Plain language and health literacy series

WordRake invited me to contribute four articles about plain language and health literacy to their Guest Author Series, and the final article was posted today. Here are links to all four posts in case you’re interested:

I want to thank WordRake for the opportunity! In addition to their editing software, WordRake offers a wealth of resources about writing in plain language from experts with a variety of professional backgrounds.

Editing global English (Editors BC meeting)

Robin-Eliece Mercury is an editor and applied linguist who taught composition in Japan and the Czech Republic. At the November Editors BC meeting she moderated a panel discussion about the particular challenges and considerations when editing authors who are not native English speakers. On the panel were

  • Glauce Fleury, a freelance writer and communications specialist based in Vancouver. Previously she worked as a journalist in her home country of Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
  • Carol Zhong, who has taught English and edited in Canada and abroad, including in China and Hong Kong, and now specializes in academic work.
  • Joel Heng Hartse, an applied linguist who lectures in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University.

Mercury framed the discussion by asking us to think about whether our national association has role to play in creating guidelines, strategies, or tools to help editors approach this kind of editing. “All of us have our personal preferences or policies when editing copy from a non-native speaker of English,” she said. “How can be aware of and sensitive to non-native speakers of English” while meeting the expectations of those who publish and read their work?

Heng Hartse began by pointing out that he’s the only non-editor on the panel, although the work of academics and editors does overlap a lot. His research interests are in the globalization of English and World Englishes. “The pluralization is very intentional,” said Heng Hartse. “It’s ideologically purposeful. We want to emphasize the pluricentricity of English. English is increasingly not the sole possession of a single people, nation, or cultural group.”

Just as we wouldn’t say that a Canadian speaks worse English than an Australian, we can apply the same attitude toward those who speak Singapore English or Indian English, for example. World Englishes “recognizes each variety as legitimate and having its own norms,” said Heng Hartse, which can lead to some interesting controversies. We are seeing more situations in which writer, editor, and audience are working with different norms.

“What responsibility do individual editors have to learn about World Englishes and their role in the global context?” Mercury asked Zhong.

“It’s like any other aspect of professional development,” said Zhong. “We need to become familiar with what they are, in what context they’re used, how we can best serve writers and their audience—with sensitivity.” Ultimately, we have to make sure that the document’s readable. “Other academics all over the world have to understand what someone in Singapore has written.”

Fleury wanted editors to understand that “nonstandard is not a mistake. The challenge is to understand what is standard for the audience.”

Zhong says that tries as much as she can to maintain an expert’s voice and style, but context is important. Sometimes authors will write a term or word that they’ve heard somewhere but haven’t used in the right way. Her example was an author’s use of “significant others” to refer to other important people. She explained how that term is usually used and suggested other possibilities that might be clearer to the reader.

Zhong also adjusts her level of editing depending on the purpose of the document. “I edit course material for the Open University of Hong Kong,” she said. “It takes place the place of a lecture, so it has to be accessible to the students. And it has a certain degree of informality that you don’t get in a journal article. So I edit more intrusively: students have to understand the material without the instructor.”

“I query a lot,” said Zhong. “You have to be as clear as possible and always give options. ‘Did you mean X, or did you mean Y? If you meant X, you’ll need a comma here. If you meant Y, maybe you could say it this way.’”

“Is it fair for editors to assume that non-native speakers of English need extensive editing?” Mercury asked Fleury.

“No, it’s not,” she said. “You will find native speakers who are working as writers and need extensive editing. It’s not a problem of second-language speakers or writers. It’s a misconception that second-language writers are not good writers that will give more trouble than pleasure to editors.” Those who are serious about a language, Fleury said, will never stop studying it. “If you can choose, just work with the right writers.”

“How can we edit with a sensitivity to authors who are non-native speakers of English, when standard English is expected?” Mercury asked Heng Hartse.

“The first thing is not to assuming a non-native speaker has a deficit compared with a native speaker,” he said. “There are many ‘literacy brokers’ between author and publication.” The process could involve many people—family members, colleagues, editors—“all of us making contributions to the text.”

“Approach their work in an open-minded way,” said Heng Hartse. “We need to step back and be reflexive about our perceptions. Build an ethic for yourself of continually asking—What is style? What is grammar? What is just a pet peeve? It’s incumbent on us to develop a way of dealing with other people’s text that respect them, while bringing our expertise.”

