Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Query question: querying the translated edition of a book

Some questions arose after reading your post on 10 June…

My friend has asked me to translate her memoir and query it. The basics of copyright for translated works exist where she lives, where I live and where I suggest she tries to sell it – the USA.  Apparently, in all of these countries, I am entitled copyright of the translation, considered a derivative work of hers.

Let’s assume that there is a contract between she and I which irons out all the definitions regarding the translation, the work I do querying for her, etc.  (I am not sure if my translation is a work for hire because I’d be paid only if the book is sold and I would be querying my translation—for her).  I imagine any agent would want to know if a contract between the author and the translator was stipulated before taking on the project.

How do I compose a professional query letter regarding the translation of someone else's unpublished manuscript?

Hi There, I’m Faith Buttonweezer, querying my translation of an elderly friend’s memoir. She gave me permission and asked me to query for her. In case the manuscript sells she’ll pay me for the translation. She doesn’t speak English, you could communicate directly with her in languages X,Y,Z. She wants me to be involved in the process to publication, which obviously involves revisions. (Does this make me a co-writer?) . Here’s the story: We/she/I believe her memoir would appeal to an American audience because …

Would an agent have to sign a contract with both of us?

For starters most agents won't touch this because you're not the author.

In fact, you wouldn't even hear back from me if you queried (Query Letter Diagnostics #4) because I don't reply to anyone who writes on behalf of the author.

There's a reason for that: my author/agent agreement is with the author herself. It's certainly not with the translator (no matter how charming.)  

If I can't talk with the author directly, there's ZERO chance I'm going to take her on as a client.  What I might do is take on the project if it came to me through an agent overseas with whom I have a solid working relationship.

That is, in fact, how foreign books mostly get published in the US: an overseas agent pitches the project to an agent or a publisher here (Frankfort and London Book Fairs are where a lot of this happens.)  I know of several editors who acquire books first published elsewhere and that is how they work.

And the idea that the book has already been translated is not the selling point you think it is. Most editors I know prefer to work with translators they know and trust.  They're at the mercy of that translator for a reliable translation (that's an actual clause in the contract) and to work with someone unknown (no matter how charming) is pretty much another non-starter.

I know you want to help your friend. I'm quite certain you want to create a reliable translation.  Your intentions don't matter at all here.  What matters to an editor is how much risk they're taking on. And they're taking a lot on because all the information flows through you.

You'd be better off seeking an agent where you are who can act for you in querying and securing a deal.  

And to answer your question: yes this is a work for hire. Yes you have copyright of any translation you do, but the money accrues to the author, and whoever hires you, pays you.  That will be spelled out in the contract you sign with whoever pays you.  

I know this is much more difficult and confusing than you thought it would be.  

Look at it from my point of view: you say you have permission to do this, but I can't ask the author directly cause she doesn't speak English and my Russian is limited to vodka and curse words from the James Bond movies. I can neither verify nor audit any of this.  This is a lot of perceived risk for a very limited reward.

Remember in the end, there are many more projects that are publishable than I could ever take on. I tend to pick the ones I don't think have "potential lawsuit" written all over them.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ah ha !

Sam Hawke said...

Damn, I was sure it would be me this time Carolynn!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

On behalf of my good friend Felix Buttonweezer and his wife Bettywith2Ts Booploop Buttonweezer they just want me to tell you how proud they are of their daughter Faith Buttonweezer.

All Faith wants to do is help her friend publish her Lithuanian memoir, The Sound of Munich. It's about her friend's granny, and the granny's adopted children from Austria/Germany, and how they formed a singing group and escaped from Austria during WWII.
Great story. You should take it on.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Hey Sam, you snooze you lose.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Carolynn, that's too funny.

There are definitely lots of red flags here. More like dead ends. Faith jumps off the hook, no bait for sharks.

Very enlightening. Thank you for answering. I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

AJ Blythe said...

Nothing to add to the Opie's question. But it makes me glad I'm writing stories from the crazy that exists in my own head =)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

LOL, 2Ns and Sam. Sibling rivalry is alive and well. And, 2Ns, was it a week of vacation for you? From the day job. You are truly enjoying it?

pssst, Janet. The heading of your column is missing an "i."

I have no intelligent on-topic questions or comments, at this time, for this interesting situation. Like Angie, I am looking forward to reading other people's comments and seeing what rose strewn path we shall be taking today.

Kitty said...

Boy, I hope this story gets published, in English, because the words "memoir" and "Russian" piqued my interest.

DLM said...

Without denting my adoration for DonnaE in the slightest, this morning I have to say 2Ns is the ginchiest. :)

WHAT a difficult situation for the OP and author! Sometimes, the letters here make me so grateful all I have to whine about is ...

