What You Need To Know Before Becoming a Book Translator

Do you love languages and want to jump into translations? Read on for different ways on how to start a career in book translation.

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Two people translating several languages on their laptop, while there are speech bubbles to the right of them performing a translation.

As access to translated material has grown, a treasure trove of stories has opened to new readers. Perhaps you’ve seen new, translated books that caught your attention or are wondering how to make an impact on readers as a translator — in any case, translators are crucial to bringing stories to a wider audience, no matter what the language may be.

With the recent growth and visibility of translated books, you may be wondering how to get started and what the world of translation looks like. To get a better understanding of translation work, we’ll be going over a few key aspects:

  • What Exactly Do Book Translators Do?
  • Necessary Skills for Translation
  • Finding Translation Work and Experience
  • How To Stay in Book Translation
  • Why Is Translation Important?

What Exactly Does a Book Translator Do?

Getting Started on a Translating Job

While the answer to what a book translator does seems almost self-explanatory, it’s important to clarify what taking on a translating job can truly look like. When given a project to translate literature, translators have different approaches. For some, the best way to understand the story they are translating is to read the original work all the way through, whether once or multiple times. Others, perhaps more seasoned translators, can hit the ground running and begin translating the work without reading the full text and just experiencing the work as is. In many ways, starting the translating process is, in part, an analysis of the text, especially understanding the tone and context.

Possible Difficulties

On the topic of understanding the tone and context of the text, it’s important to note that not everything will be “perfectly” translated. Not perfect does not mean not grammatically correct, but rather understanding that there will be nuances, such as cultural nuances, in the way that language is utilized in the text specifically. This doesn’t always mean that the text itself will be immediately impossible to translate, but you might have to take a different approach. Getting a different set of eyes on the text and working with other translators helps to get a different sense or direction of the given text.

Necessary Skills for Translation

What education do you need?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, a bachelor’s degree is helpful to step into a career in translation. This can look like a degree in the specific foreign language or communications you’re interested in. It’s important to have proficiency in at least two languages. If you do not have a degree, don’t worry; this is not the only aspect that is sought after. There aren’t specific certifications that larger translation companies like Semantix are looking for, but courses in CAT tools or learning Machine Translation Post-Editing (MTPE) could be helpful in your personal translation-learning process. Experience is another aspect examined, and we’ll circle back to this point later.

Continued Reading

Before you pass this skill as an obvious one, I would say that this skill is one of the most integral ones. Reading with different lenses will give you a better understanding of the text overall. If you start with a story you enjoy in its original language, you’re able to understand it better. You can separate it into sections, research more on the author, get information on their goals and context, and ultimately break down the story. It’s good practice to get a good grasp of what you’re translating.


Much like the earlier point about possible difficulties, translation work requires some flexibility in that it doesn’t always look one way. This can include different approaches to the text and possibly working with the authors themselves when diving into the story. When you ask them questions about a book, it may not be in the way that you initially thought it would be, but their direction may be beneficial in your translation.

Finding Translation Work and Experience

Freelance Opportunities

As a beginner, it may be intimidating to know where to look for translating jobs first. Going back to the earlier point of finding experience, freelance is a great route to start with the translation. Just note that there are opportunities for translation, but some will be unpaid. This is not to keep everyone from tackling translation but to make you more aware of what to expect. Building your repertoire with organizations, student projects, or reaching out to independent authors can give you a feel for a variety of translation work.

Submitting Your Work

Organizations like Modern Poetry in Translation have open submissions for anyone who wants to increase viewership for their translation. A few poems are also accepting entries for translators’ versions. While it is not guaranteed that your translation will be chosen, it can serve as good practice, especially for shorter works, before diving into longer pieces.

The Center for the Art of Translation has several projects for translation entries; just make sure you read through all the details to know the due dates, if they are accepting on a rolling basis, and if the theme and story of what they are looking for matches the kinds of projects that you want to work on.

You can also try a more academic path. The University of California San Diego has an opportunity that is geared towards student or emerging translators, which welcomes different forms of stories in translation, including poems, short fiction, non-fiction, dramatic works/dialogues, letters, reviews, or cross-genre/unclassifiable work.

Join a Company/Agency

Some of the difficulty in finding translation work might be figuring out who to contact. Companies or agencies are the ones taking care of the logistics, knowing exactly who to contact. The first step would be to look through the services they provide to learn more about what they do.

