For Foreign Writers, Are Translators More Useful Than Agents?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

A translator is quite possibly more motivated, not to mention, accustomed to being underpaid.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Today’s feature story discusses the frustrations and triumphs of a trio of recent winners of the European Union Prize for Literature in trying to interest foreign agents and publishers in their work.

Traditionally, writers have relied on their agent or publisher to sell rights to their works abroad. Often, the key is to get a work translated into one of the several dominant languages in publishing — English, German, Spanish or French — in order to make it into the smaller languages.

But as the rights world is changing and more and more publishers are moving toward acquiring world rights to books (which itself suggests an even greater dedication to the ‘hit driven’ publishing model, the effort that goes into selling foreign rights — especially for modest works of literature from smaller countries — might not pay off.

And, yes, there are agents out there who will commit to this type of painstaking work — but they, like everyone are increasingly under pressure to deliver bestsellers.

So, if you’re a writer from a small nation, whose language is not widely spoken, finding a good translator who can pitch your book directly to a publisher is likely a better bet than working with an agent. The translator is quite possibly more motivated, passionate and dedicated to the project (not to mention accustomed to being underpaid) than an agent, and will more than likely has just as strong a personal relationship with the publisher likely to put out a book with remote commercial potential.

Of course, if you’re working in a small language, working with a translator might be equally as difficult as working with an agent, in so far as the translator is only capable of taking on a limited amount of work and you, the writer, will be competing with all the other writers in the language for the translator’s attention.

Share your experiences in the comments.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.