Writing Rights, Session 1—David Scott Hamilton on getting your literary translation published

David Scott Hamilton led the first session of the Writing Rights workshop, with the support of translator Annie Bourret. Hamilton was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Translation in 2011 for Exit, translated from Nelly Arcan’s Paradis, clef en main. In his interactive session he told us about the journey that began with a meeting with Anvil Press’s Brian Kaufman at the Word on the Street festival in 2009 and has come full circle three years later with this workshop, put on as part of Word on the Street 2012. His current project is translating the Governor General’s Award–winning Kolia by Perrine Leblanc for House of Anansi Press.

A quick poll of the room revealed that roughly half of the participants were translators, working in languages including Turkish, German, Mandarin, Bulgarian, French, Farsi, Spanish, and many others. The other half were writers, illustrators, or editors.

Hamilton launched the session by asking this question: What is the most important skill a literary translator must have? These were some of the audience’s responses:

  • cultural knowledge
  • an understanding of the target audience
  • a knowledge of how to get beyond the words to the ideas
  • a knowledge of where to access resources
  • a creative imagination
  • excellent writing skills in the target language
  • an understanding of translation methodology
  • passion about the work
  • critical thinking

According to Hamilton, however, a literary translator’s most important skill is the ability to build relationships. “Building a relationship with a publisher is crucial to get started, to get your foot in the door,” he said. He described how he approached Brian Kaufman at Anvil Press’s Word on the Street tent in 2009 and struck up a conversation. A few months later, he read Nelly Arcan’s Paradis, clef en main and knew it was a book he wanted to translate; it was the rapport he’d established with Kaufman that allowed him to make it happen. He prepared a sample translation of about 5,000 words and proposed the book to Anvil.

The next steps in the process were for Anvil to acquire the translation rights from the French publisher and to secure funding for the translation. The only way to get money for literary translation in Canada, explained Hamilton, is through a grant from the Canada Council. To be eligible for a grant, a translator must be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident and satisfy at least one of the following criteria:

  • be a recognized professional translator with a degree in translation,
  • have had at least one literary translation published by a recognized publisher, or
  • be a professional writer.

For Exit, which was Hamilton’s first literary translation, he qualified only under the third criterion, which is why, he emphasized, it’s so important to write as much as you can and to get your work out there. “Build a portfolio,” said Annie Bourret, “even if it starts with writing for your community newspaper.” All of this will go on your CV, which the publisher will need to apply for the Canada Council grant.

The publisher and the work must also satisfy certain eligibility requirements, which are detailed on the Canada Council site. For example, the grant must be secured before translation begins, and the work must be translated into French, English, or an Aboriginal language for publication in Canada. Fiction titles are eligible for $0.18 per word of the source text, to a maximum of $25,000.

After Anvil secured the translation rights, the translation contract was negotiated. “Go into that contract negotiation informed,” advised Hamilton. He also noted that “a literary agent won’t even look at you if you don’t have a track record.” In his contract with Anvil, he received no royalties. Brian Kaufman showed him the numbers and explained that it just couldn’t be done.

The contract also set out the delivery date for the manuscript, and Hamilton stressed the importance of building trust through professionalism: meet your deadlines and “do damn good work.” He adds, “The idea of work–life balance? Forget it! What works for me is work–life integration.” And be prepared for the fact that your responsibilities don’t end when you submit the manuscript; the translator still has to be involved with copy editing and proofreading, not to mention promotion.

How important is the author–translator relationship? Hamilton contends—and somewhat controversially, he admits—that the author’s intention is wholly in the text. A literary translator’s job is to determine what that intention was. Nelly Arcan had committed suicide before her original book had even been published, so the author–translator relationship for that project didn’t exist. For his current project, the translation of Kolia, Hamilton travelled to Quebec to meet with Perrine Leblanc, and he got to know her but never asked her about her book. He likened her original work to a musical score and his role as that of a musician. “I am to interpret her score.” Critical interpretation and creative writing skills are crucial for literary translation, he said. He described the act of translating fiction as being 25% translation, 75% writing, and he noted the importance of listening to the language as you read the text in the source language. “You’re not translating words,” he said. “You’re translating cultural histories and the resonance of the language.”

Hamilton closed off the session by letting the workshop participants know about some additional funding available to publishers. Canada Council offers supplementary grants for

  • travel assistance (so that the translator can meet with the original author)
  • editing assistance,
  • promotional assistance, and
  • reading fees (for the initial reader’s report).

Also, the Public Lending Right Commission offers creators compensation for their works that are available at public libraries, but you have to register. Annie Bourret noted that it’s not unusual for some writers to make more in public lending right payments than in royalties.

3 thoughts on “Writing Rights, Session 1—David Scott Hamilton on getting your literary translation published”

  1. I recently attended the Literary Translation Workshop David gave in Montreal in October 2014. I found the link to this synopsis on his LinkedIn page. It’s nice to know he treated us Montrealers to original material, and interesting to read what he said to the Vancouver crowd. He makes some thought-provoking points. It’s an excellent précis; my thanks to Iva for writing it.

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