Wait. I really don't have anything to whine about.

Carry on.

Helen DeWitt said...

I think it's a bit more complicated than this.

My understanding, based on discussions with my foreign publishers, is that the author-agent-publisher triangle is not the norm in many countries. That is, authors normally submit directly to publishers, as they once did in the US and UK. The publishers handle the foreign rights, and do their best to sell these when they see the potential in other markets. And when they do, it's enormously helpful to have sample chapters in English - not just for submitting to anglophone publishers, but to all the other publishers who use English as international business language.

So there would definitely seem to be a place in the process for a compelling English translation of a few chapters. An American or British publisher would, certainly, choose their own translator, but if they loved the quality of the chapters they might like more of the same. What looks tricky to me is getting the project taken on by a foreign agent in the first place, given that so many are, in effect, in the habit of representing publishers rather than authors.

There must be even more to it than this. Suppose the author is living under a repressive regime; it may not be possible to publish the book locally, never mind find an agent. (I seem to remember that Persepolis was first published in France, where it was discovered by an editor about to start work at Simon & Schuster.) If the author has to be published first in a foreign language, it makes sense to choose one with a big market - but it could just be the case that certain political realities don't lend themselves to selling first to America. Or, perhaps, that if it CAN be done, an organization like PEN would know more about how?

Anonymous said...

First off -

There is a huge difference between speaking a language fluently and understanding it yourself, and translating it fluently into a completely different language. One is merely an interpreter. The other is a translator. I'll give you two guesses as to who makes more money... ;)

So assuming you are not only well versed in both languages enough so to accomplish this feat, and assuming you are very culturally aware... (an Arabic friend of mine created a dictionary of "common" phrases in english that don't make any sense in Arabic. It's over 1000 pages long)... and assuming you know exactly how long this is going to take (because setting off to climb everest is one thing, but setting off to climb a mountian wearing only a fanny pack and socks is quite another) I still think your time would be better spent elsewhere.

Unless of course you're translating the book for legacy or personal purposes. Or unless you're going to self publish it for her and send her checks.

Here's my risk-reward story.

A trucker approached my lonely white tour van filled with sleeping band dudes at 2am about 1500 miles from home. I was in the passenger seat. My drummer was in the drivers seat.

*tap* *tap* *tap*

*drummer wakes me up, looks at smiling trucker, nervously rolls down window*

Trucker - "Hey guys, so I need to cash this check." *shows check to us* "It's a trucker check. We can cash these at gas stations and such, but it costs us a premium. We're always travelling all over the country at odd hours, an' all. I was wondering if you could help me out. Do you have $20 bucks?"

Drummer - "Uhh..."

Trucker - "No I get it's weird. Look. You lend me 20 bucks for 5 minutes. I'll walk inside, cash my check, and come back out and give you $40 back."

Drummer - "So you'll pay me 20 bucks to borrow 20 bucks?" *looks unsure*

Trucker - "Yeah. You got me! Here, I'll even let you hold on to my license until I get back." *Pulls out wallet, removes license, starts trying to hand it to drummer*

Drummer - *smiling* "No, that's okay man. Here, I'll see you in 5 mintues." *pulls out a 20 and hands it to trucker*

Trucker - "Hah. Thanks man. And hey, if you can't trust a trucker, who can you trust?"

Ten minutes later, I watched that truck driver walk out of that gas station with a magazine and a lotto ticket under his arm, get in his truck, and drive off. My drummer and I just stared at one another feeling like complete morons. We should have taken his license. But who am I kidding. It was probably fake too.

Morale of the story? Don't trust a trucker with $20 bucks. Buy a lotto ticket instead. You literally have a better chance of making your money back.

And this, folks, is why I'd prefer to write my own crazy ideas (lotto ticket) over writing someone elses and limiting my options severely.

And if I were to guess, writing your own memoir or book would probably take you the same amount of time as translating someone elses.

Those are my thoughts!

Janet Reid said...

Lisa, I'm very sure you need new specs. All the i's are there! Really!

ps thanks!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Yes Lisa I am off for the week and fully enjoy making it as number one commenter. Three days in a row now, is that a record?
My day job has me arriving at work shortly before 7am so when I finally get to jump on I am tossed in the midst of Janet’s comment salad and usually have little to add.

It’s great being home, doing some awesome, (if I do say so myself) editing, taking naps and living like real people do. My job has morphed into a very physical, on my feet for nine hours s**t-show and for an old broad like me I’m not sure how long I’ll last. It’s funny, there’s a few younger people sort-of doing what I do and they complain all the time. I shut up, do my job and soak my feet when I get home.

This paid week off is a blessing, and yes I am enjoying myself immensely, but it’s not vacation, it’s bereavement time. That’s another story.

