A look at the translator-author relationship

At the London Book Fair’s Center for Literary Translation, a session looked at how author-translator relationships aren’t always easy.

Left to right, Nariman Youssef, Kari Dickson and Clare Richards, at a seminar on the London Book Fair’s Center for Literary Translation. Image: Editorial Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

“Training of authors and publishers”

Ohen one reads translated works of fiction, one rarely thinks of the many exchanges that take place before publication between the translator, the author – provided they are alive – and the editor or publisher.

In a panel called The good, the bad, the ugly: the translator-author relationship On Tuesday April 5, the opening day of the 2022 London Book Fair, translators Kari Dickson (Norwegian to English) and Nariman Youssef, (Arabic to English) chatted with moderator and translator Clare Richards (Korean to English) of their relationship with the authors – mostly good, but sometimes less so.

The idea for the panel came from the translator Sawad Hussain (Arabic to English), after a difficult experience with an author that she was able to manage with the help of her colleagues and the Association of Translators , a group hosted by the Society of Authors.

After speaking to fellow translators and members of the community, Hussain said, “I realized that so many translators go through difficult relationships with authors. You can have a wonderful relationship with an author, but no one talks about the lesser times.

Sawad Hussein

As co-chair of the Translators Association committee, Hussain had the good fortune to propose a panel for this week’s trade show. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for the translators at the London Book Fair to hear from experienced translators how they have handled difficult relationships with authors,” she said, “and what the lessons they learned”.

Clare Richards began moderating the session by asking Dickson and Youssef about their first contact with authors when starting a translation.

Dickson said she was very lucky and never had to pitch an author she’d like to translate to a publisher. Publishers contact her through Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA). Once Dickson gets a contract, she asks the publisher how she should contact the author, and when she does, she then asks, for example, if that author would like all the questions she has in one times, or if he or she prefers questions while she is working.

“Some writers say they don’t want any contact,” says Dickson. “Others I have a working relationship with, especially when I translate many of their books.”

Unlike the relatively straightforward way Norwegian literature is exported to the UK, the process isn’t as straightforward with Arabic-language books in translation, Youssef said, due to a lack of structure – a shortage literary, financing and distribution agents.

She said she often contacted an author, herself, to tell him that a book sounded interesting. The author will send him the book. Youssef will then pitch an editor. For this reason, Youssef usually communicates with authors at an early stage.

“Some interactions have resulted in deep collaborations,” she said, while “sometimes there are just a few questions and short answers.”

“I try not to see authors as friends”

Authors don’t always understand how the translation process works, Youssef said. She and Dickson agreed that when the author is also a translator, it makes the process much smoother.

Dickson described how an author entrusted her with fact-checking a book before beginning the translation and thanked her for reading the book so closely.

Youssef said that overall she was lucky in her dealings with the authors. At the beginning of the year, she worked with an author on a philosophical short story, in the genre of magic realism. She asked if she could speak to the author.

“We had an amazing conversation via Zoom,” she said, with the author sharing plenty of insight into the book’s inspiration, “which gave me a sense of the author’s world. author was not possessive about the text and allowed me to work with him in a way that made sense to me.

“The process was collaborative and I had freedom in the end result.”

Difficult situations

Richards asked Dickson and Youssef to describe some difficult situations they had encountered.

Dickson said she had a bad experience and a bad one.

The bad one was peculiar, she says, because she got along very well with the author. They had worked on three or four books together, at which point the author “started to get possessive of me as a [a personal] translator” not wanting her “to work on something else”.

Dickson backed out of the relationship, and as a result, “I try not to see the authors as friends,” she said. “It was a learning curve.”

In what she considers her “ugly” experience, she had completed a translation for a major publisher, sent it in, and “they loved it,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything for a long time.

“I wrote to the publisher because I hadn’t been paid. The author had decided that he didn’t want to work with me. The publisher said I could keep the deposit, but they didn’t pay me anything else. It was mortifying.

“I thought my career was over. When I started talking about it, I realized that so many people had similar experiences. I felt shame but there was solidarity. It helped me rebuild my confidence to talk to other translators.

“As a translator, I realized that I was alone and that I couldn’t face a big publishing house. It was shocking.

Youssef described a situation where a book she had translated was being republished. No one had considered asking his permission or giving him a contract.

“I contacted the publisher and said that the rights had reverted to me. There was a feeling that I was the most difficult. It was disturbing. The Translators Association helped me with the terms of the contract.

“If we patiently communicate our positions as translators, it can go a long way – it’s up to us to educate editors and authors.

“Translators are at the bottom of the food chain. There was no reason not to give me a contract. I wanted some recognition, not necessarily to get paid but to have my name on [the book], to revise it. It worked well in the end, but there were many times when I would have given up if I hadn’t talked to other translators.

“Depends on interpersonal relationships”

It depends on the personality, Dickson said.

“You might feel like your boundaries are being crossed by one person while with another you might not feel that way. It’s all about understanding and respect and it comes down to interpersonal relationships.

It can be difficult to set rules and stick to them, Youssef said.

“Sometimes the editor steps in and when the editor is helpful, that’s great. Sometimes it’s better to keep some distance, but you can also miss out on exciting and fruitful collaborations. I don’t think that there is an easy answer.

Translators will joke that the best authors are dead, Dickson said, but Youssef added that working with estates can also be tricky.

Recounting her own experience and her impetus for organizing the panel, Hussain said that while going through her “heartbreaking” experience with its author, “I felt very alone and felt like it was a reflection of my value and work as a translator. But after talking to members of my community, I realized that so many translators go through difficult relationships with their authors. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a wonderful relationship with your author.

Hussain said Catherine Fuller, Project Manager and Senior Contracts Advisor for the Society of Authors, was “helpful in helping me through the whole process, negotiating with the publisher, and responding in a professional manner to a degrading situation”.

Dickson and Youssef agreed that the Translators Association’s management of contracts and monitoring of bad situations that arise can be helpful in avoiding future difficulties. Communication between fellow translators is priceless.


Read more about translation in Publishing Perspectives here, read more about the work of translators, read more about the UK Translators Association, and read more about the Society of Authors.

To find out more about the London Book Fair, which ends today, click here.

To learn more about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and its impact on international book publishing, click here.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a Paris-based journalist and editor who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post and The New York Times.

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