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.

Picture Research with MRM Associates: Recap

Yesterday I attended the much-anticipated EAC seminar on picture research, presented by Mary Rose MacLachlan and Derek Capitaine of MRM Associates. In addition to helping clients find the images they need for their publications, their company negotiates licensing agreements with copyright holders, clearing permission for their clients to use copyrighted text, images, and footage in their projects. MRM Associates works mostly with educational publishers.

The workshop was packed with information, and I wish it could have been an hour or so longer, as I had a list of questions I didn’t get the opportunity to ask. This summary is a mere sampling of the material the speakers covered, but I’ve tried my best to focus on the highlights.

MacLachlan and Capitaine began with an overview of copyright, starting with the Statute of Anne—the 1710 act of the British parliament that first defined copyright and served as the precedent for copyright acts in the U.S. and Canada. In Canada, copyright protects the creator of a work for the period between creation to fifty years after the creator’s death (after which it enters the public domain), and it is overseen by Industry Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage. Whereas the U.S. has the concept of fair use, Canada has fair dealing, which is far more restrictive. For example, use of a copyrighted work as part of criticism falls under fair use in the U.S. but wouldn’t be permitted in Canada.

To learn more about copyright, MacLachlan and Capitaine suggest consulting the Copyright Advisory Office at Columbia University or following copyright experts Michael Geist and Lesley Ellen Harris. Michael Geist focuses on Canadian copyright, and his site has some interesting articles about Bill C-11, which proposes some significant changes to how copyright is assigned. For instance, whereas currently the copyright of a work-for-hire image taken by a photographer is held by the entity that hired the photographer, if Bill C-11 is passed, the photographer would retain copyright.

Determining whether permission is required underlies what MRM Associates does for its clients. Naturally, clients want to save money, and so knowing sources of low-cost images and images in the public domain is important. MacLachlan and Capitaine warn that artwork is a particularly tricky area: a work of art itself may be in the public domain, but the photograph of the artwork may not be. In fact, the art galleries and museums that house a work of art may own the copyright to the photo and would likely charge for its use; their image databases are a revenue stream for them. Bridgeman Art Library is a good place to begin searching for all artwork (both in copyright and in the public domain); it has built relationships with galleries, museums, and archives all over the world and has an extensive, searchable database. In fact, if you know that a certain gallery with which Bridgeman has a representation agreement houses a given work of art but you don’t see it in the database, you can still contact Bridgeman, which will more than likely be able to procure an image of that artwork on your behalf.

I asked if someone who scanned in an image now has rights to it, much as a photographer of a work of art would. MacLachlan and Capitaine said no—a scan qualifies as a reproduction and thus doesn’t carry copyright. However, if the person then manipulates the image—retouches it, cleans it up, etc.—then that is value added that the person may wish to charge for.

For artwork still under copyright—even art in a public space—you need permission from the artist. If a photograph features a person or trademarks and logos, you may require additional permission. This YouTube video about image rights explains the many layers of permission you may need to clear.

MacLachlan and Capitaine then outlined their research process:

1. Receive brief or photo log

A client gives them a list of the images that they need. Sometimes these lists are just vague descriptions, and other times a client may have a very specific image in mind. At this point, the client will also specify the budget for the project.

The photo log is an essential record-keeping document. Usually in a spreadsheet, the log records the following:

  • Unique asset identifier
  • Description of asset
  • Reproduction size—quarter page, half page, full page?
  • Final page number
  • Type of asset—photo, illustration, cartoon, etc.?
  • Source contact info—full address details (some copyright holders request copies of the final book)
  • Source asset number
  • Credit line
  • Estimated and final fee
  • Rights granted
  • Status indicators—when contact was made, when the image was ordered, etc.

2. Research assets

Sources of images include stock agencies, museums and archives, the Internet (but use with caution), and photographers. Getty Images and Corbis are the “big two” among stock agencies, but because of their size, their fees are usually non-negotiable. However, your client may have a vendor agreement with them, allowing you to use that agreement’s pricing. In addition to Getty and Corbis, however, there are scores of smaller stock agencies, many of which specialize in certain niches. Microstock agencies, such as Dreamstime and Shutterstock, are a source of low-cost royalty-free images, but the quality may not be as reliable. You can also turn to aggregators such as the Picture Archive Council of America or the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies.