I decided to not make this week a memorial to the maudlin. I am celebrating that someone I loved dearly, someone who suffered unbearably, is finally free to fly healthy forever.
I am the last member of the family I grew up with.
No condolences please.
Celebrate your families and remember if you end up as the last one expected to turn the lights off and close the door, don’t slam it, close it gently. I’m leaving the lights on so I’ll find my way when it’s my time.

DLM said...

2Ns, no condolences - but I'm smiling knowing you're a blessing to those about you. Lucky those'ns.

I never slam a door. Gossamer does Not Approve of slammings. :)

I'm going to pop a few dark chocolate covered espresso beans in toast to all of you. Cheers!

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: Congrats for nabbing first comment! There are some competitions I know I wasn't designed to attempt. I can just about hold my own with Janet's contests (though the talent on display can be quite intimidating), but any contest that involves early mornings? Non-starter for me. Life lesson: know your limits and play to your strengths. :)

Which leads me to today's question. Interesting. And Janet's answer reminds us that publishing is a business. As wonderful and helpful agents like Janet are to us woodland creatures, in the end they have to take care of business. What Brian said about translation is very true, and is actually one of the reasons I'm hesitant about reading books in translation. I may have talked about this here before, but when I read a book in translation, I'm always left wondering, "Did I just read Tolstoy, or did I read Faith Buttonweezer's interpretation of Tolstoy's Russian?" In other words, "Was that Tolstoy's voice, or Faith Buttonweezer's?" The art of translation is not simply taking foreign sentences and rendering each word into the target language. It's taking each clause, sentence, paragraph, and rendering its meaning into the target language. A very different, and much more skilled enterprise, requiring intimate knowledge of both languages, and the cultures within which those languages are spoken. I can't help feeling that if I truly want to hear Tolstoy's voice, I need to learn Russian. But my dilemma is that it would take so long to become that familiar with Russian, I'd have no time to do anything else for a long time. I read WAR AND PEACE last year in translation, and found it tough going. I wasn't sure if it was because of the translation, or whether the translation was an accurate reflection of Tolstoy's prose, and I just wasn't digging Tolstoy.

Anyway, my translation dilemmas aside, I understand where Janet's coming from. She needs to work with the originator of the work, not a proxy, unless it's an approved proxy (i.e., another agent). I guess by implication, Janet (or an agent) needs to be able to read the author's work in the language in which it was originally written--correct? So if the author's English was good enough to correspond with the agent, but not good enough to write the novel in English, that agent would still pass on the project? I presume the agent isn't going to offer representation having only read a translation of the novel?

And for those skimming the comments, here's a summary of the above: Blah blah blah blah blah, jolly good show old chap. Toodle pip!

Donnaeve said...

I pictured the OP relaying this information back to the author, and how discouraging it could seem. Aside from all of the unknowns to this situation, I also wondered what it is about this story that would make someone take on the work of translation? Is it simply a favor b/c the OP loves this friend? Is the story one of those which MUST be told, b/c as Helen mentioned, they live in a repressive regime where perhaps freedom of speech is non-existent?

I think without knowing all of the facts - or maybe QOTKU did know them but kept those tidbits out of the question/answer - there's a lot of reading between the lines.

I think it makes more sense to do what was already suggested which would be to start with a few chapters translated and investigate the chances within the native country if possible, or where the English language is part and parcel of standard business practices.

Diane - Dang it. Okay, I'll relinquish my "Ginchiest" award for today, but only today, just for 2N's and her Sound Of Music comment.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Colin, blah, blah, blah you are too funny.
Donna how about we share the award.
DLM, thanks and cheers back-at-cha.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Or the author could try marketing the book in another country whose primary language is the same as the author's, or at least close enough where the communication divide is not so great.

DLM said...

Colin, if I drank coffee, my monitors would be wearing it. Hee.

Donna, you're dear to share. It's part of your getting the title in the first place, but all things considered - y'all are BOTH in fine company!

Kitty, by the way - Janet mentioned Russia in her example, but I'm not sure from the OP's question that's actually one of the locations in play here.

One of the other issues with this question is, of course, the ultimate issue of memoir itself. It's HARD to sell - and I've read so many agents who also say it's so painful to reject. Telling little old ladies their lives aren't interesting enough to sell ... Yet more ouch in an already complex and questionable offering.

Donnaeve said...

Colin, wow. That says it all, toodle pip! So funny!

Seriously, to drill down into the detailed nuances of a translation, there's so much room for error it's almost scary, and when I think of the "quirks" of the English language alone, it's practically nightmarish. There, their, they're, anyone? And that example, IMO, is like picking up a grain of sand off the beach and saying you shoveled a truckload.