“What’s your approach in getting agreement with you and the author in terms of how far you would edit the text stylistically?” Mercury asked Zhong.

“Authors normally tell me what they want me to do,” she said. Some authors want her to focus only on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. “If you have any questions, ask. Don’t go ahead and make changes.”

Heng Hartse warned us to be aware of “rules” that are actually a product of folk linguistics—like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” “None of us are immune to the ideological dimension of making language choices,” he said. “That’s where we have to be careful.”

Mercury asked Fleury if she’s encountered editors’ prejudices as a writer whose first language isn’t English.

“Sometimes an editor will say, ‘Oh, this is good!’ Was there a prejudice or an expectation that it wouldn’t be good? There’s a misconception that native speakers are better writers in that language and that non-native speakers wouldn’t be good writers and would need a lot of work. That’s behind why people are surprised.”

“I’m aware of my weaknesses and strengths,” said Fleury. “I wouldn’t submit anything as a final product if it’s not good enough. If I don’t think I have the skills to write about a specific topic, I will refer a friend.”

“My two prejudices,” said Heng Hartse, “are that (1) I’m right, and (2) I understand what the writer means.”—and it’s important to check these, he said.

Mercury asked the audience if it would be helpful for an organization like Editors Canada to synthesize some of the considerations we’d discussed into guidelines to help the growing number of editors working with non-native speakers of English.

Ruth Wilson responded: “I haven’t heard anything tonight that wouldn’t apply to any thoughtful, sensitive editing in any other discipline. All of the [Professional Editorial] Standards apply equally to this. We’re just opening a window to a new discipline.”

“It’s good to have an open discussion about bias,” said Wilson, but what we’re talking about isn’t a new skill set but an expansion of existing skills.”

Kyra Nabeta asked the panel if they considered it important to know the writer’s language and culture.

“It’s important to be familiar with it,” said Zhong. “I feel I have an advantage. I’m familiar with historical events, place names, expressions, people… It’s not as if you can’t learn that, but for me it’s like a shortcut, because I have that background that gives me an advantage.”

(The evening ended with a few questions about editing translations that got directed to me. For interested readers, I’ve summarized some past sessions about writing for translation, Global English, and editing books in translation. Or check out my posts under the “translation” tag.)

Dominique Joseph on translation and the plain language writing process

Last week I asked for input about where translation fits into the plain language process. Editor, translator, and plain language specialist Dominique Joseph contributed such a well-thought-out response—so long she put it on a Google Doc rather than directly in the comments—that I felt leaving it buried would not do it justice. She’s given me permission to reproduce it in full here.

Do you have more thoughts to contribute to this discussion? How does translation fit into your plain language workflow? Let’s keep the conversation going, either here or in the original post.


Your post touches on so many fascinating topics, Iva!

I’ve chosen to focus, rather quickly, on these 5 aspects:

  1. How language-specific is plain language?
  2. If the original is in plain language, will the translation be, too?
  3. Where does translation fit in the writing process?
  4. Examples: translation in plain language (reader-focused) projects
  5. Short conclusion: the writing process

1. How language-specific is plain language

Surprisingly, it’s really not that language-specific. Apart from a few tiny details, what applies to English also applies to French (and to German, and Spanish, etc.).

An important distinction: I’m not talking here from a “narrow” plain language perspective, which focuses only on words and sentences. Instead, I’m talking from the wider (I’m tempted to say, more modern) “big plain language” or clear communication perspective.

It’s bigger than just words and sentences. The key elements:

  • focusing on the reader, the reader’s needs, the purpose of the document and the context of use (to produce a reader-focused, usable document);
  • then, deciding what to say, how to organize it, how to say it, how to present it visually.

Almost all of this applies to all Western languages. Although some potential problems or solutions may be language-specific, mostly at the sentence and word level (think of “on” in French, or noun chains in English), these peculiarities are but a tiny, tiny bit of the whole picture.

The most important parts of clear communication apply across languages. That’s something we actually discussed a fair bit as part of the IC Clear project. We wondered whether it made sense to teach clear communication and clear writing modules in English to a multilingual public, whether the contents would actually be useful to them. And we concluded that yes, it would be relevant, it would work.