Some sources of free or low-cost images include the Canadian government, Library and Archives Canada, the U.S. government, the Library of Congress, university digital libraries, and some NGOs, such as the UN or the WHO.

If you know you’ll need some images from museums and archives, MacLachlan suggests hitting them first, because they are often understaffed and can take weeks to get back to you.

If what the client has requested is extremely specific or regional, it may be faster to call a photographer. MacLachlan and Capitaine have found many good photographers just through Google or through aggregators such as AG Pix or Photographers Direct.

3. Submit selections to decision makers

MacLachlan and Capitaine will narrow down the selection to three to five images per asset, and the client will choose the final image.

4. Obtain high-resolution images

High-resolution images from stock agencies and most photographers are “comps” until licensed—so you don’t pay for them unless you actually use them—although sometimes photographers will charge a kill fee if you choose not to use an image. Royalty-free images are non-refundable. Many archives require pre-payment for the hi-res.

These high-resolution images can be huge, so a high-speed connection is essential. Most files are transmitted via FTP sites or services such as Dropbox or YouSendIt.

5. Compile acknowledgement copy

This is where having a detailed photo log comes in handy. MacLachlan and Capitaine strongly suggest being diligent in logging the image credit line as soon as the client has decided to use that image. They caution that getting the credit line wrong can be very costly. Licensing agencies can impose a 100 per cent surcharge if the credit line is incorrect.

6. Negotiate and clear licenses

There are three main types of licensing:

  • Rights managed—based on one-time use; the intended use, media, territory, duration, print run must all be specified.
  • Royalty free—a one-time fee based on the size of the image; the image can be used multiple times for multiple projects, within the terms of the license.
  • Creative commons—creators can choose to allow others to use and distribute freely, as long as credit is given, or they may place restrictions on how their work can be used.

MRM Associates will finalize the usage letter for the licensing, specifying the items to be used, reproduction size, title of the publication, author/publisher/ISBN, print run, price, publication date, territory, target audience, and rights required. This usage letter is a legal document, so make sure the client’s name appears on it, not yours.

The agreements will generally state whether an image can be modified. Royalty-free images usually can, but rights-managed images and images from photographers may not allow it. Modifications include cropping, rotating, and flopping.

7. Submit completed log and paperwork

MRM Associates will finalize the photo log and return the supporting materials to the client.


MacLachlan and Capitaine touched on the issue of orphan works—works for which the copyright holders are unknown. (These abound on the Internet, of course.) They caution against using them. You can license their use through the Copyright Board of Canada, which will charge you a fee and keep that money in the event that a copyright holder comes forward with a claim. The researcher community, including the American Society of Picture Professionals, has some forums to track down copyright holders of orphan works; the idea is to get as many eyes on it as possible and hope that one of them can identify the creator. However, using an orphan work always carries the risk that the copyright holder could identify him- or herself and take legal action.

The presenters also mentioned a concept that was new to me—what they called a “client asset database.” Some of their bigger clients have their own image banks where they store public-domain images or royalty-free images they’ve already paid for. For example, although Library and Archives Canada images are mostly public domain, LAC will charge a processing fee, and there’s no point paying that more than once.

The main takeaways from the seminar for me

It’s all about risk assessment

Deciding when to secure permission can fall into a grey area in some situations, and since the client assumes the risk, it’s important to alert the client to all possible issues when they decide whether to use an image. How high is the risk of not securing a model release? Of using an orphan work? Of using ephemera and advertising from companies that are now out of business?

Get the credit line right

Although I’ve always tried to be careful to have the credit lines match what the copyright holders or stock agencies have supplied, I didn’t realize the consequences for errors were so severe. So I suppose it’s safest, if possible, to copy and paste rather than to key in a credit line when preparing acknowledgements.

Royalty-free images can be used again, for different projects

I had always assumed that royalty-free images could be used again only for new editions of an existing book; I didn’t know they could be used for multiple projects. Given the utility of a publisher’s own “asset database,” I will definitely start recommending to my consulting clients that they consider establishing one, if they work a lot with images.


The seminar was incredibly illuminating. Thanks to Mary Rose MacLachlan and Derek Capitaine for sharing their wisdom and for allowing me to post this summary of their talk.