It's all of your points that have always made me go "hmmmm," when I consider all of the translations of the Bible.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: ... which is why I learned Koine Greek and Hebrew. :)

Oh, and Lisa--I couldn't see any missing "i"s either. "Of course you couldn't see them--they're missing!" har har. Unless Janet's name is actually spelled Jainet, or Janiet, or Janeit, or maybe Janeti? Or perhaps she's iJanet--Apple's new literary agent device?

DLM said...

For study and consideration, I love my New English Bible, but for language and the sheer, bone-deep familiarity of my whole life back to the beginning, it really is difficult to beat the KJV. At the end, though, it has always come down to the pastors I've followed. I've had great good fortune in spiritual leaders.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: I meant to add: this is why I highly recommend for those who wish to study the Bible seriously, but have neither the time nor the inclination to learn the original languages, that they pick up a couple of good, committee-based translations. You can even get Bibles that have three, four, or five translations in parallel. That way you get to see where different translations pick up on different nuances in the original text.

Dena Pawling said...

I am not a court-authorized interpreter, but I'm passable in certain languages, and it never ceases to amaze me that said court-authorized interpreters do NOT interpret the same way I would have, and occasionally I've had other court-authorized interpreters complain to me that the court-authorized interpreter of the day “isn't rendering an accurate translation.”

Sometimes I myself disagree with the interpreter's version.

It can also be fun, being that I look pretty gringo, listening to Defendants in the hallway discussing their case strategy. Now I am always above-board. I've introduced myself and I'm standing right next to them, not hiding behind a trash can. Why do people automatically assume I don't speak Spanish? I once surprised the heck out of the Defendants in my case, by refuting their case strategy in my own case-in-chief, before they even had a chance to speak.

I was a polite attorney and helped them pick up their jaws from the floor.

I was once a juror [stupid DA didn't excuse me lol, she almost lost her case because of me, and I did disclose that I clerked in the Public Defender's office during law school] and the interpreter for the witness actually provided testimony for us, on the nuances of the language based on the customs of the witness's place of birth.

Accurate translation is difficult, and many times subjective. I can certainly understand why an agent would be hesitant on this issue. On the other hand, the memoir of someone from a foreign country actually sounds really interesting.

DLM said...

Colin, my Tanakh has that (plus commentary); it's glorious! And I so love the original testament, too.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Donna: the Bible example--exactly.

Colin: the difference between translation and interpretation. Translations change because English is a living language and how do we get the nuances correct from one language to another. Especially when cultures have been or are so different. When Hebrew has (had?) 5 different words (I think I'm remembering right)for our one word "Spirit" how do we know which nuance or aspect is being implied?

2Ns: I am glad you are having paid time off to celebrate the life and love of family. What a hard place to be. What a grace you express in the living on.

DLM said...

Dena, such a fascinating point. The dynamics are maddening. I remember as a kid learning German, coming to understand what a cognate was, and simply adoring the whole idea. I still do. And yet, when I look at any translation my wee and paltry little brain might be able to comprehend, cognates are almost NEVER used!!!! Even direct-spelling straight up same-word/different-language cognates.

This has always perplexed and annoyed me, and to this very aged day I have never seen a word anywhere in the world explaining this. While I do get that cognates are not always what we'd like them to be cracked up to be, and therefore may be deceiving - I find it flat-out impossible to believe they are never EVER the right choice ...

Donnaeve said...

2N's - I'm happy to share with Wry! :)

Colin - that would make sense too, IMO.

Brian - your story reminded me of one of my own:

He stood still, not one movement in the two minutes it took me to come within four feet of where he stood.

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do until I flicked my eyes to the left to read the sign he held, "Need food. Anything. Please."

I didn't have a lot of money. I was a single mom with two kids. There were nights I didn't eat so they could. I looked in my wallet, so aware him standing right there. I pulled out a five and three ones. It was all I had. I kept my head down, staring at the money. Should I give him the singles and keep the five? Maybe give him the five and keep the singles? That was the way I thought back then. Weighing out the consequences with regard to the variation of eight dollars.

I rolled my window down, and that movement turned into the commitment. He moved carefully towards my car, reached out, took the money. He turned around, no thank you, no God bless. He picked up the small bag beside his feet and began a crazy, shaky shuffling walk across the street and right into a liquor store. The light changed and I could have gone left to go home or right to go to the liquor store and demand my money back. I went left, cussing my stupidity the whole way home.

I imagine everyone here has a story about giving in good faith only to get burned.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Janet and Colin: ha! My eyes see just fine, thank you very much!

Dena: my daughter knows Chinese and works retail. Sometimes she surprises some of her customers who speak Chinese. Especially the 4-year-old girl who was being defiant about not following her mom out the door. When my daughter (a petite woman but definitely European looking) spoke Chinese, the girl became scared, cried, and ran out to mom.

