Editing books in translation

Yesterday I gave a talk at the EAC-BC meeting about editing books in translation, and I was buoyed by the thought-provoking discussions that came out of the audience, which was packed with expertise. Here’s a short summary of my presentation.

Why translations?

Unlike a piece of visual art, which virtually anyone can see and appreciate, a book has an audience limited to those who understand the language in which it’s written. When you work on a translation, you’re bringing a work of art, a point of view, or a piece of knowledge to a much broader audience than it previously had—a pretty powerful idea, when you think about it. Canadian historian of translation Louis Kelly declared that “Western Europe owes its civilization to translators,” and although that statement may seem grandiose, the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance wouldn’t have played out the way they did if the Bible and classical Greek and Latin texts hadn’t been translated into the vernacular.

On a more practical level, publishers like translations because, in a way, they mitigate a bit of the risk of cultural production. If you know that the source text has done well in its native territory and your target audience has a comparable culture, there’s a decent chance the translation may also do well. (On the flip side, publishers have to contend with the notion—whether it’s real or merely perceived—that the reading public is loath to buy translations.) Publishers also like translations because they’re often subsidized. Grants from the Canada Council for the Arts or from other funding bodies are available to offset the cost of producing translations for certain kinds of books (eligibility criteria vary depending on the type of program).

If you’re an editor, translations are a great way to cut your teeth: with the odd exception, they involve no structural editing, and most of the work is copy editing, with a bit of stylistic editing. You also get to work with translators, who, because they are language professionals like you, understand the role of the editor and often come into the working relationship with an eagerness to start a dialogue about the text. Many translators are also editors (in fact, I often like to think about stylistic editing as translating from English to English), and because both parties are, in a sense, working with what one translator called “borrowed words,” the relationship can be really collaborative and dynamic. You would normally be working with a translator who’s translating from the source language into his or her mother tongue, so, even if you don’t know the source language, there’s no language barrier to worry about.

Copyright and contracts

As the editor of a book in translation, you have to be aware of three different contracts:

  • the contract for the translation rights
  • the contract with the translator
  • the agreement with the funding body

The contract for the translation rights is usually between the publisher of the translation and the publisher of the original text, although occasionally it’s between the publisher of the translation and the author. An author has to authorize a translation before it can be published, and the translation rights have to be assigned to the publisher—this contract typically serves both of these functions. For an illustrated book, those rights may or may not include image rights. This contract may also specify an approval process for the translation, as well as the format of the copyright notice on the translation’s copyright page.

The contract with the translator defines the scope of the translator’s work—any tasks that fall beyond that scope (e.g., translating praise quotes for marketing copy) may mean the publisher has to pay extra—as well as project timelines. This contract will also specify how the translator will be credited. (Because a publisher will often try to downplay the fact that a translation is a translation, the translator’s name may not have to appear on the cover but would appear on the title and copyright pages.)

The agreement with the funding body, whether it’s the Canada Council or a foreign organization, such as the Goethe-Institut or China Book International or NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad), will usually include the exact wording of an acknowledgement clause, and possibly a logo, that must appear in the published translation. If you fail to include this clause, the publisher may lose its translation funding.

A publisher might not allow you to see these contracts directly, but you should know to ask for these specific pieces of information so that you can complete the project properly. Any tasks that these agreements don’t cover—for example, clearing image rights or handling text permissions—may fall to you as the book’s editor. The publisher may also ask you to approach well-known people to write a foreword or cover blurb for the book.

Working with a translated manuscript

When you receive the finished manuscript from the translator, the only structural work you’d be expected to do is a quick concordance check to make sure that all of the paragraphs in the original appear in the translation. Otherwise, you’re mostly copy editing, although you’ll want to offer stylistic suggestions when something in the translation doesn’t sound quite right.

You don’t have to know the source language to edit a translation, although, in my experience, having some experience with the source language can help you know what to look out for (and, as we’ll see later, can help you land work), including problems such as false cognates. Also pay attention to idioms that don’t work in the target language; you may have to suggest different idioms that convey the same concept. Prepositions are by far the most idiomatic part of speech, so if a sentence sounds a little off, check the prepositions to see if the appropriate ones have been used. When a translator is switching back and forth between languages, it’s really easy to use a preposition that works for the source but not for the target language. Finally, punctuation is treated differently in different languages, so be sure that the punctuation in the manuscript is appropriate to the target language.

As you would for any manuscript, keep an eye out for quoted passages that may require permission to reproduce. Text permissions in translations are an especially tricky issue, because they can be multilayered—for example, even if a passage in the source text is in the public domain, the translation of the passage in the target language may still be under copyright. Avoid what the Chicago Manual of Style calls “the sin of retranslation”—if the quote in the source text had been translated from the target language, the translator must track down the original quote rather than translating it anew.

Always ask the publisher for a copy of the source text. Not only do you need to do an initial concordance check, but you’ll want to be able to refer to the source if you run into passages in the translation that sound strange or awkward because of possible homonym confusion. Tools such as source language–target language dictionaries, and terminology databases like Termium can come in handy in those situations. (Of course, you’d never send a whole novel through Google Translate, but the tool can be useful for interpreting one or two problematic sentences as a starting point to a discussion with the translator.)

Other translation-related issues that you often hear about—including whether the translation should be literal or free, whether a translator should define unfamiliar terms with footnotes or glosses, how to approach culturally sensitive topics—are usually, if you’re working with an experienced professional translator, within the translator’s domain. You should absolutely be aware of these issues, since the translator may look to you for discussion or advice, but in many cases you won’t be expected to play too hands-on a role. With a less experienced editor, however, you may be called on to offer more input on these matters.

