TRANSLATION Getting started in children's book translation


Children's book translation is not generally a high-paying endeavour, but it is deeply satisfying for those who manage to make it work. What could be more important in today's world than increasing understanding between cultures? Julie Sullivan looks at how to get started.

So, how do you get started in this field?

First, and this should go without saying, you need an excellent command of your own language and of the language you are translating from (the target language and the source language, in translators' talk). For the first, nothing is better than reading widely in English or your own native language. You need to understand how children talk and what sounds natural to them, you need a firm grasp of the standards of your own written language, but also understand when it is all right to break the rules (in dialogue and poetry, especially).

Speaking of rules, there are no real rules about training for translators. Some excellent ones with reams of published books have no official training beyond their own hard work. Plenty of not-so-good ones have impressive-looking credentials. But like everywhere else, credentialism has hit publishers and many of them prefer to work with translators who have a degree of some kind in translation. In the U.K., there are a few well-regarded university and post-graduate programs in literary translation. The best reason to do one of these courses is that you will make connections there, and these can be essential to your career as a translator. 


It might seem unfair to you that connections are important. But everyone can make them. In this virtual world, you can even meet people on line. There are translators' forums online (TranslatorsCafe, for example), many translators' groups on Facebook, translators' lists on Twitter, translators' hashtags on Instagram, and (I haven't looked) certainly on Tiktok and other social media as well. There are translators' groups and email lists for translators within SCBWI and most other writers' groups. If you are allergic to social media, look for local or virtual events you can attend. Many translators are a bit shy themselves, but if you lurk for a while you will see that they are a friendly bunch. 

Meeting other translators may not seem like the most direct way to get jobs! But when someone knows you, they are more likely to suggest you for a job they can't do themselves; people often get work that was passed from another translator whose language pair is different, or a publisher will get in touch because you have been suggested by another translator who is too busy. 

Put yourself out there

Being active in the translation world is important. Make a website, get on LinkedIn if you feel like it, and if you don't have recommendations from clients, try putting up sample translations so people can judge your work. Tell everyone what you are looking for. 

Although many translators don't like it because it drives payments down (the word "bottom-feeders" usually comes up), the huge website Prōz can be a way to get started in translation. Once you have done one or two translations for a publisher, you look more credible to other publishers. Babelcube is another site where you can find an author whose work you like and translate in partnership. 


Caution: the idea of translating for free is anathema to most translators who translate for a living. Understandably so: how can they compete with someone who does their job for nothing? In general, you should ask a suitable rate for every translation you do, and don't undercut people in the same profession. 

For some reason, scams are fairly common because good translation is expensive, so scammers try to get you to work for free. One scam is when an agency asks you to do a "sample translation." Sometimes this is legitimate; it should never be a long one. Enough "sample translations" and the unsuspecting translators have translated an entire article or book.

Be very wary if foreign authors you don't know ask you to translate their books. They can rarely pay properly, often think translators' prices are too high, and there are few recourses if they don't pay you. Also, books translated and "shopped" by the author, even if published in the original language, are not likely to picked up by a respectable publisher. 

Some translators have started by offering to proofread for other translators. No matter how good someone is, mistakes can slip in, so top translators often use proofreaders to check their work. 

Another thing translators can do to make themselves known to publishers is to offer to do sample translations from books in other languages that a publisher is considering for publication in English. If the translation is good, publishers will sometimes ask the translator to do the rest of the book. In general, sample translations should be paid. 

Although it might seem like a good idea to find a book you love in your source language, translate it, and shop it around to English-language publishers - and this can work, provided you've checked with the original publisher that the foreign rights are available - it hasn't generally proved to be an easy way to get a book published. Unfortunately, the vast majority of books, including children's books, published in English were written in English. In 2016, Daniel Hahn, who has been instrumental in promoting children's book translation, wrote in a translators' forum that he had counted all the children's books in a large, good bookstore and found only six out of more than two thousand that were by a living writer and originally in another language.

Good luck - and long may you translate!

Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer and translator from French and German to English.

Picture credits

Illustration by Mohammadrezaa Daadgar from a book in Persian, As the Sparrow Says, by Qeysar Aminpour

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