Donnaeve said...

Well, I was busy with my "story" above and so thank you all for your suggestions on recommended reading with regard to KJV or other variations of the Bible.

Colin - impressive language skills! I'm not sure I've ever heard of Koine Greek. Why do I seem to think there are parts where Aramaic should be used in the translation of certain passages? Maybe I'm dreaming that.

Adele said...

Early in my working career, with much education and little experience, I spent a year translating simple business correspondence. Despite years of university training, until I translated for real I did not understand the many subtleties and subtexts there are in three-line notices that start out with "All Employees Must ..."

Aaah, the joy of instant feedback. You translate one sentence and the next day half the staff find a way to call you "ma chere madame". It might only have been one poorly-chosen word, but obviously you came off sounding like the schoolteachers you learned from. I quit the job after a year and haven't translated since.

I've read nasty reviews of poor translations, and I can see why editors need someone they can trust, and why the work would have to be something special to warrant the risk. Translation is a delicate, exacting art, open to criticism and misinterpretation at every step, and it's hard enough to sell a book in its original language.

DLM said...

Donna, I'm reminded of a sitcom from 15 years ago, "Sports Night." Robert Guillaume starred as the show's executive, and he had a scene once where he described a very similar moment, walking into his building for work, on a frigid cold winter's day. Someone responded to him, "Weren't you worried he was just going to buy a bottle of liquor?" And he replied, "I HOPE he was going to buy a bottle of liquor. It that gives him warmth and comforts him, it is worth it to me to share just a little bit of my money to give him what he needs. It's not mine to judge what he does with that money." (Roughly remembered dialog, of course.)

I've always given to panhandlers when I could (though I can admit when I was living downtown, I did consciously cultivate a habit of rarely having cash on my person), without consideration for what they might do with the money. I've given to folks I know are what some call "scammers" (ones I heard the same story from many times, though they never recognized me), given sandwiches when I was full and had half left I could share, given in parking lots and at intersections. As long as I don't endanger my security, I'll give and not judge outcomes.

It's like tipping well for wait staff and delivery people. I've never had to do that job, and I'm grateful - and I don't make tons of money, but I make enough I can spare a little here and there for those who, no matter their motivations, have not had the fortune and privilege I do. It's no different, to me, than putting money in the collection plate at church (and doesn't take away from that).

Anonymous said...

DLM - This meerkat misses nothing. See end of comments from yesterdays post.

Lisa - The bible is a whole 'nother can of worms. But there is a fine line between "We can't ever truly translate it" and "We got a group of people with a combined 500 years in language a and language b together and they came up with a translation that's very reasonable."

Understanding something in its language is not understanding it in context. Hence why history is always so tied into sermon. But to say we can never really know for certain so we might as well not try is a bit different. There is a middle ground here or translations as a whole would not exist.

When the goal of language is to be understood, each article needs to be weighed separately and not as a whole, against the situations and considerations presented. We can't act like language is meant to confuse or to deter people from capturing a true meaning. But we can neither assume that by human means alone we could ever truly capture the essence of a particular piece at a particular time in a particular way that is universally and perfectly translated.

Language is crazy. I give up.

Elissa M said...

I have to agree with those suggesting the author query her own work in her own language. If the original questioner is indeed fluent enough in that language to be a translator, he/she can perhaps provide editing services and assist the friend in creating a publishable manuscript.

If this is more a labor of love rather than a truly marketable memoir, it might be less traumatic (rejection-wise) to go the self-publishing route. There are reputable Print on Demand publishers who can create physical copies for a reasonable price (if that's what the author really wants). The nice part about self-publishing is the book can be done in the author's language, so she can have her own readable copy. And, while the odds are astronomically against it, some self-published books have gone on to wide popularity.

That's just my two cents. Good luck in any case, OP!

DLM said...

I caught it, Meerkat. I was a lil' tired by then, so have not provided you the courtesy of a response.

Plus, I was a little muffled. Wearing a helmet, dontchaknow. ;)

Craig F said...

Sticky. In all directions.

No I am not talking about the weather. 101 in Charlotte yesterday was unreal though.

This situation is sticky. I am not going to get into the though differences between a milk language and an acquired language but they are there.

First, if it is a memoir wouldn't you write a proposal like a non-fiction book?

Second, a power of attorney might smooth the way in some circumstances but they are different in different legal systems. Some countries seem to be diametrically opposed to the American system.

I think I would approach an indie publisher as a non-fiction and see if they will drag a couple of attorneys in to check into ways to un-stick it.