To go back to the Government of Canada guides [Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple]… The French and English could have been almost identical. It’s just that the teams decided to work independently and each produce their own guide.

For example, the section on testing is a lot more detailed in English than in French. But it didn’t have to be that way. Also, the French team decided to talk about punctuation, but the English team didn’t. Again, the difference comes from the authors’ choices, not from differences between both languages.

Since we’re talking about plain language across multiple languages, here are a few interesting links. These two are from the European Union:

  1. How to write clearly (available in 23 languages; scroll down to download a PDF)
  2. Clear writing newsletter (from the EU Translation section)

Also interesting: a discussion we had on the LinkedIn group “Plain Language Advocates.” Lots of interesting comments!

2. If the original is in plain language, will the translation be, too?

Many people assume that if you have a plain language original, the translation will automatically be in plain language. That’s wrong (sorry guys!).

It depends a lot on the translator. If you give the same text to 5 translators, you’ll get 5 different versions, some of which will be easier to read and understand than others. Some translators—like some writers—are better at producing clear, understandable texts.

What can help: choosing the translator wisely; giving him or her good info about the context, the users, the goals, etc.

3. Where does translation fit in the writing process

That’s a huge question! First, here are a few ideas. You’ll see examples in the next section.

Instead of seeing translation as one box to fit into the existing chain, I’d like to suggest another way to look at it. (It’s something I discovered around 2001, while working at Clarica. I learned later that Michel Gauthier, from the federal government, was also a fan of that same approach.)

This idea came from examining the writing process for a typical text.

Let’s assume we’re talking about an English text which will be translated into French. Think about all the skills, knowledge and experience that often go into creating the original: you’ll have subject matter experts, writers, people with experience in the field… all working together to produce the document.

Then it’s sent to a translator. One person. Who’s typically a language expert, not a subject matter expert, not an expert in the field (never had contact with the clients or the intended audience), and probably not an expert in clear writing either. Just one person, one set of skills, one pair of eyes.

Do you see the imbalance? We end up with many steps (and people and sets of skills) coming together for the original text, and only one step for the French version.

What I’ve found works very well is to “re-balance” that process so that the French version gets as much input as the English.

Basically, we’re restarting another writing process, but focused on the French.

That means using the translation not as a final version, but as a starting point. Then you bring together your French experts, writers and communicators (subject matter experts, people with experience in the field, etc.). You look at all aspects of the text—choice of information, structure, wording, design—and see whether they’ll fit your audience and context, and what can improved. And you test your document.

It’s not just a translation. It’s a “translation + adaptation and feedback” approach.

I’ve used it with excellent results. Michel Gauthier, too.

As for deciding, from the start, to write completely different documents, it’s not usually practical. And I think it’s rarely necessary.

Yes, there are some differences between anglophone and francophone audiences; but there are also huge differences between an East Coast dentist and a West Coast fisherman, even if they’re both anglophones. Yet, they have enough in common that one document is usually enough.

About when to send a text to translation:

What often works best, I think: waiting until the original text is basically finished… but making sure it’s still possible to make changes.

That’s because the translator will often ask questions that will help you clarify the original. And if you go through a “translation + adaptation/feedback” process, then any changes made to the French could inspire changes to the English, too.

4. Examples: translation in plain language projects

Here are 3 different scenarios.

1. Customer service letters at Clarica

We applied the “translation + adaptation” process quite a few times. So when an important letter came back from translation, I would gather a few good people together, and we’d make the text more reader friendly. It worked beautifully.

Note: By the way… I’m sure this idea is making a few people cringe. We’ve all had baaad experiences with bilingual employees “improving” a translation…  But it does work very well if you have strong, knowledgeable writers and experts working on the revision.

Note 2: I had management approval to rework customer service documents that way. I was in a good position to do that, since I was working at improving the quality of French in the company. (Plus, by that time, I had spent 6 years in the translation department and worked on the company’s “complex complaints” team, all valuable experience.)

