How to Be the Translator of Your Beloved Book (1)

Last time I shared with everyone my experience where I took the initiative and recommended a foreign book to a publisher. I became the translator for that book, and that also paved the way for more book translations later on. Someone asked me exactly how I pulled it off, so I decided I would share it here in this article. If you haven't read my other articles on the subject, I suggest you read the following two articles first.

How I became a book translator by using an unusual way

You need more than a resume to be a book translator

If you want to try and secure a book translation job by recommending a foreign book to a publisher, I've summarized the steps below in two separate posts for your reference.

1. Finding a suitable book

Don't choose a famous author

This method works better for an author who's not super famous, or maybe just somewhat well known within a specific field. If the author is very famous, or a local publisher has already published their work, chances are they already have an agent who handles the publishing rights for their works. Even if you wanted to recommend their book to a publisher, it's often not up to the author to decide who gets the publishing rights.

The author of the book I recommended at the time, Zor: Philosophy, Spirituality, and Science, is a retired Wall Street broker and Zor was the first book he's ever written. He's not a professional, so he published his book on Amazon's self-publishing platform in electronic format. He didn't publish a printed version, and probably didn't have an agent. Even in the US, he may not have been on the publishers' radars, let alone in Taiwan. If that fits the profile of the author you want to recommend, then this method may work for you.

However, even if the author you want to recommend is a professional and he has been published locally, that doesn't mean that the method wouldn't work. As long as the author is not super famous, you can still give it a shot. So, if you're talking about Murakami, Peter Drucker, or Barack Obama, i.e. someone who's well known across to the general public, this method isn't going to work at all.

But if the author is only well known within a specific field, then recommending a book in this way could still work. Within start-up circles that I'm familiar with, books by spiritual leader Steve Blank serves as a good example, since he is only familiar to readers from a certain group. In addition, his books are very well written and well worth recommending. Indeed, I have successfully recommended his book. So, the choice of which book by which author you should recommend really tests your understanding of a certain niche market.

Amazon's self-publishing platform is a good place to start. Normally publishers don't pay much attention to independently published books, seeing as there are more than enough traditionally published books already. But, as mentioned above, even if the book is not independently published, as long as the author's not too well known, there's still a chance.

Don't bother with books that have been published

If the book you want to recommend has been translated and published before, the chances of republishing the book is usually slim. Unless it's a classic, publishers usually aren't willing to republish a book. As for best-sellers looking to republish through a different publisher, they are most likely already targeted by people in the publishing industry and most certainly don't need a good word from us.

Giving the Publisher Real Value

The key to selecting a book to recommend lies in whether you can give the publisher meaningful information. In general, an editor in a publishing house has their own specific domain. They also read extensively, so they have a good idea what the new books are on the market. Aside from browsing Amazon, they also receive book information from publishing agents. So, what's essential here is not the volume, but the quality of the information (this applies to any marketing activity). In other words, you must clearly tell them why the book is worth publishing.

My editor friend tells me he hears something to the effect of "this book is great, you should publish it" on a weekly basis. To him, this means nothing because he already has so much on his plate. Unless you clearly tell him what is specifically great about the book, he ignores the message completely. Naturally if you can discover a book with market potential, all the better for the publisher.

2. Contacting the Author

The Author is Better Informed

Before you begin investing time to prepare your recommendation, I suggest that you contact the author first. This way if that foreign book you want to recommend is already being handled by a publishing agent or even has its publishing rights already sold to a local publisher, the author will probably tell you about it when you contact them. In that case, you won't have to recommend the book anymore, saving yourself time and energy.

A translator asked if there's a place where we can find out if some foreign language book has already had its translation rights sold to a publisher. The answer is no. There's no way to know if the publishing rights to a book has been sold. So, if you contact the author as soon as possible, the author may actually be able to give you some information on that front. After all, the author did write the book, and if anything is going on with the publishing rights, they would find out before you do. 

Backing of the Author a Big Plus

The other benefit of contacting the author is that usually when the author finds out that a total stranger is going to recommend their book to a local publisher, they are usually pleasantly surprised. If the book you recommended does end up being published, the author will likely be more than happy to recommend you as the translator. With a recommendation from the author, most publishers would respect the author's wish and hire you, unless your translations are utterly unusable.

I know a Korean language translator who asked the author to recommend her as the translator. The author replied "Of course I would recommend you, how could I recommend anyone else? You've been such a big help! “

I also know another translator who recommended a foreign language book to a publisher. From what I've heard, he pretty much did everything he could except contacting the author. His efforts didn't earn him a response from the publisher. Two years later, he found out that a different publisher had published the book, with the translator being, you guessed it, someone else. We'll never know if one thing led to the other, but I still suggest letting the author know before recommending a book, it'll put you in a favorable position.

From the publisher's point of view, they don't necessarily have to let you translate the book you recommended. As mentioned in a previous post, publishers usually only work with translators they have worked with before or recommended by someone they know well. If they already know a translator who can handle the subject matter, they are not obliged to give you the job.

For us unknown translators to earn the publisher's trust, we need to write a proposal that is tailored to the publisher, telling them what they stand to gain from publishing the book. On top of that, if you can get the backing of the author, you will undoubtedly improve your chances to become the translator for the book.
Writing a proposal that is tailored to the publisher is very important.

In my personal experience, the author of the book I recommended added a clause to designate me as the translator for his book right in his contract with the local publisher that won the publishing rights. That's as clear a guarantee as you can get. Of course, not every author can or is willing to do so much, though letting the author know who you are and what you are doing for him definitely improves your chances at landing the job.

The same Korean language translator from the earlier tale told me that the author of the book she recommended asked the Taiwanese publisher to let her translate the book, but the publisher said that the author does not have the right to appoint a translator. However, since the author kept coming back to the matter, ultimately the Korean language translator got to translate this book after some back and forth. She eventually got another book to translate from the publisher because she had won them over with her effort.

As for how does one get in touch with the author? Google it! That's what we translators do best. You can search the Amazon author profile, Linkedin, Twitter, and Facebook, just to name a few.


I remember when I shared my experience a few years back at an event, a translator commented: "Doesn't that mean you are evaluating books for the publisher for free?"

Actually, I have never done book evaluations before. It was only after hearing from a translator did I realize that such a job exist. Book evaluators are hired by publishers to write a book report on a book of their choice. In Taiwan, a book evaluator is paid around NTD 2,000 (about USD 67) per book. The format of the evaluation is slightly different between different publishers. Evaluating a book takes anywhere from a few days to a week, or even two for rookies.

For book evaluators, the list of books to evaluate is decided by the publisher, while it is you who gets to choose what book to recommend. Evaluating a book is done for the money, while recommending a book is done willingly out of the love for a particular book. For me these two things are as apples and oranges. There's a big difference in how much money you get out of it and how much joy you get out of it. And whether you are writing to impress the editor also makes a huge difference.

In the next post, I will unveil what's in a book proposal. Subscribe to our e-newsletter if you don't want to miss it! :)

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.