Carolynn with 2: Thank you. I just have to make it past the build up to Father's Day.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Donna: Jesus' original language is Aramaic. But the New Testament is written in Greek. The Old Testament in Hebrew.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Most of Daniel and some other portions of the Hebrew Bible are in Aramaic. You remember correctly. :) Koine Greek is the "Common" Greek in use around the 1st century (though its use predates that time). It's less refined than Attic Greek (the Greek of Thucydides, etc.), but still fairly close to it. Those familiar with Modern Greek can, perhaps, get by in both Attic and Koine, but will probably struggle with vocabulary, changed word meanings, and some grammatical forms. I know this because when I was university, I asked a native Greek speaker if he could understand my Greek New Testament, and he struggled.

"Koine" Greek is, in fact, a relatively recent designation. Up until a few hundred years ago, Biblical scholars considered the Greek of the New Testament to be some kind of "special" Greek--some even went so far as to call it "Holy Ghost" Greek, because it wasn't like any other Greek they'd seen. Then archaelogical discoveries turned up receipts, shopping lists, letters, and other such ephemera of daily first-century life all written in the same Greek as the New Testament. Hence this "Holy Ghost" Greek was re-named "Common" Greek. Who says God doesn't have a sense of humor? ;)

Jenz said...

Like others have said, there's a difference between fluency and interpreting or translating.

It's similar to someone thinking they've effectively mastered writing via their ability to speak--I talk words, I word good, ergo, I write easy.

Megan V said...

Today's post really brought up a conundrum for me.

On the one hand, I understand the Shark's position. I do not speak any language other than English (Although, I can understand smatterings of a few other languages—enough to know when I'm being insulted in 26 different languages...). AKA reliable interpreters and translators needed. So I can see the importance of being able to communicate with the author directly or deal with a reputable foreign agent.

On the other hand, when the author is someone who does not speak English, who lives in the USA, and who (particularly as its a memoir!) might have a brilliant story, I worry that this instant cautious rejection might perpetuate a lack of diversity in the market and prevent the dissemination of potentially historically valuable information(especially in the case of an elderly relative). This is especially true if the author's language and dialect is one that is not readily spoken by many other members of the US population. Shouldn't there be a way around this roadblock aside from telling the original author"Hey grandma learn to speak English?"

Perhaps if she/he/they provided a reputable third party interpreter/translator rather than a friend?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

You guys are so foreign-language-smart. I don't have that gene. I barely know my own.

IMHO and prescribing no political leanings...
Spanish, words spout machine-gun fast.
French, like they all have numb tongues.
German, sounds angry most of the time.
Russian, word belches.
Chinese, singing off tune.
English: Brit, formal and teachery, Aussie, tongue tripping, South African, working man's Brit/style English, Africans, Dutch and German bag of confetti, and American, a ear-bowl of mixed jelly bean sounds.

I flunked Latin twice so what do I know.

Colin Smith said...

Megan: Good point. I've been assuming Opie is referring to a non-English speaker in a foreign country wanting to get a US agent. What if the non-English speaker is living in the US, so this is the writer's native market? How can such a person get the attention of a US agent other than going through a trusted third party who speaks English?

DLM said...

2Ns, you have not heard a lot of Russian is my guess. German is closer to belching; Russian is much more sibilant. I once heard Gorbachev speak (he had to be interpreted, actually!), and Russian in his extraordinarily beautiful voice was one of the most gorgeous human speech patterns I have ever heard.

I'm not sure I'd agree that British spoken English sounds formal nor teacher-y either, but that may be because I've cultivated an ear for the many different dialects/accents across the UK. I have an extreme soft spot for Northern British English, and the sweet sound of any Beatle recorded in his youth is music even if he's not singing. :)

Megan V said...

2NNs: That list of languages sounds fairly accurate to me :)

Colin: On a side note- happy blog birthday!

DLM said...

Perhaps the most fascinating linguistic peculiarity I ever witnessed in my life was my roommate (native Finnish, in her own first language) speaking with our Japanese friend, speaking in her own language as well, and understanding one another. I've never researched it, but apparently Finnish and Japanese were cognate languages. Astounding.

Either that or they were having me on ... :)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Brian: not to say we shouldn't translate but just to be aware that there might be missing nuances behind translations. Hence, my delight when I found out Spirit had many different meanings or aspects in its original language which has deepened or broadened my English understanding of that simple little word.

2Ns: So interesting, your take on language. I remember sitting with an Australian woman one time, in Glasgow, Scotland as we waited for someone. It was a busy street and we people-watched. She liked to guess country-of-origin by the way people used their facial expressions and their mouths, how open or closed their expressions were.

Colin Smith said...

Lisa: Thankfully, words derive nuance from context, and this is true in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, English, French, German, etc. Words have a semantic range--possible definitions--and we know what's intended by the context in which the word is used. So even if the Hebrew ruach can mean "spirit" or "wind" or other things (as is true with the Greek pneuma, interestingly), the context will usually indicate the author's intended use.

