Which Rights are Right? What Publishers Want From Translators

In News by Porter Anderson

The concept of translators as scouts for publishers may depend on how well translators know those publishers and their markets.

‘Scouting for Books in Translation,’ a panel on the Bologna Book Plus stage at Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2023 with, from left, Lawrence Schimel, Gvantsa Jobava, Serena Daniele, and Nikos Argyris. Image: Bologna Book Plus, Emma House

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Knowing What a Publisher Wants
When it comes to the international book publishing industry, publication rights sales are, of course, the currency of all realms. This is why the heart of each of the year’s major events—such as London Book Fair‘s run this coming week, April 18 to 20—is found in what the British trade show calls its International Rights Centre.

And if we see a one-on-one meeting in a great book fair’s rights center as the conversation that most frequently leads to a translation and publication rights sale, the second-ranked discussion is probably thought to be that between a publisher and a translator who has discovered a terrific book that she or he is eager to translate. It’s a commonly held concept, this idea of the translator as a book’s best agent, going from publisher to publisher in a patient, dogged search for a rights sale and a translation contract to bring that fine work into another language or territory.

But when Publishing Perspectives moderated a discussion on International Women’s Day at Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March—an event from Bologna Book Plus, which is directed by Jacks Thomas with Orna O’Brien—the commentary turned out to be much more nuanced and thoughtful, with publishers sending a clear message that what they value—even over passion and excitement for a work that a translator has spotted—is homework: they’d like translators to do the work needed to know what type of book a given house usually produces and what sort of content a market is actually reading.

They want to buy the right rights, in other words, the “correct” property, aligned with the list they normally produce and what their consumers normally will read. And that means they’d like to see translators who know not only the work of a favorite author but also the work of a publishing house they’d like to see buy that author’s book rights.

We’ll look at short excerpts from the discussion here, to give you a sense for the key points these professionals were stressing, when the discussion drew a standing-room-only crowd at Bologna.

Joining us were three publishers and a translator:

  • Nikos Argyris, publisher with Athens’ Ikarus Publishing and president of the Association of Greek Publishers and Booksellers
  • Serena Daniele, the founding managing editor of Italy’s NNE, a literary fiction house in Milan
  • Gvantsa Jobava, vice-president of the International Publishers Association (IPA) and international relations manager at Tbilisi’s Intelekti Publishing
  • Lawrence Schimel, translator and senior editor at NorthSouth Books in New York
Nikos Argyris: ‘We Have a Network of Agents and Scouts’

Greece was, of course, Bologna Book Plus’ market of honor in March, and it came across quickly that expectations in Greece are different from those in many other markets.

Nikos Argyris

“We try to source new content, ourselves,” as publishers, Argyris said—rather than relying on translators to arrive with good projects to propose.

“We have a network of agents and scouts who make sure we’re always informed about the latest” in trends and available books, Argyris said. “And that network is very good at knowing which books make the most sense for a given house.

“When a publisher is pitched by a translator,” he said, “it may not be followed up on because that translator may not have a checklist of why that publisher specifically should be interested in a book. Does the publisher have a tradition in these kinds of books? Is it supported by translation grants? Does the author have a background of previous books published?

“These are all things usually very crucial in the decision-making process.”

Serena Daniele: ‘A Very Good Proposal’

While NNE’s Daniele said that she agreed on how important agents and scouts are, “There are many translators who can come up with a very good idea and a very good proposal.”

Serena Daniele

Those translators, however, she said, are—just as Argyris had suggested—the ones who know the market and they know the publisher’s competition.

“One of my two best translators,” Daniele said, “is a very attentive reader and she’s so sensitive that she can catch the rumors. And so she can propose a very good title. And we, of course, take that into consideration first” because this is a translator known for her ability to pick up on a trend and a manuscript that’s matching a publishers needs and the readership’s interest.

“So this is work solidly based on relationships,” she said, pointing out that she sees the Italian market now opening “to literature in other languages.

“I’d really like to get in touch,” she said with a smile to Argyris, “with Greek authors because when people have something to say that’s really interesting, then for me, as a publisher, I’m looking for newness, a sensibility, an enticing story, and so on.”

“It’s very important,” Daniele reminded the audience, to know “who has control of the rights when a translator brings a potential project to a publisher’s attention.” That can help streamline and inform how seriously the publisher can consider the idea at hand.

Lawrence Schimel and Gvantsa Jobava. Image: Bologna Book Plus, Emma House

Gvantsa Jobava: ‘We Invest in Translators’ Promotion’

Perhaps the biggest smiles on the faces of translators in the discussion’s packed-out audience appeared when Georgia’s Jobava talked about the high premium she and her associates at Intelekti place on translators. This prompts her as a publisher, she said, to work very hard to retain her best translators by offering them more and better work—rather than risk losing a good translator to a rival publishing house.

