary Russian fiction and memoir have appeared in issues of Beacons: A Journal of Literary Translation (published by the American Translators Association), and an article I wrote comparing various translations of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is forthcoming in Exchanges: Translation and Commentary (Univ. Iowa). Also, I have spoken on translation theory at a conference of the American Literary Translators Association.

I know of no other novel that explores the Russian émigré experience in Israel. Given the American Jewish community's struggle to help Russian Jews emigrate to Israel and the United States, Here Comes the Messiah! would be of tremendous interest to the sizable American Jewish reading community.

May I send you a sample of the translation?

Sincerely, 

Daniel M. Jaffe              



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