Renaissance Translations is an accredited company, and just by taking a look at their website, there are big brands that trust them, too. Getting into a company like this would be a great opportunity, however, it does mention that their translation services are completed by native speakers who have a lot of experience. If you are translating as a native speaker, this could be something to look into further.

On the other hand, fairlingo has a simple process even for newer translators and seems to welcome the growth of their translators, even if they don’t start off with the most experience. The great thing is that a revisor works with the translator, so you get feedback, which only continues your growth and ultimately your expertise. Their program is set so that the more skilled you get over time, the more complex the projects get.

It can seem like a while before getting to really be part of the book translation process, but building your skills will be beneficial in the long run, especially when agencies such as Espresso Translations work with translators who have at least five years of book translating experience.

How To Stay in Book Translation

Research Before Working on Projects

Let’s say you found a work that you absolutely fell in love with, and now you want to see it transformed into the translated version that you have been formulating. Before you send anything anywhere, you have to ensure that you have the right to translate that book. For example, if the book you want to translate is popular and has been on multiple bestseller lists, then most likely, any plans for a translated version would be sold to a foreign publisher, in which the translation would be coming from the team of the foreign publisher directly. If this is the case, you should not post your translation anywhere. Otherwise, it might just get you sued, which would be terrible, considering all the work you would have already put into the translation.

On the flip side, if the book itself is not too popular, especially in the places where the language you want to translate to is located, then you might not get as many eyes on it or even support to make it happen. Unless, of course, you’re only translating it for more practice and not uploading it, then by all means, keep practicing!

Staying Updated

While these communities are not strictly centered on literary translators, getting support from other translators of varying degrees of experience can allow you to ask questions or stay updated with what’s going on in the translation industry and hear it from translators themselves. Here are a few communities that you can join:

  • ProZ: If you are interested in diving into the certifications that were mentioned earlier, ProZ has the tools to help you get started. By navigating their site, it is easy to find everything from work, training, and even fun translation contests. Part of their mission is to ensure that language industry professionals have what they need to not only succeed but also grow in individual skills and teamwork through collaborating with other translators. Unlike other agencies, this site has a focus on freelancers, so the process of finding a job is right at your fingertips — the job postings show exactly what language they are looking to translate.
  • Translators without Borders: This community is focused on sharing information with people all over the world, so while it is not strictly book-related, some of the benefits come from meeting people from different places who are utilizing the power of language to make change and, in many ways, also champion storytelling, even though their work is not necessarily on literature. You can volunteer, and TWB also makes sure that their translators have the opportunity to keep growing and get certifications through hands-on projects.
  • TED Translate: If you have watched TED Talks, you know how informative these videos can be. As an audience, we can learn someone’s story from what they share in a TED Talk. There are incredible translators who add translated subtitles to these videos, and TED created this platform so that there are opportunities for volunteer translators, too! When it comes to staying updated on what’s new or learning helpful tips for translation, there is also a mentorship program where mentees get to work with experts to continue to hone the craft of translation.

Another aspect of staying updated would be following how language is constantly evolving. Over time, words can change meaning, and even the usage of different slang terms and how often they are used changes too. For example, if you are a translator who wants to work with YA or middle-grade books and some of the newer books happen to have culture-specific slang terms from the present youth, then finding something that works for readers in a culturally specific way for the language you are translating to can be a challenge if you are not aware of how language usage has changed. Ultimately, it goes back to the skill of remaining flexible and adaptable.

Why Is Translation Important?

If you read all the information above, then you most likely already have some understanding of why translating books is important. According to the University of Rochester, translated works in the U.S. only account for three percent of published books, while translated literary fiction and poetry only make up 0.7 percent of published works. Though the numbers are small now, the translation work you’re interested in is part of a great way to continue to share stories with so many people.

Much like the translator communities that were mentioned, there is always something to be learned when we open up a translated work. Readers may find their new favorite author, or they might find a style of translation that they enjoy. Not only do authors have an opportunity to have a wider audience find and read their work, but readers can learn about new cultures, which can lead to possibly searching for more authors or works from that original language.

Getting started as a translator can seem daunting, but hopefully, these tips can give your journey some ease. There are numerous ways to grow and get translation support when you need it. Best of luck as you embark on your journey to translate books!

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