Finding work as an editor of translations

If you’re interested in editing books in translations, start, as you would for any kind of book editing, with a query letter to a publisher, but specify your interest in translations. (Of course, it helps to know someone on the inside, which is why it’s important to build relationships with publishers in other ways.) You can check the Canada Council website for a list of translation grants that have been awarded to find out which publishers in the country publish translations. Try also to build relationships with translators—such as members of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada—because a translator who knows you and trusts your work may recommend you to his or her publisher.

If you know a second language, you can offer your services as a reader. Publishers return from the London Book Fair in the spring and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the fall with boxes of books in languages they may not know how to read; they’ll offer readers a fee to read and evaluate whether translations of these books might be good fits on their lists. If you identify a promising project and the publisher goes ahead with it, you’d be a natural choice to edit it.

Do a bit of research into funding programs for translations that are available outside of Canada. Many countries are eager to export their literature and have ministries of culture or associated organizations that subsidize foreign translations. If you approach a publisher right before a book fair with the pitch that you’re available as a reader, you’ve built connections with several literary translators, and you’re aware of a specific funding body that might subsidize the cost of a translation, that’s a pretty compelling package.

When evaluating books as a reader, consider the following:

Does it fit on the publisher’s list?

This point may seem obvious, but it can be tempting to recommend a book project even if it’s not a good fit just so that you’ll get to work on it. Doing so would only sabotage your credibility with the publisher.

How much localization does the work need?

Would the book need to be changed in any way to be comprehensible to the translation’s readership? Would the book benefit from a foreword?

How long will the translation be?

French texts are about 20% longer than English texts, and Spanish about 25% longer than English. if the original is short to begin with, will a translation be too slight to publish? Length is less of a concern for ebooks but is definitely a consideration for print books.

Are there image or text permissions to worry about?

Flag these for the publisher, because they may add to the schedule or to the budget, and they may affect how the publisher approaches the contract for translation rights.

For illustrated books, is there reverse type?

If the publisher of the translation hopes to use the same printer as the originating publisher, reverse type means added production costs: rather than replacing just the black plate, the printer would have to replace all four CMYK plates. Flag instances of reverse type so that the publisher is at least aware of them.

Further resources

If you’d like to learn more about the world of books in translation, I highly recommend Translators on Translating by Andrew Wilson and Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. You may also find resources on the websites of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council, the Society of Translators and Interpreters of British Columbia, and similar groups in other provinces.

6 thoughts on “Editing books in translation”

  1. Iva, as a published literary translator I enjoyed reading your post about editing translations but have to disagree with your advice to consult Google Translate when in doubt about a sentence. Google Translate is a laughing stock among professional translators since it is not capable of distinguishing nuances of meaning. I would suggest that it would be much more fruitful for the editor to consult the translator and discuss the problem sentence with the latter. As a professional translator, I am always more than happy to discuss problem areas with my editor. This approach has always worked for me and usually has the added advantage of improving the translation.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Margaret. In fact, at my actual talk, I gave a stark demonstration of how Google Translate falls apart when translating anything remotely literary. I agree that it should never be an editor’s crutch. However, as editors, we are taught never to go to the author or translator with the simple comment of, “This section is awkward” or “This passage doesn’t make sense.” We should always come prepared to enter that conversation with one or more suggested alternative wordings. In my past projects, I’ve found tools such as Google Translate and Termium extremely useful for discovering additional meanings to specific terms so that I can propose a meaningful suggestion, particularly in the case of homonym confusion. In my effort to make the summary of my talk succinct enough for a readable blog post, I guess I trimmed away too much of that context. I hope my advice makes a bit more sense now.

      The audio to my talk will be available to EAC members soon, and I’ll post a link when it goes up.

      1. Hi again Iva,
        Thanks for the clarification. I can see that Google Translate can be useful for technical language. When I worked as an in-house translator translating highly technical material I used both the Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique and Termium which were extremely useful. There is also a professional organisation called ProZ on internet where one can ask up to five questions per day without having to be a paid member. I used it when in-house for technical terms and, once I had figured out the most reliable members, found it very useful too.
        I absolutely agree that for good communication between editor and translator, tact and diplomacy are essential. I have been lucky in this regard both in my job as in-house translator, where my boss was an ex-translator and therefore very au fait with the profession, and where the colleagues for whom I translated were extremely helpful with explanations of technical details.
        Working as a literary translator is a whole different ball game which I find much more rewarding than technical work. Unlike David, I like to be able to consult with the author if I hit a phrase or sentence which gives me pause for thought but use this tool sparingly.

  2. Hi Iva

    Your blog has really been very beneficial to me and so has your response to my previous question.

    Here’s another question. I’d really appreciate it if you could help or point me in the right direction to get help.

    Our publishing company deals with translations from Arabic to English. Many times translations have been handwritten or typed with a typewriter (really low-tech). So we have to put the manuscript through an OCR to render it editable. The problem is this creates a lot of errors such as jumbled words, intelligible paragraphs etc. Can you recommend an OCR software that would eliminate these problems?

    Thanks again.


    1. Hi Mislyn,

      I’m not the best person to ask about OCR software; all I’ve ever used is Adobe Acrobat’s OCR, which I’ve found adequate for my purposes. (Evernote’s OCR is quite good at recognizing handwriting; unfortunately there’s no way to export text from it.)

      OCR is a lot better than it used to be. Previously pervasive errors—0 instead of O, 1 instead of l, etc.—are no longer as prevalent because OCR programs now use dictionaries and structural analysis to better guess what a word should be in a given context. They are not perfect, but I think OCR’d documents will always need some proofreading and clean-up, if you’re going to use the text for republication. Here’s an interesting article about OCR best practices.

      All I can suggest is that you look at this comparison of different OCR software to find something that suits your needs. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, and good luck!

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