Megan: Thank you! Help yourself to some chocolate cake. :)

LynnRodz said...

Years ago, I learned very quickly from a publisher here they have their own translators. Another friend asked me to do the same as the OP and it's a pity her brother's story was never told. He was in the French Resistance and was captured by the Nazis. He died in Auschwitz and left behind a notebook* that was filled with what was going on in camp, his thoughts, his beautiful poems of how the human spirit can still see beauty and hope amidst the horrors and evils that man will do to his fellow man.

*How the notebook got back to his family is in itself a story.

I did translate a play for a friend (long story short) a NY agent was looking for a play about Billie Holiday and he happened to have one written in French. A play is a lot easier than translating a novel. Yes, I obtained a copyright of the English version, but as Janet said, it was a work for hire.

Brian, you're right, it is a lot of work to translate, you have to know the argot, the nuances of a language and that takes years. Personally, I'd rather put in the time writing my own stories, plays, poems, whatever.

Dena, no one should ever take for granted someone else doesn't understand what they're saying. The stories I can tell you are hilarious.

Of course, I prefer reading a book in the language it was written. I'm lucky to be able to read a piece of work in French, English or Spanish, but if you don't know other languages, it's shortsighted not to read books that have been translated. Think of all the wonderful literature you're missing.

Well said, Carolynn.

Sometimes Carkoon feels like a schoolyard full of kids.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

DLM: I shared a house with several people including a Finnish man. He said that many of his people speak Swedish as their first language. Finnish is an odd language among the European language group as is Hungarian. But Finnish and Japanese are cognate languages? Wow. Small world. But then along the same line--Baltic amber, created from the resin of a northern European pine forest is related to the Japanese umbrella-pine.

Colin Smith said...

LynnRodz: "it's shortsighted not to read books that have been translated." Which is why I have read WAR AND PEACE, and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV as well as other non-native-English works. As a reader looking for a good story, I have no problem with that. As a writer trying to identify an author's voice, and learn from that author, it frustrates me that I don't know if I'm really hearing the author, or the author's translator. Can I really know what Dostoyevsky's voice is like if it changes depending on the translator? It's probably just me... I should have learned Russian. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

DLM, My neighbor is Russian. Maybe he just has indigestion all the time :)

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Carolynn, too funny. But you must be talking about swiss German. What does Italian sound like to you?

I agree with Adele and Janet, of course, that editors need trusted translators.

Many of my friends are professional translators. They’re hired by editors or their clients and are paid circa 12 cents per word. Most translate scientific papers but one has a masters in comparative lit. She’s got the command of language agents want. Recently she told me the translator holds the copyright for the translation as a derivative work and could ask for a small royalty. Earning a royalty, even 1%, would be worth it for Stephen King’s books. But sweating hours of writing time to translate a friend’s work to be paid afterwards and work as go-between sounds uncomfortable. Especially if what Janet says, it’s not a bonus to sell the work. It sounds like the translator might also risk some legal action. As Donna said "giving good faith to get burned".

I have a question, how do editors deal with the translator’s copyright?

I’ve done many small translations for friends and for free. Keeping their voice is brain racking at times. But that’s what a good translation is.

Dena, I’ve done simultaneous interpreting, mostly for my own business, and during family arguments. Don’t have to translate arguments anymore. Sometimes when I’m switching languages, I find it funny the other parties can’t understand each other because it’s so clear in my mind.

Helen makes a great point, the author could take sample chapters to an editor or a book fair as Janet suggests.

Elissa: great advice; OP could help with editing their friend’s memoir.

Colin: If you want to learn how to speak currently in another language read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. You can probably imagine, it’s nothing like reading the bible translated in French or any other language on earth.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Angie, Italian?

I can't believe I didn't think of Italian because my husband's family is Italian and we are going to Italy in September.

Italian, a verbal see-saw of up and down hand gestures.

My family,
Polish, words in a bicycle basket going over pot holes.

Colin Smith said...

Just for the record, my favourite British accents: Brummie, Scouse, Yorkshire, Geordie, Irish, and Scottish. And I love hearing just about any foreign (to me) accent/language. My love for languages far exceeds my ability. :)

Colin Smith said...

Oh, and Welsh! Though that's a late-comer partly because I grew up close to Wales so I heard it a lot. But now it reminds me of home, so I have developed an affection for it.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well Colin, in my homeland, a good New England Maine Yankee accent is music to my eayahs.
Aayup. Can't get theyya from heeyah.

John Frain said...