2. Simplifying a huge insurance contract at Desjardins Financial Security

Four people (2 writers, 1 lawyer, 1 actuary) worked on this project on top of their other responsibilities for 2 years. They were all knew to plain language and learning as they went. They focused on rewriting the original French; and as they were learning, they would make decisions that impacted sections they had already worked on. So they had to go back again and again.

When the texts were ready for English translation, they were sent to an external translator. He worked very closely with a member of the team (one of the writers, also a translator), to create the English version.

3. Ville de Montréal, “Charter of rights and responsibilities”

Montréal is very multicultural. The charter is all about how residents can live well together, be good neighbours to each other.

If I remember well, the city first created the English and French versions of the charter.

Then, to create the other versions (Arabic, Italian, etc.), the translation team would meet with cultural groups. They would discuss the values mentioned in the charter, see how they fit with people in that community, learn about similar values in their culture, etc. These conversations helped create a text that would make sense to people in that community.

It was a collaborative process.

(I must say, the charter isn’t exactly in plain language… But the efforts the team made to talk with the audience and find out what would make sense to them, that’s very much a “plain language” approach.)

5. Short conclusion: the writing process

Something you’ve probably noticed…

Representations of the writing process tend to be all neat and orderly: first this step, then this one, then this other one…

It’s a lot messier in real life! Instead of a straight line, the real visual would have a lot of back and forth, running in circles, zigzagging, waiting, jumping back… 😉

The “translation + adaptation” I mentioned would probably look like an offshoot from the main process. And it would probably link back to the writing process of the original text at some point, when changes made to the translation inspire changes in the original.

That real picture would be rather messy… but fascinating!

—Dominique Joseph
(translator, clear communication specialist, fan of good processes)
July 2014

Where does translation fit into plain language? An information-gathering post

Where does translation fit into the plain language process?

What struck me most when rebuilding Supply and Services Canada’s plain language guides (Plain Language: Clear and Simple and Pour un style clair et simple) was that the French guides aren’t simply the English guides, translated. Although both guides teach the same underlying principles—understanding your audience and the purpose of your document; planning and organizing your document before writing; achieving clarity at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels; implementing a design that supports readability; and user testing with your intended audience—the differences in content between these guides drove home that plain language is language specific.

“Well, obviously,” you might be thinking. Different languages have different grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, each rife with opportunities for ambiguity that have to be tackled individually. The French guides, for instance, address appropriate usage of the indefinite pronoun “on” in plain language, which isn’t a consideration in English. Studies have also shown a “language-specific rhetorical bias” when it comes to using (and by extension, tolerating) the passive voice.

What’s more, the audiences are likely to be vastly different. Even within Canada, French and English speakers have different cultural backgrounds, and those who have neither French nor English as their first language are more likely to learn English than French, meaning that publications in English have to be more sensitive to the needs of ESL speakers than those in French to FSL speakers. A document in plain French, if translated into English, may no longer be plain.

So, being a bit of a workflow nerd, I wondered where translation best fits into the plain language process. Translators have complained that translation is often an afterthought, not considered until the document in the source language is complete. In many cases, though, given that the clarity of the source text can determine the quality of the translation, working with a fully polished text makes sense. Yet, the inherent differences in audience would imply that, for documents that we know will be available in more than one language, developing separate texts in parallel, from the outset, would most effectively get the message across. This approach would be a nightmare for translation revisers and designers of bilingual documents, however, and it certainly isn’t the most budget-friendly option. Would the most efficient approach be to translate after plain language editing but before design, then do parallel testing sessions for the source and target languages?

If you or your organization translates plain language documents, tell me—what do you do? How well does your system work, and what would you change?

Greg Adams and Matthew Kaul—When plain language isn’t enough: Plain language and Global English at a global healthcare company (PLAIN 2013)

As editors at Cook Medical, an international medical device company, Greg Adams and Matthew Kaul have worked on content destined for translation into over twenty languages. (Kaul recently left to launch his own writing and editing business.) To create content that can be easily translated, they apply principles of Global English, an evidence-based system of writing techniques based on linguistic research. Global English arose out of the need to translate software documentation into many languages and was designed to facilitate both human and machine translation.

