Using an Unconventional Strategy to Become a Book Translator

It's been over ten years since I translated my first book. In all that time, there's been one book that influenced me the most - and it's because I actively recommended and promoted it to a publishing company. This book, moreover, brought me even more work as a translator.

Passion paves the way

Many years ago my husband had read a book he had bought on Amazon.com and loved it so much that he convinced me to read it. After reading it, I felt it was just such a fantastic piece, and I wanted so much to share it with several of my friends. But at the time, there was no Chinese translation for this work. Friends of mine who didn't understand English well enough would be unable to tap into the riches within the pages, so a thought came to my mind: Why don't I translate it?

The book I translated was Zor: Philosophy, Spirituality, and Science

I was very enthusiastic about this book, and as a result, I ended up translating two chapters of it within just a few short days. More than ten thousand characters had blazed through my fingertips and onto the computer screen, and I planned to send it out to five friends for them to be my literary guinea pigs.

But I couldn't help thinking that after I had translated those ten thousand words: Since I think this book is so great, why don't I find a publisher for it and see whether a publishing house would be willing to put it out on the market, expanding the potential audience of this book? (This story is similar to how we founded Termsoup: We thought it would be just fine for our own personal use at first, and then, later on, we thought that this can be available for everyone!)

Customized proposal for publishers

After I decided I wanted to give the book to a publisher, I went to a book store to find out information about potential publishers for this book's genre, and jotted down their email addresses, preparing to write them cold contact letters. At the time, I had prepared emails for about fifteen publishing companies and had attached a translation sample of a couple thousand characters for the receiving editor to look at.

I had hoped so much that this sample would catch the eye of an editor that I had written them four-page-long recommendation letters in addition to the original emails. Later on, I knew that this was actually what publishing companies called a "proposal draft." From the publisher's standpoint, "making sure it can sell itself" is the most important consideration for whether or not a publisher will pick up the book.

To convince the editor that my recommendation wasn't simply a "good book," but a book that sells, I spent several days searching for information about the author. I looked at Amazon reader reviews, and translating these reviews from English into Chinese for the editor to take a look at (In reality though, all editors in the publishing industry can understand English). I evaluated this book's market prospects and put forward the reasons why I believed that it could sell well.

In fact, editors ordinarily do these sorts of things when they are evaluating a book. They continue to pay careful attention to market trends. It's just that if I slightly help the editor in collecting all the basic information at first and add on my analysis at the same time, then it might save them some effort, and the editor may also see my passion for this book. Perhaps I didn't market it well enough, but this kind of sincerity is always noticed by editors.

Contact the author

However, before I sent off any of these emails to these publishing houses, I did a crucial thing: Write a letter to the author!

I wrote to the author, saying that I was a reader from Taiwan, expressing that I really wanted to help him get his book published by a Taiwanese publisher. The author was positively over the moon when he received my email, being totally surprised that a person he'd never met before from halfway around the world would be willing to help recommend his book to a publisher.

He was an independent author, and at the time, he was only publishing his works via Amazon's self-publishing platform, meaning he had no hard copy version of his book. So from the beginning, he had never thought that he'd suddenly have someone wanting to help him get his book published in Chinese.

Within just a few email exchanges, the author asked me whether or not I wanted a commission after I carried out this task of bringing his book to the attention of a publisher. I told the author that I didn't want a commission because I was simply a devoted fan of his work, hoping that this book could help more people who used Chinese as their primary language. But, I truly did have one condition that I requested of him: If this book were to go off without a hitch and be signed on by a publisher, that he would let me be the translator of the book.

According to publishers, if nobody is familiar with the work or the translator hasn't had experience in translating literary pieces, they will rarely sign on an unfamiliar/unknown translator. I believed it would be easier to make a publisher give me the translation rights if I first had the approval and recommendation of the author, and so I put forth this request. After listening to this request, the author gladly accepted.

I became the translator of the book

After getting the author's nod of approval, I sent out the translation draft sample to those fifteen publishers, hoping that it would catch the eye of a publisher. This book's luck was pretty good. It got publishing rights tenders from several publishers, and the contract was finally signed by one company.

Having been recommended by the author, I did indeed become the translator for the book (though later on, I found out that had I not had his recommendation to be the translator, I very likely would not have been selected for the job). To help spread the word about this book, I also accepted the publisher's plans to share this book on the air in a broadcast. A while later, I asked the editor how the book was selling. He expressed that it was doing pretty well. The book would later come out in a simplified Chinese edition for the Chinese market.

The traditional Chinese version of Zor

As a result of me translating this book, I would later have an endless stream of other publishers signing me on for translation contracts (they all found me after reading my translation), and I continue to translate other works. Most importantly, many readers expressed that this book really had a helpful impact on their lives, and cleared up several difficulties in life. So I think this translation experience of mine really couldn't have gone any better: no matter if you are a writer, readers, a publishing house, or a translator, we all have our own gains and benefits.

Translators can do more

The editor responsible for this book was extremely modest. Even though the book he selected sold pretty handsomely, he always said that he couldn't tell which way the market winds were blowing. He even told me: "If you think there's an interesting book out there, then give me your recommendation, because it's also a great struggle for editors when selecting works for publishing. Even though in the end we may not pick the book you recommend, at least you yourself have read the whole thing cover to cover, so your opinion is very valued. If you can tell us clearly why we should approve this book, then it's a great help to us."

The simplified Chinese version of Zor

I learned from this editor's remarks that translators aren't just translators. Translators can also do many many more things, including the selection of books to be published. Of course, just like the editor had mentioned, he wouldn't necessarily pick my recommendation, but following this acknowledgment, I discovered that I need to be on the lookout when reading works in foreign languages, evaluating which books are suitable for a recommendation. Because of this, I've cultivated a sense of literary markets.

So what are the advantages of doing this? As a translator, I think there's not many more brownie points that one can add on, but it can allow me to get a deeper understanding of literary markets, publishing processes, and the overhead structures of publishing houses. When you more thoroughly understand the other side's situations, you can better understand the considerations and predicaments weighing on their minds, and If you can think more for your customers, you will naturally get within their good graces. Additionally, three publishers actively sought me out once they had read this book, inviting me to help them translate four more books, and so I ended up continuing to translate literary works up to the present moment.

The above-described is just a small part of my experience and thoughts on this subject. I'm not sharing this story merely to have everyone follow my pattern. After all, every editor's circumstances are different (not every editor has book selection powers within their company). Each publishers' situation is different. The main point that I want to express is that: Translators can do many things. They're absolutely NOT limited to being a translator. The more often you implement different methods for your work, the more effective it will be in the long run for your career.

* This article was originally written in traditional Chinese by Joanne Chou, and later translated into English by Timothy L. Smith.

translation career


Joanne Chou

Joanne is an English-Chinese translator, a UI/UX designer, and the co-founder of Termsoup.