Ms. Janet, if you knew all the ways to say vodka in Russian, you'd know about a dozen Russian words. I'm told -- by a woman named Olga, so I believe -- that if you like to drink vodka, you should pronounce the word vodichka.

True story: Before we went to Russia to adopt a couple boys, we tried to learn Russian on tape. Second word they taught us? You guessed it: Vodka.

Know your priorities!

Ly Kesse said...


I think you Finnish friend was putting you on. Estonian and Finnish are mutually understandable (I'm an Esto). Estonian and Japanese are not.

When trying to figure out family trees of languages, I learned that the Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian with a slew of small language, including Sami or Lapp, I believe) are a linguistic puzzle.

I have come across at various times that that family is related to Turkish, Iranian, and Japanese. Maybe. The supposed tie to Iranian has got to be wrong, for Persian is an Indo-European language while Estonian is not.

Donnaeve said...

Diane, I thought about what you said, and I came to this conclusion.

From my little perch in the world, I don't mind giving anyone the shirt off my back if it truly does them some good. Good for me is in a healthy, not hurting oneself way. Personally, I'd choose the stance of not giving money to someone who's abusing themselves. Sure, they have a right to do what they want with their bodies, etc., but I'd have to say, sorry, you need to do that on your own dime. Give food? You bet. Been there done that. Give clothing? All the time. Shoes? Blankets. Coats. Donate here and there, to various causes. Check. Money out the window with no idea of it's real use? Not going to happen any more.

I look at it like this. If I had a knife and I realized giving the knife to a "cutter" would give them relief, and would do them some good, would I give it to them? No. Make that hell no. LOL! I don't look at anyone as to judge, I simply prefer to help in ways that don't cause the perpetuation of addiction/disease, or bodily harm.

Donnaeve said...

Of course, being from NC, southern dialect is my own form of heaven. I do love to listen to Shelby Foote.

On the other hand, I'm always proud to scream "Na zdrowie!" when downing a shot. Thx to my old Polish friend Paul.

Anonymous said...

In my case the 20 spot was used for dirty mags and lotto tickets. From a well fed trucker. And from the look of his paycheck which I recon was real, he didn't need to borrow 20 bucks. ;)

John Frain said...


I'm betting you've gotten $21 worth of good storytelling off that one-time investment. Winning lotto stories? They're a dime a dozen. (Except Carl Hiaasen's "Lucky You" which was worth the 6.99 cover price and then some.)

How many times have you re-enacted the moment you and your drummer stared at each other dumbfounded? I've already done it twice in my office with my dog who has no idea what's going on but plays a pretty good drummer.

Anonymous said...

Helen had some very good points. I also agree with Janet.

If the memoirist is in Europe, going directly to a European agent or publisher is probably a good idea. They'll understand the market and they'll probably be more knowledgeable about translations. Many (most?) Europeans know more than one language.

Of course, it's possible it's not in Europe.

If the author and translator are in North America, something else I might suggest is to go through local ethnic groups. They'll often publish memoires and other historical and cultural books that have to do with their peoples - in the original languages and in translation.

There are places in the Bible where there have been plays on different meanings of words (such as spirit vs wind). The New American Bible is one of the closest in terms of translated meanings - it was completely retranslated from the oldest and best versions. When there are plays on words, the translator explains them in notes. It's very cool.

Donnaeve said...

Ooooh. Huh. Okay, then I change my stance. No money out my window for someone to harm OR pleasure themselves.


DLM said...

Donna, you're right of course - it's just that I've never seen what you did in that instance, and I feel it is beyond me to *know* outcomes. So I give when I can, but that isn't super often to be fair. Living in suburbia and working even farther out toward rural, this is not something I encounter as much as I once did.

Ly Kesse, I actually Googled for a little after posting above, and it turns out there are phonological *similarities* between Finnish and Japanese, but no root relationship. I'll say that Pia and Yoko were not the sort to put me on; they found some way to make it work between them, but - yeah. :)

Gingermollymarilyn said...

Translation is so important, when you think about it. I used to work for the govt. and the federal forms, of the office I worked in, were translated from Canadian French to English. There was one question that confused almost all applicants, which is in turn, wasted so much time. And it was because the wording was so bad. Almost as if it had been picked out of a selection of words from a thesaurus, without any true knowledge of the definition. I'd never thought of this scenario before as to how it translates into a story. It could actually change it quite significantly. It really is sort of like the translator authoring the book.

DeadSpiderEye said...

This is interesting question, the implications of conflicting rights are quite daunting and highlight potential pitfalls.

Anonymous said...

When I first saw this post on Facebook, I thought it was posted by Ms Shark herself:

How to avoid being bitten by a shark, on

But I knew it wasn't from her when I didn't see this tip in the ways to avoid shark attacks:

- Never think that an agent's time is more important than yours.