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Sarah Pybus on literary translation

Written by Sarah Pybus

photo_sarah-pybusI started working as a professional translator in 2007, but it wasn’t until 2016 that my first book translation was published. I took what is now a fairly typical route into translation: having studied English and German at university followed by a Master’s in Translation Studies, I secured my first in-house position. I moved to Germany to work for a company specialising in the translation of IT-related texts, and while the work may have had nothing to do with literature, it was a great place to develop my skills. When I decided to return to the UK, I found a job with another translation company that covered a wider range of subject areas and soon extended my repertoire to include more creative texts.

Going freelance allowed me to be more selective about what I translated, and to pursue my interest in literature. I applied for the Emerging Translators Programme at New Books in German, and was one of the six people selected that year. Each participant was allocated a particular book and commissioned to translate a section of around 4,000 words (in my case one short story from a collection). We worked on the texts alone before travelling to London for a workshop, where we were paired up to review each other’s work. Encouraged by this initial success, I attempted to pitch my book to publishers but had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Luckily, my commercial translation work was going well, and I steadily increased my client base so that I had a decent income.

After attending an event at the Free Word Centre in London, I joined the online Emerging Translators Network. This turned out to be one of the best things I could have done. Not only does it have members all over the world with varying levels of experience and a wealth of useful tips, it was also where I found out about the Nonfiction Translation Competition organised by the German Book Office New York and the German organisation Geisteswissenschaften International. The competition required entrants to translate one of three extracts, and I sent off my submission in December 2014. Just after Christmas, I received an email telling me I had won.

On the back of this success, I started to translate sample chapters for publishing companies, literary agents and for authors directly. I also began writing reader’s reports on German-language books; while this doesn’t pay particularly well, it does keep you in publishers’ minds. These projects were sporadic, so I continued with my commercial work, which by this point consisted of tourism, marketing, media and higher education. I attended more events, tried to network and pitched books to publishers.

And then it finally happened – my first book contract! I was commissioned by And Other Stories to translate Wolfgang Bauer’s Crossing the Sea, a first-hand account of the horrors experienced by refugees trying to find safety in Europe. The book deals with one of the major issues of our time and had to be turned around quickly: I received the commission in September, delivered the translation in November, and the book was published in the UK in March of this year. The process was made much less stressful by a supportive publisher and being able to send questions to the author. As soon as I was offered the project, I applied to join the Society of Authors, which offers a contract vetting service to members.

Soon I was offered another book translation by a different publisher. As much as I wanted to do it, I had to turn it down. It really hurt but I wasn’t happy with the contract, the fee or the deadline. With a good base of commercial clients, I was safe in the knowledge that I still had plenty of work coming in, and I couldn’t accept conditions that would have actively prevented me from delivering the best possible translation.

For me personally, mixing commercial and literary projects is the best route to professional satisfaction. Literary translation may not pay as well as commercial work (on the whole), but the right publisher can improve things considerably. Seeing my name in print was one of the best moments of my career so far, and I hope to repeat the experience again soon.

My tips for starting out in literary translation

4 If you find a book you would like to translate, try pitching it to publishers. Even if it comes to nothing, it will raise your profile.
5 Seek out translation competitions and organisations like New Books in German for your particular language combination. For example, the Young Translators’ Prize changes language every year.

About Sarah Pybus

Sarah's website
Follow Sarah on Twitter
And Other Stories
Information about Sarah's translation of Crossing the Sea
The Nonfiction Translation Competition
Organised by the German Book Office New York
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