Belated Musings on the London Book Fair 2013

I am briefly surfacing for air between the big commercial project I sent off to the client today and another one I’m starting for another client tomorrow (feast and famine, y’know) and trying to put down some of the ideas that have been knocking about in my head since the London Book Fair 2013.

Earls Court Exhibition Centre from the Tube station

Earls Court Exhibition Centre from the Tube station

The last time I went to the Book Fair was 10 years or so back, when there was nothing for translators at all and the whole thing was fairly dispiriting. For the last few years, however, there has been the wonderful Literary Translation Centre, which had space for mingling and a dedicated seminar stream running pretty much back to back for the duration. It was absolutely packed out the entire time and I attended loads of interesting discussions on everything on How to Promote Writers in Translation to a Turkish Translation Slam – Turkey being the fair’s market focus this year.

In the LTC

Standing room only in the Literary Translation Centre

It was generally felt that there are more opportunities for translators and translation in the UK than ever at the moment and there was even mention of living in a Golden Age. At the same time I felt a little frustrated  by many things. Some are the usual – how do you actually get a break as a translator when publishers rely so heavily on people they already know, who often fell into the role almost by accident as a result of being friends with/married to a publisher/author/editor or whatever? Why is there still the determined snobbery against “genre fiction”, pithily summarised by my comrade in arms on this one, Lydia Moëd? And why are so many people determined to tell me that it’s impossible to make a living as a literary translator?

Earls Court Two

Where the LTC action was.

On the third of those questions, it’s certainly possible to make a living as a translator. There are plenty of books and blogs out there dedicated to telling you how. Maybe commercial translation isn’t what people signed up for, and yes it can be deadly, but it can also be a lot of fun. I’m learning to use my literary skills in my marketing for my other work – the ability to turn a good phrase can make or break a marketing translation, for example. So why don’t we literary types harness some of the translation energy that’s apparently buzzing around and prove that it can be worthwhile financially too?

As for the first two questions, one company that seems to be breaking the mould here is Amazon Crossing. They were very much in evidence around the LTC over the course of the Fair – they were sponsoring it, apart from anything else – and there was quite a lot of unease about that from all sorts of quarters. Not surprisingly, given the general backlash against Amazon as a whole in terms of tax avoision and the decline of the indie bookshop and all that. But people who’d worked for them were very positive about the experience, and everyone from Amazon Crossing I spoke to or heard speak seemed just as passionate about good books in translation as the people from the small indie publishers, and the big commercial publishers too. What I find particularly refreshing about them is that they are open to so many more genres than any other publisher I know of. One of their advocates has recently translated a series of Spanish zombie novels for them, I know that they’ve taken on a book by a German author I particularly like that others have written off as “chick-lit” and I spoke to another translator doing sci-fi for them. And they have an innovative approach to commissioning translators too, whereby you have to audition for a book. This involves a very brief sample translation and, apparantly, giving them a quote for the project. I can see why this raises fears of translators undercutting each other in a race to the bottom, but I will reserve judgement until I get the chance to see how it actually works.

London Book Fair 2013

Pretty, isn’t it?

What else? Well, I learnt about Finnegan’s List on which “ten well-known polyglot writers from ten countries are asked to recommend three titles by other writers they feel should be more widely translated”. I found out about literary journals including SAND – Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Archipelago and Asymptote.

There were lots of tips from publishers and more established translators on how to pitch a translation – make sure you know their lists and how you book fits in, make yourself useful, be persistent, do reader’s reports, pitch extracts to magazines, go to events and workshops. With specific books, think about an “elevator pitch” – how would you catch an editor’s attention in one minute? Is there a platform they can use to sell it within the publishing house to the other editors and then the marketing department, and so on?

What’s the difference between an ash-caked snowman and a geriatric mouse?

This was possibly the weirdest question asked over the three days, and it came from the translation slam on the last day of the Fair. Translators Feyza Howell and Izzy Finkel were discussing their translations of an extract from Murat MenteşYedinci baharı yaşıyor ömrüm, variously translated as “In the Seventh Spring of My Life” and “My Seventh Lease of Life”, with the conversation chaired by Daniel Hahn. Danny warned us that if we were expecting bloodshed, we’d come to the wrong place, but there might well be heated debate over comma placement. A translation slam is rather more fun than that makes it sound though. When we talk about translation we use words like “voice” or “cadence” a lot, but it’s rather hard to explain what that means in the abstract. A slam is a way to make that concrete as two translators read from their translations of the same text. In this example, there were 164 sentences and only two of them were the same in both versions. In case you were wondering, the question above arose from two translators taking a completely different approach to the author’s playful use of metaphor. Whether to go for a fairly literal version, or something that plays on a set English phrase with similar meaning. Quiet as an ash-caked snowman or a geriatric mouse.

Translation Slam

Translation Slam: Feyza Howell, Izzy Finkel and Daniel Hahn

There was socialising too. A welcome chance to meet up with fellow members of the Emerging Translators Network – a movement translators across the Pond were envying. Drinks receptions, free sandwiches (not discovered on the first day until after I’d paid £4.50 for one elsewhere) and a jaunt to the pub with the ETNers.

So yes, it was fun. And educational. And hopefully useful. Like I said, my head is buzzing with ideas and hopefully soon I’ll get to put at least some of them into practice.

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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2 Responses to Belated Musings on the London Book Fair 2013

  1. Ooooh, I would love to go to the London Book Fair! And for what it’s worth, I used to run a second hand book business and most of my sales were made through Amazon, so as an ex-indie bookseller I still think they are great! (If you , ahem, ignore the whole tax issue…)

  2. Really interesting post. I have never been to the Book Fair but will consider it next year if I ever have enough time in my hands. Literary translation was my first love but I fell into the commercial side and then tourism translation came knocking and it totally allows me to be more creative at the same time that I learn about wonderful places to add to my sightseeing bucket list, I thoroughly enjoy it. Blogging has helped with the creativity part of things too, writing my own content is a dream come true for me, just not something I ever imagined I’d be doing 20 years ago of course.

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