Global English can support plain language efforts because it ensures clarity. A document deemed “plain” may have short sentences and use familiar words, but looking at it through the eyes of a translator can expose imprecise statements. Global English proponent John Kohl says, “the quality of the source text, not the skill or competence of the translator, is typically the biggest factor that affects translation quality,” and because translation quality is a reflection of the quality of your product or service in a lot of cultures, we should be putting more emphasis on creating high-quality source texts. Adams and Kohl showed how the following Global English principles can help:

Make sure your sentences are semantically complete

Plain language advocates suggest using short sentences, but shortness should not be an end in itself. Don’t omit syntactic cues such as articles. For example,

Block open port on catheter fitting.

might mean

Block [the] open port on [the] catheter fitting.


Block open [the port] on [a] catheter fitting.

These two interpretations have opposite meanings.

Avoid ambiguous punctuation

For example, in this sentence:

Advance the guide catheter/sheath.

should the user advance the catheter and sheath simultaneously? Should the user advance either the catheter or the sheath? Are the catheter and sheath the same thing?

Dashes can also lead to ambiguity: are parenthetical constructions set off by dashes definitions, interjections, or clarifications?

Avoid -ing words

Words that end in -ing can function as many different parts of speech and can therefore lead to ambiguity. The example that Adams and Kaul gave the following example:

Get comfortable hearing protectors and get comfortable using them.

“Hearing” is an adjective, whereas “using” is a verb.

(This sentence is particularly insidious because it sets up a false parallelism: “get comfortable” is used in two different ways.)

Be consistent with your terminology

Avoid using the same word in multiple parts of speech. Otherwise, as we saw with the “get comfortable” example above, you might confuse the translator or reader. Also, use unambiguous words like “when” instead of “once” and “although” instead of “while.”

Avoid broad-reference and ambiguous pronouns

Some languages don’t have a pronoun that can stand for an entire phrase in the way some English writers use “which” and “that.” In this example

Our new monitor has virtually no background noise. That should substantially reduce the number of false positives.

“that” refers to the absence of noise, an antecedent that isn’t explicitly mentioned in the previous sentence. The translator would have to infer what the pronoun refers to and try to find a way to express the vague concept in the target language.

Make sure any pronouns you use have clear antecedents. Be wary of the following words when used as pronouns, because they can often be imprecise:

  • all
  • another
  • any
  • each
  • either
  • few
  • following
  • former
  • latter
  • many
  • neither
  • none
  • one
  • other
  • the rest
  • same
  • several
  • some
  • such
  • that
  • them
  • these
  • those


To learn more about Global English, visit Adams and Kaul’s blog, Global English for Everyone. They also suggest these resources:

  • Microsoft Style Guide, Fourth Edition.
  • John Kohl, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market.
  • Sun Technical Publications, Read Me First! A Style Guide for the Computer Industry.

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.

February EAC-BC meeting

A week from today, on Wednesday, February 20, I’ll be giving a talk at the EAC-BC meeting about editing books in translation. I’ll talk about copyright, the editor–translator relationship, special issues in translation projects, and strategies for getting work as an editor of translations. I’ll also be giving away a couple of books that I’ve recently reviewed: Science in Print and Book Was There. Come join us (but leave all of your tough questions at home)!

There’s a pre-meeting pay-as-you-go dinner:

Elephant & Castle
385 Burrard Street (Marine Building)
RSVP here by the end of the day Monday, February 18

followed by the meeting at the usual location:

535 Hornby Street, fourth floor

I start blathering at 7:30pm.

For those of you who can’t make it but still care, I’ll post a summary of my talk here by the end of next week.

Writing Rights—personal perspectives

In his Writing Rights session, David Scott Hamilton made an incredibly important point when he described asking for a royalty in his contract negotiations with Anvil. The publisher showed him the numbers and said, *We just can’t do it.”

That conversation really underscored that building a productive publisher–translator relationship is a two-way street—mutual respect is key. The subsequent discussions during the workshop about concerns over relinquishing control by assigning copyright and ways to negotiate the best contract might imply an adversarial relationship, but having worked at a publishing house, let me offer this perspective:  publishers, in the vast majority of cases, aren’t out to screw authors over, just as authors who leave a small press after achieving some success to work with a bigger company aren’t trying to screw over their former publishers. Publishing is a business—one in which, especially in the literary world, margins are simply razor thin. Of course I’m by no means suggesting that artists shouldn’t try to negotiate a favourable contract—on the contrary. However, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that most publishers, particularly small literary presses, aren’t prolific money-making enterprises. Most are doing the best they can with what they have, and I think a more productive relationship would ultimately result if writers and translators approached their negotiations with that understanding in mind. It’s not so much that publishers want to hand artists the short end of the stick but that, in Canadian publishing, both ends of the stick can end up pretty short.