Gvantsa Jobava

“In effect,” she said, “we’ve started to have some translators now who are working permanently with us, and we’re very happy with the quality of the work they offer to us.

“As a publishing house, we’ve learned that we’re trying to gain the trust of our readers when they see that a book has been translated by a familiar translator,” one who those readers know and recognize for earlier good work.

And all of this means, Jobava said, that “when they finish working on one book, we are already starting in our editorial group, signing them for what we want them to do next because we don’t want them to go to another publishing house. We invest in their promotion and we need them.”

Jobava added that her company likes to have translators make public appearances and talk about their work. “We want them to talk,” she said, “because they are the ones who know the book the best, having devoted so much time to the work.”

Clearly, this kind of close and lasting relationship with a given press means that translators can learn that house’s work well—as all these publishers agreed they want their translators to do.

And so an associated value in cultivating long-term relations with translators is that those translators become better schooled in what that publishing house specializes in and wants.The translator is in a position to make savvier suggestions of good translation properties.

Lawrence Schimel: ‘On the Same Wavelength’

“It’s not just how a book fits with a publisher,” Schimel said. “It also has to do with where it fits in the larger field.”

Lawrence Schimel

He followed up on Daniele’s and Jobava’s points about trusted translators by adding, “If an editor turns something down and explains why they like or don’t like it, that can help you refine the next pitch” because even that rejection is a way of learning more about what the publisher wants.

“And I always recommend to translators that they meet both each other who work in their own combinations”—meeting other translations who work in the same pairs of languages—”and the opposite of your combination. I’m from New York originally and I’ve been living in Spain for 24 years.”

And this can help when editors ask translators for contacts who might work well in other language combinations than his own. The recommendations that translators are known for generously each other, he said, are genuine. And they work better when translators meet their colleagues who are working beyond their own usual pairs of languages.

In fact, Schimel added, “I have special relationships with other translators because we’ve translated the same authors,” albeit into other languages. “So a lot of the time,” he said, “we’ll share information. We’re working on the same wavelength.”

All of which means the goal is smarter, better-targeted pitches for publishers when it comes time for a translator to suggest a favorite—and apt—book project.

A question from the floor (really) during the ‘Scouting for Books in Translation’ panel from Bologna Book Plus 2023. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More coverage relative to the 2023 Bologna Children’s Book Fair:

Bologna’s 60th Edition Draws 28,894 Visitors
Hometown Hero: Bologna Illustrator Andrea Antinori Wins Big
International Women’s Day: PublisHer’s Bologna Stand
The Best Children’s Publishers Prizes of the Year at Bologna
At Bologna: Abu Dhabi International Translation Conference
Elena Pasoli and Jacks Thomas on the 60th Bologna Book Fair Opening
At Bologna: Spain’s Publishers Report Growing Children’s Exports
Nicholas Yatromanolakis on Bologna’s Market of Honor: ‘The Modern Face of Greece’
IPA’s Events Lineup at Bologna Children’s Book Fair
‘AI’ at Bologna: The Hair-Raising Topic of 2023?
At Bologna: PublisHer Will Have Its First Trade Show Stand
At Bologna: The ‘Taiwan Stories Market’ Program
Pre-Bologna Rights Roundup: ‘Buy Ukrainian Book Rights’
Children’s Rights Edition: A 16th Bologna Licensing Trade Fair/Kids
Bologna Book Fair Names Cross Media Award Winners
Bologna Focus: Italy’s €283 Million Children’s Book Market
Rights Edition: Bologna Book Plus’ Rights Programming
Bologna Book Fair: 2023 Ragazzi Awards
Bologna’s 60th Book Fair: Illustrators Exhibition Winners
Greece Is Bologna Book Plus’ First Market of Honor

More coverage relative to the 2023 London Book Fair:

United Kingdom and Italy: 2024 Trade Show Dates Conflict Resolved 
London Book Fair: The 2023 International Excellence Awards
London Book Fair: Klaus Flugge To Receive London’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Interview: Rachel Martin on London Book Fair’s Sustainability Lounge
London Book Fair: International Publishers Association Events
London Book Fair: A Keynote From London Mayor Sadiq Khan on the Climate Crisis
Richard Charkin in London: ‘The Perils of Literary Publishing’
Sustainability: Exact Editions Promotes ‘Collections’ for Book-Award Juries
London Book Fair’s New Director Gareth Rapley: ‘A Rich History’
London Book Fair Names Main Stage Speakers
London Book Fair Plans: Scholarly and Rights Conferences
Exact Editions to Showcase IPG Publishers’ Books at London Book Fair
Industry Notes: London Book Fair Awards, Hay Festival in Colombia
London Book Fair Opens International Excellence Awards for Submissions

More on Bologna Children’s Book Fair is here, more on world publishing’s trade shows and book fairs is here, more on translation and translators is here, and more on publication and translation rights is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.