• By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 01 2010

I recently got interested in translating a middle-grade novel written by a well-known and long-dead foreign author. Do I have to get some sort of permission from his estate? Also, once I translate it, what’s the next step? Are agents open to translations?

I love questions like this. It’s not something I ever would have thought of myself.

Yes, absolutely, you must get permission from either the author’s estate or the author’s publisher. That would depend on who holds the rights for foreign translations. My suggestion is to start with the publisher, who will probably direct you to the agent for the author or the author’s estate.

Before you do that, though, let me explain a little about how selling foreign rights typically works. When a book is sold to a foreign publisher to be translated, the publisher has it translated using their own people. Very rarely is a book translated and then sold to that country. In the case of Stieg Larsson, for example, the book was sold to the U.S. publisher and then the publisher brought in a translator to translate the book. My guess is that the agent or the publisher has worked to get this book published in many other countries, but because of low sales or lack of interest they never got a buyer.

All that being said, it can never hurt to contact them to see what they say.


11 responses to “Translations”

  1. Avatar GalaktioNova says:

    As a literary translator, I constantly meet people with the same idea. Usually, they fall in love with some book by a foreign author and just can't help translating it, putting in years of work and research, then discovering they can't get it published. Even some professional translators make this mistake simply because they don't know how the publishing industry works.

    Another thing they often don't understand is that it's not for nothing the book hasn't been translated before. Very often there's just not enough interest in this particular author or culture. It's a sad fact of the English-language culture that foreign literature in translation doesn't sell very well, if at all.

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Of course a lot of times the reason, its never been translated or published in a foreign language is that the publisher which holds the rights is too frigging lame to go out an sell them!

  3. Avatar Kalika says:

    It depends what languages you're working with. I've been told that translating an unknown/new author and submitting the translated manuscript for publication (that is to say, trying to get someone to say 'ok, we'll buy the rights so we can publish this') is an acceptable way to get into literary translation in some countries. One of G.R.R. Martin's translators got into her job this way, and the literary translator teacher at my university said the same thing.

  4. Avatar RK says:

    Thanks for answering my question and for the great feedback from all! 🙂

  5. I think that's very sad. I love reading foreign translations because a lot of times I see unique description that may be common in Mexico or Japan, but isn't seen much in the U.S.

  6. Avatar Anne-Marie says:

    What if you are bilingual- can you take your own work and submit it to different language publishers or agents on your own, or is that something you discuss with your agent up front?

  7. Avatar Christine M. says:

    Something people shouldn't forget: depending on the contract the author signed, the translation rights will belong to the publisher already. In my literary translation class at uni, we were warned that while translating a novel from an untranslated author could be great practice, the publishing house (at leats in french countries/region) usually have in-house translators for the book rights they buy. Before you actually translate a book that interests you, you should get in touch with a publishing house in the target tongue, first to see if the translation rights have already been sold and second to see if there's an interest. [Target language also should be the translator's mother tongue btw.] As for translating your own work… It's apparently another big no no. Something about not being able to detach yourself from the original text and gain the objectivity necessary to make an accurate translation. Your agents would also probably encourage you to write your next chef d'oeuvre rather than keep working on the same book.

    This is coming from someone who translate from English to French btw, so things might be different in other countries/regions.

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  10. Avatar Layne says:

    "I recently got interested?"

    This sentence should read: I recently became interested…"

    If you're going to try and translate another language, you may want to master English first.

  11. Avatar Julia Purdy says:

    Most questions/answers seem to address English-to-foreign language translations. My question is: I have a completed draft of an Italian-to-English translation, which is a fresh translation of a novel in Italian that is still in print and that was translated and published by an American publisher originally in 1947 (I think). That publisher is still in business and renewed the copyright on the English translation in the 1970s.
    But my translation is completely new.
    I have tried reaching the American publisher to no avail. That was 2 years ago. I offered them (a) to publish it themselves or (b) to give me permission to self-publish it. They never responded.
    If it is basically an ALL NEW work, would that copyright not then belong to me? Why would I have to get permission in that case?
    I would love to get this out to university departments, for example, but I’m leery of being slapped with a fine, which I can’t pay.
    Thanks for whatever light you can shed on this. I realize you are not an intellectual property attorney, but you may know of similar experiences.