March 11 2019

How to be the translator of your beloved book? (2)

If you want to recommend a foreign book you love to a publisher and become the translator for the book, how should you do it?

3. Do Your Research

Every publisher has its own domain, so you have to determine what field your book belongs to and which publishers might be interested. This is very important. You can go online and see which publisher might be interested in the book you want to recommend and note its name and email address.

Usually the email address you find on the web is a customer service mailbox. It's hard to say who the recipient is and what position he or she holds. But whoever it is, no one wants to receive something that has nothing to do with them (remember what we said about a customized experience? This is critical). Whatever you do, do not spam people, it just adds to the publisher's workload.

For a book needing an English-to-Traditional Chinese translation, publishers usually ask for a 3,000 Chinese character translation sample. For the translation sample, I suggest picking a section that exemplifies the brilliance of the book, or one that can pique the editor's interest in the book. Do the best job you possibly can with the translation sample, because if the publisher is interested in publishing the book after reading it, the quality of the sample translation will be the difference between whether they hire you or someone else to do the translations.

I mentioned the importance of contacting the author to ask for their recommendation and how that improves your odds at getting the translation job once the book has been signed. But if your translation sample shows poor quality, the publisher could still tell the author that you are not suitable for the job. Neither I or translators I know have come across such a situation, but needless to say it would be quite awkward. So please, polish your translation sample well for smooth sailing.

4. The Proposal

Writing a persuasive proposal for the book you want to recommend is critical. As mentioned in the last post, editors receive recommendations all the time, but few actually give legitimate reasons for the recommendation. Editors are busy people, so if you recommend a book without clearly giving a reason, it probably won't stick.

In the proposal, aside from writing about what you think is good about the book, more importantly, you must explain the size of the market that exists for the book. Whether you can write a persuasive proposal is intimately connected to how well you know the domain of the book. When you're writing the proposal, you can touch on the following points:

Market trend: 

If the book you want to recommend just happens to be in a popular genre, the publisher may be more willing to publish it. If the book has received good reviews outside of your country, you could add a screenshot of the reviews to demonstrate its potential. Obviously, a best-seller in a foreign country isn't guaranteed to be a hit locally, but the foreign reviews can be an indication of its value.

The book's selling points: 

Something about the book must have fascinated you so much that you want to recommend it, so naturally you can write about what you think is great about the book. However, it's not enough that only you like it, more people must like it for it to sell. For example, when I recommended Zor, I mentioned that it reminded me of the worldwide best-seller, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. To me, Zor is the middle age version of that book. Since I mentioned this analogy in the proposal, the editor specifically asked me about this later.

The author's selling points: 

What's special about the author's writing, or the subject matter? Is he particularly perceptive in his perspective or description of a certain field? These are all valid points you can mention. You can also talk about whether the author's personal experience makes his book more convincing. For example, the book I recommended to the publisher is part autobiography, part novel. In the plot, there are plenty of fascinating moments and revelations about life that came from his own personal experience which made it such an inspiring read.

Translator's selling points: 

If there are anything particular about yourself that can make the editor think you're the right translator for the book, don't be shy about letting the editor know. For example, if you have your own following as an internet celebrity or moderator for a fan page, your fans are likely to be persuaded by your recommendations. That could mean a guaranteed sales number when you have finished translating the book.

Most importantly, the proposal has to convey how serious you are about the book. It doesn't have to be long: it’s probably best to keep it under two pages. If you have pictures (a photo of the author, or a screenshot of a rating or review on amazon), do not go over 3 ~ 4 pages. The PDF format is also recommended to ensure the layout stays intact. The translation sample, on the other hand, is better kept in Word format to allow the editor to make changes.

5. Contacting the Publisher

Mail your proposal and translation sample to the publisher with a clear subject line so the editor knows what it's about before he or she clicks on it. For example, you can write "Proposal for Book Translation: Book Title / Proposed by: Your Name". In the mail, you can say that you think the book is great and has great market potential (this is important) and hope that the publisher can consider bringing it to the local market. You'll also want to mention how you would like to be the translator if the publisher finds it appropriate. Don't forget to leave your contact information, so the editor can get in touch with you quickly if needed.

When you send the email, you can use an email-tracking application to see if the mail has been opened. The point is to make sure the publisher has indeed received your mail. It also saves you from constantly worrying about whether the publisher is interested in the book you recommended. Compared to translation agencies, publishers tend to respond more slowly. If you're lucky, you may hear back within a week, if not, a month's wait is not unusual.

If you've received notification that the recipient has opened the email, but haven’t heard back after a month, it could be that they are not interested. It could also be that they have directly contacted the publishing agent to discuss publishing rights. This has happened to me before, and that's why it is crucial you contact the author beforehand. If the publisher leaves you hanging, the author usually would let you know what's going on.

Most email-tracking applications support Gmail, e.g. Bananatag, Snovio. Even if you don't hear back, don't be discouraged. It's normal not to hear back. After all, each publisher has its own factors to consider, and it may not entirely have to do with the book. Two weeks after sending the email, you can call to see if they have received the mail or ask out about why the publisher hasn't responded.

6. Keeping in Touch with the Author

Then, tell the author you have recommended his / her book to a number of publishers and are awaiting their response. Ask the author to let you know if he / she is contacted by the publisher or publishing agent.

The above method is for your reference, and you can make adjustments as you see fit. The key to recommending a book to the publisher is to convince the publisher that a market exists for the book you are recommending. As for how persuasive your recommendation is depends heavily on how well you know the field. Editors are quite familiar with their own domain and have a better understanding of the book market than the general public. You, in turn, must know the domain well to be able to better persuade them.

If you've tried the method and have any thoughts or insight, be sure to share with us! :)


This article was originally written in traditional Chinese by Joanne Chou, Co-founder of Termsoup, and later translated into English by Gary Liaw.

translation career


Joanne Chou

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