That said, I did very much appreciate and admire Martha Rans’s fervent advocacy on behalf of the artistic community. For artists whose work is exploited, having support like the Artists’ Legal Outreach can be invaluable.

When I attended Chang Han’s intellectual property session at Freelance Camp, I was left with a niggling question. Sure, you’re theoretically protected by a framework of copyright laws, but if someone infringes, not only do you have to discover the infringement, but you also have to be prepared to pursue legal action in the infringer’s jurisdiction. Rans’s comment about the difficulty of enforcement, particularly across borders, filled in the critical missing piece in my understanding.

Carolyn Swayze’s session consisted mainly of anecdotes from her work as an agent, and they were interesting—I didn’t know much about literary scouts before her talk—but the outline of the workshop implied she’d be discussing the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada’s model contract, which she didn’t address. I would have liked to see the anatomy of a translation contract to discover how much it jibed with my own experiences working with translators for a publisher. Luckily, it appears that the comprehensive LTAC booklet accompanying the workshop has all of that information and more—including foreign funding sources for translations.

Overall, Writing Rights was a very informative workshop, and I got to meet some terrific people. I’m amazed that it was free—another big thank-you to LTAC, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Department of Canadian Heritage for sponsoring the event. If I could have made one suggestion, it would have been to make the day’s program available on the Word on the Street website prior to the workshop. I could find very little information about it, even the morning of, and I didn’t know what kinds of speakers and sessions would be featured until I arrived; knowing the workshop structure would have allowed for better planning on my part.

Writing Rights, Session 3—Carolyn Swayze on negotiating the best possible contract

Carolyn Swayze is the president of Carolyn Swayze Literary Agency, where she represents authors of literary fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. She spoke at the Writing Rights workshop about contracts.

As an agent, she works with authors to decide who will handle the rights in translation. Often publishers with large rights departments believe they are the best to handle them, but Swayze finds that they often don’t do anything with those rights. As a result, she’ll try to sell Canadian English rights only, sometimes North American English, and occasionally North American French and English rights so that the author can retrain translation rights to sell elsewhere. A problem Swayze encounters is that publishers in France usually insist on buying World French rights, whereas she’d like to retain North American French rights to sell separately.

Swayze works with a network of co-agents and literary scouts around the world to sell translation rights. After a while, “You get to know what kinds of books do well in different markets,” she said. Co-agents range from individuals to big international agencies, whereas scouts are paid by publishers, film companies, etc., to seek out appropriate projects for their clients. Scouts play an important role; with the number of books out in the marketplace, “it’s impossible to bring a book to enough people” for their consideration, said Swayze.

Echoing David Scott Hamilton, Swayze emphasized the importance of developing relationships. Seek out publishers and co-agents in countries in which your language of choice is spoken, she advised, and ask scouts for their client list. (On the topic of how to find scouts, Swayze was a bit coy: “Do a little research. There’s all sorts of online material.”) Promote yourself so that people know you exist. Once you’ve established some credibility, you can start negotiating for a bigger cut in your contracts.

Translators often complain about having difficulty getting a royalty split, but Swayze has seen it happen; she even told us of a translator in Italy who managed to secure a split of 50%. The other side of that coin are those who are essentially paid a fee for service, and some translators don’t even get billing on the front cover. If you have an agent, he or she will usually negotiate the contract on your behalf. How do you find a good agent? Swayze suggests researching online and carefully reading an agency’s submission requirements to make sure that you’re a good fit. Also, read the acknowledgements in books in your genre; authors will often thank their agents, and you can get some names that way. If you write nonfiction, prepare a good proposal for an agent’s consideration; for fiction, especially a debut work, you may have to complete it before an agent will look at it.

Swayze is realistic with her advice, warning that if you secure one contract but don’t earn out your advance, it becomes much harder to sell another book.

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.