17 More Rules for Translators from Tiina Nunnally and Ibrahim Muhawi

Award-winning translator Tiina Nunnally has translated over 50 books from the Scandinavian languages, including KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER by Sigrid Undset, THE ROYAL PHYSICIAN’S VISIT by Per Olov Enquist, and SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW by Peter Hoeg.  She has also done new translations of FAIRY TALES by Hans Christian Andersen and PIPPI LONGSTOCKING by Astrid Lindgren.  She makes her living as a full-time literary translator.

It was great to read the lists of other “rules” for translation, and I found many of the concerns very familiar from my own work as a translator of Nordic fiction.

I’m always eager to encourage younger translators who are just getting into the field, and occasionally I teach workshops in literary translation, preferably with students translating into English from a wide range of languages.  I always tell beginning translators that — as with any art form — practice is the key to developing their skills.  It takes time, patience, and dedication.  But it can be so exciting and rewarding to introduce readers of English to books that deserve a wider audience beyond their original language and culture.

A topic that is less often discussed with beginning translators is the business side of literary translation.  Even established translators with a long list of published works are rarely represented by agents, so they have to negotiate their own contracts.  This can be an intimidating process, especially for someone just starting out.  For that reason, I’d like to focus my “rules for translation” on some of the helpful negotiating tools that I’ve learned over the years.

1.  Study sample contracts for literary translation.

The PEN American Center has a useful Handbook for Literary Translators posted online.  It includes a sample contract that provides for the basic terms, although it does not cover important subsidiary rights, including royalties for ebook editions.  Nor does it address the issue of ensuring that you receive translator royalties if your English-language translation, published by a US publisher, is then licensed or sold to a UK publisher (or vice versa).  I think it’s extremely useful for beginning translators to discuss specific contract terms with established translators working in the same language areas (before signing a contract with a publisher).  If other translators are willing to let you look at one of their publishing contracts, that’s even better.

2.  Keep in mind that a contract is always negotiable.

Don’t sign the first draft just because the publisher tells you this is the company’s “boilerplate” or standard translation contract.  Decide which things are most important to you and then try to get the best terms possible.  It’s a process that always involves some compromise.  And if it’s your first book, you won’t have as much leverage as a more experienced translator would.  But remember that the publisher needs you!  A good translation is essential if the book is going to be both a critical and commercial success in the English-language market.

3.  Don’t sign a book contract that includes the term “work-for-hire.”

The contract should included provisions for a translator advance, a royalty, and benefits from other subsidiary rights.  The translation should be copyrighted in your name.

4.  Find out what the going per-word rate is within your language group, and try not to undercut your colleagues.

As far as I know there is no standard per-word fee established in the United States — and accepted by publishers — for literary translations.  In the UK, however, the Society of Authors has a recommended standard fee that can be quoted when discussing terms with any publisher — also in the US.  The current rate is GBP 87 per 1,000 English words.  You can’t always get that much, but it serves as a good starting point for your negotiations.

Many literary translators have other jobs and are not dependent on their translation work for their livelihood.  But some people do this work full-time, and it’s never pleasant to lose out on a book because someone else is willing to take on the job at a much lower rate.  It’s also a disservice to the profession as a whole when publishers start expecting to pay less for translations.

5.  Don’t begin work on a translation until you’ve received a signed contract and the advance payment.

6.  Consider doing sample translations and/or reader’s reports for literary agents and publishers — both abroad and in the US and UK.

This is a good way to develop contacts in the publishing industry and establish your reputation as a translator.  This type of work can often lead to a contract for a full-length book project.  It’s best to charge your normal per-word fee for the sample translations.  Publishers usually have a standard fee that they’re willing to pay for reader’s reports.  It’s never enough, considering the amount of time you’ll need to spend reading the book and then writing the report.  But it may be well worth your while, especially if you think the book is great and can recommend it for publication — with yourself as the translator, of course.

7.  Join a professional organization for translators.

You may find it very useful to be a member of a professional group such as ALTA (the American Literary Translators Association) or an academic organization specifically devoted to your language area.  It’s always good to meet other translators.  American translators who work for UK publishers may also want to join the Society of Authors in the UK.  Their publication always has excellent articles related to the writing and translating professions.

A final note:

Literary translation is a meticulous and creative process that brings the stories of other cultures to readers around the world.  Translators should always share in the success of their work, through adequate per-word fees and — if the book turns out to be a bestseller — a small but much-deserved royalty.

Useful links:




Ibrahim Muhawi was this year’s winner of the PEN translation prize for his beautiful translation of Mahmoud Darwish’s Journal of an Ordinary Grief. Since the appearance of Speak, Bird, Speak Again: Palestinian Arab Folktales in 1989, Muhawi has devoted himself to the study and translation of Palestinian and Arabic folklore and literature. He is co-editor of Literature and Nation in the Middle East and translator of Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness and Zakaria Tamer’s Breaking Knees. He is currently working on a book on Mahmoud Darwish.

Some strictly personal guidelines for translating into English:

1. English is the language of the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Burns, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Joyce and Ezra Pound.

2.Translating into this language is daunting, but must be attempted regardless of the odds.

3. In translating poetry, it helps to be aware of the prosody of the language; if possible, one should try to write lines that scan.

4. In translating prose, one should try to keep to the rhythm of the original sentences, if at all possible.

5. The best preparation for translation is to saturate oneself in the language of the masters.

6. One should also be aware of the visual arrangement of the text on the page, especially for poetry.

7. If you are not a native speaker, you should be close enough to a highly literate one in order to pester her with questions and solicit alternate formulations.

8. It helps to be aware of context—linguistic, stylistic, esthetic, personal, cultural, political, whatever.

9. The more you know about your author and his or her work, the better the translation.

10. Like all translators, I find that translating takes a long time, and many trials and errors. A permanent state of dissatisfaction is the key to a good translation, I believe, and patience does not always unlock the door.

1 Comment

  1. ‘Re-working the Translation is Entirely the Author’s Prerogative’ « Arabic Literature (in English)
    November 1, 2013 @ 6:17 am

    […] Should a translator have a moral right over the text, authority over its craft? In his commentary on the al-Aswany v. Jonathan Wright debate, M.A. Orthofer makes a strong case against the “jobbing” view of translation. As he points out, translator Tiina Nunnally writes, in Rule #3 of her “translators’ rules”: […]


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