Ask Daphne! About Submitting in Translation

December 1st, 2011 • Kate

manolos1I love opening up my mailbox and finding your questions! As a reminder, I’m always open to answering your q’s about publishing, the process of finding a literary agent, shoes, books, and more! Just email me at daphne.unfeasible@gmail.com with “Ask Daphne!” in the subject line. Today’s query comes from Jurgen in Germany, who asks:

I am a published mystery writer (4 books) in Germany and I am looking to sell the foreign rights to these books in North America. I do not have a literary agent in Germany and my books are written in German. What steps should I take to get my foot in the door in the United States?

The first thing to confirm, Jurgen, is that the translation rights were not included in your contract with your German publisher. For instance, in some US contracts, the grant of rights may say something like this:

Author grants to Publisher during the full term of copyright (including any renewal or extensions thereof) in each country in which rights are granted to Publisher hereunder, the sole and exclusive right to print, publish and sell (herein “publish”) the Work or to cause the same to be published in book form and in electronic form and to exercise or to license the rights set forth in Paragraph 6(a) throughout the world in the English language and all other languages.

You may only see the word “English” and assume that’s all we’re talking about, but the key phrase is “and all other languages.” In this contract, therefore, the publisher controls the rights to sell the book in translation, or license it to publishers in other countries.

But perhaps you’ve checked your contract and confirmed that you’ve only given away German rights, and all other languages are reserved by you. I’m afraid this is where it gets sticky. Most American editors only read in English, and without a quality translation of your work, will never be able to consider it, even if they were interested.

You could find a reputable translator, and see if they’d do a sample of your book for submission, but I don’t know if many work on spec, and it might otherwise be a significant outlay of cash to translate your title.

Have you looked into finding a local (German) agent who handles sales not just to local publishers, but also has an active rights department that handles their clients’ translation rights? That’s what I would recommend.

Do any of my fellow agents or publishing colleagues have other advice?

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2 Responses to “Ask Daphne! About Submitting in Translation”

  1. Irene Says:

    Thank you very much, Daphne! This is something I really wanted to know!

    As a professional Russian/English literary translator, I used to collaborate with many excellent writers, some of them bestselling in Russia, who wanted to see their work published in English. Unfortunately, these days I'm forced to say no to nearly everyone, unless the person intends to self-publish their work and has a budget to cover it, either their own or in the form of some grant or other financial aid from a sponsor. I've seen too many dreams shattered and I don't want to make my living off it.

    It probably boils down to two things:

    1. Today's English literary standards are extremely high. In Russia, writers just start to grasp the ideas of POV, story structure and such, they just write whichever way they please. Many bestselling Russian books are in fact ghost-written: many of Akunin's novels were in fact churned out by teams of anonymous aspiring novelists working for peanuts. A bestseller by Russian standards won't stand half a chance in an American or British slush pile. The only way around it for a fiction writer is to get oneself noticed by an English-language publishing house. There's simply no way around it.

    2. I've also worked with experts who wrote highly marketable non-fiction books, and I wrote book proposals and queries for them (ironically, I'm a happily published English-language writer myself). But the absence of an _English-language platform_ made all our efforts obsolete. A non-fiction writer who wants to break into the English-language market does need a local platform, regardless of how many millions of followers he or she has back in Russia.

    So yes, these days I only work with those who intend to self-publish on Kindle… :-((( And I make sure all my clients are fine writers and experts with awesome projects who deserve to be out there.

    Thank you very much!

  2. DaphneUn Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Irene! That's super helpful to know.