Everything You Wanted to Know About How to Become a Literary Translator

Most beginning translators I talk to don’t have any experience in the field.

Hence, the reasons they’re beginners.

It’s like driving.

When I was 15, my brother and his friend wanted to teach me how to drive.

I thought all you had to do was step on the gas to go, step on the brake to stop, and not run over any mailboxes.

In general that’s how it’s done. But it’s much more involved than that.

People interested in becoming translators sometimes think that to become a freelance translator, you just have to find clients and translate.

That’s the idea of course, but as any seasoned translator will tell you, it is much more nuanced.

There are a lot more things to consider.

And one of those things to think about is the type of translations you’ll be doing.

Will you focus on legal translation, medical translation, or some other field like literature translation?

They’re all different.

I’ve talked about the medical translation field before, so I’m going to spend some time on literary translation for anyone interested in taking that route.

What is Literary Translation?

Literary translation is translation of literary works, whether they be songs, religious texts, books, poetry, short stories, plays… you get the idea.

Literary translation is different from other types of translation because literary translation is often considered a literary pursuit in its own right.

On the other hand, legal translations are translations, not new legal writings.

Another difference between literary translations and translations done in other fields is that literary translations can often undergo a significant number of textual revisions and changes by a different number of translators.

Think of the Bible as an extreme example.

There are over 100 English translations of the Bible.

Every person who reads the Bible reads his version and claims his version is the best.

This happens to a lesser degree with other literary translations.

How to Become a Literary Translator

OK, so if you’re ready for the high-level of scrutiny that comes with being a literary translator, it’s time to talk about how to become one.

First of all, it’s important to know that literary translators are often scholars as well.

Professors at a university or college researchers.


Well, because literary translators don’t make much money, if any.

Most do it as a professional exercise.

Not as a way to put food on the table for their kids.

But I’ll talk about pay in a second.

Becoming a literary translator in theory is no different than becoming any other type of translator.

You say you’re a literary translator and then you are.

But to actually become a practicing literary translator, you need to start working in the field.

And that means finding people to pay you to translate literary works.

And that’s the hard part.

Finding Literary Translation Clients

It’s relatively easy to find people who want their literary works translated; it’s harder to find people willing to pay you.

About 10 years ago I visited Peru with my wife to visit her family.

On our way out of Lima, one of her long lost relatives handed me a book he had written in Spanish chronicling two years of his life spent in Texas in a teaching exchange program.

He was sure that it would be a best seller and wanted me to translate it into English.

Of course he couldn’t pay me, but when it went big, he would certainly let me reap some of the benefits.

I took the book home, leafed through it, and quickly forgot about it.

Those types of opportunities will come if you tell people about your plan on becoming a literary translator.

Hell, they’ll come even if you don’t.

But that’s not what you want. You want to find paying opportunities.

And for literary translation, it’s all about contact.

Nobody will come to you with a literary translation project if they don’t know who you are.

So you have to go to the source of literary works in your source language: publishers, authors, agents, and editors.

If you’re a Spanish to English translator, for example, you need to be on the lookout for new Spanish works that could merit a translation. Reach out over email, Twitter, Facebook, or website contact forms to get their attention.

You should also have a strong grasp of new works that are being published in the source language.

If anything looks promising, you should reach out and sell your services.

You might have to start small.

  1. Find literary contests online seeking content
  2. Reach out to foreign language authors of essays, short stories, and poetry
  3. Ask if you could translate those and submit for the contests
  4. Use that experience to move up to longer pieces, books, and anthologies

It will take a lot of leg work.

But you already know that becoming a translator is more than just translating, right?

What About Education for Literary Translators?

I’ve always thought that formal education for translation can be a double-edged sword, and I feel no different about it when it comes to literary translation.

Formal schooling can really help someone who has had absolutely no experience translating start to gain some valuable skills.

However, for someone who has been translating for years already, there is usually no need to go back to school.

Same for literary translators, but probably even more so.

Literary translation is a special kind of translation.

In addition to getting the meaning across, there are a lot of other meta-linguistic factors that have to be understood and conveyed by the translator.

Things like mood, special plays on words, and language use at a specific time period.

Sure, classes on these things can help, but experience is where the real teaching comes into play.

That being said, if you are interested in pursuing education or a formal degree in literary translation, here are some places to consider:

Keep in mind that these are universities that offer full degree programs or certificates in literary translation. There are a ton of other schools that offer individual courses in the field, but no specific degree.

Also, a lot of these courses and programs are graduate-level programs offered in departments such as English, Comparative Literature, or Creative Writing.

Pay For Literary Translators

If you’re a tenured professor of Slavic languages looking to get into literary translation as part of research, you probably aren’t concerned about the potential for monetary gain on your translations.

But for those pursuing the career with the idea of it being the way they earn money, it is always helpful to know what other people have to say about literary translation pay.

Enter Lisa Carter, an established literary translator.

Here’s some specific numbers she provides on her (and other’s) earnings.

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So yes, pay for literary translation can be matched to pay for translation in other fields. The question, however, is whether or not that pay can be sustained over a month, year, or entire career.

2 thoughts on “Everything You Wanted to Know About How to Become a Literary Translator”

  1. Hi, Clint. Thanks very much for the mention in your post. I hope you–and others!–find the info I share about literary translation helpful. Though you’re quite right that the majority of literary translators also do other types of translation work, there are more and more who do that and only that: Daniel Hahn, Lawrence Schimel, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Laura Watkinson, Marian Schwarz… the list actually goes on and on. It’s all a matter of time, experience and, yes, tenacity.

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