You Need More Than a Resume to Be a Book Translator

Proposal is better than resume

If you want to be hired as a literary translator, and more specifically, if you have no work history as such, my suggestion is that rather than sending out your resume to a publisher, you ought to actively promote the book that you would like them to publish. When you're proposing it, remember to attach your book proposal draft (describing why this book is worthy of being published), as well a small translation sample of the book.

If you haven't seen the previous article related to this topic, I recommend clicking first on that article and then coming back to this piece. 

How I became a book translator by using an unusual way

Let's try a brainstorming experiment: Imagine that you are a very busy editor at a publishing company. Just when you have a moment to yourself, you get a resume from a very hardworking Translator A. At the same time, you get a proposal and a sample translation from Translator B. If we compare these two people, then whose message do you think this editor is going to read first? I mentioned it before: the reason customers will remember you is because you provide them with a "value." So, between a resume and a proposal with a translation sample, which do you think will have the greater value for a publishing company?

The answer is that a proposal has a much higher value. 

Why proposal is better?

Of course, a very well written resume or work history has value too, but when compared to a proposal, the proposal is much more closely tied to the heart of the publishing house (your client). Experienced editors all know that a work history or resume ultimately cannot be trusted because they're really an advertisement. Yet a proposal is different. Unless they're a fairly enthusiastic reader, the majority of people wouldn't be willing to work before they see the rewards, putting in some time to do research and write a proposal.

Using marketing language, a proposal is much more personalized than a work history or resume. It's tailor-made for publishers.

So think for a moment: What kind of content would you throw away immediately upon receipt, or that you don't want to receive at all? I think everyone's first response would be to reply with "advertisements." That's right....It's ads. But what is it about the content in ads that make us hate them so much? 

A resume is basically an advertisement.

The answer is that they're indistinguishable from any other advertisement.

We loathe advertisements because they are given to a broad swathe of people for viewing, so they're incapable of meeting everyone's (in fact, your) needs. Advertising content is, for the most part, just saying what someone's trying to sell.

But if you send a near-fully customized proposal, getting the "experience" from this packet, a resume can't hold a candle to it. If you have a keen eye for book selection, and you've written a solid draft proposal, then using this method to fight for a translated work will be miles better than using a resume. I'm not the only example of this either. I know of two other people who have also used this method. There's even a veteran translator in Japan who has written a book on this very topic.

I'm not trying to promote the idea that nobody needs to send a resume, and I'm not trying to convince you all that you must absolutely try this method. What I want to say is that if you want a client to take notice of you amid a whole bunch of competitors, you should always remember the real essence of creating a personalized experience. If you can manage to do this in a resume, then a resume will be a great tool for you! 

But isn't the risk very high?

Two years ago, I had my first talk with other translators where I shared this work-seeking way. There was one translator who wasn't completely sold on it. She thought that translators are often already too tired from translating their current work and looking for new cases. Nobody could possibly write a draft proposal without any incentive or reward for doing so, even if they were to attempt to translate a part of it for free, right? I think her doubt is actually quite prudent. It gave me an opportunity to more concretely explain and share my entire experience with everyone there.

You know, actively writing a draft proposal took me maybe three or four days to complete, and I actually didn't spend that much time on it. From one perspective, I was just too excited to translate this book. I wasn't exhausted from any of my researching, and my translating speed was even faster than my normal speed because I was so willing and excited to translate it. From another perspective, I put in some measures to control my risks, raising the success rate of my recommendation. For example:

1. Familiarity with the topic: I was quite familiar with the topic area of the book I was recommending. I guessed that readers would like the book, and that there was bound to be a publisher for it.

2. I sent the proposal draft to several publishers: To raise the chances that it would be accepted by a publishing house, I sent the proposal draft to fifteen publishers of this book's genre at the time (three of these publishers later expressed interest, and started a bidding war for the book contract).

3. Limit the amount of words that you translate for your sample: I only translated about 10,000 words. Ten thousand words seems like it's a lot, but because I was quite happy to translate it, I translated up to that amount without even really thinking about it or realizing it. But...I've seen some previous cases on the internet of other translators who have used this method and they translated nearly the entire book, seeking a publisher for it. There's just too much risk in translating nearly an entire book without a guarantee of it being published.

4. Research the author's background: Before I started writing a draft proposal, I looked up information about the author. I knew he was an independent author. I was almost 100% certain that there wasn't a single publisher in Taiwan who was aware of his name (I'll write about the importance of this in my next article);

5. Contact the Author: Before sending off the proposal and the translation sample to those fifteen publishers, I got into contact with the author and asked him to recommend me as the translator for the work after he confirmed the sale of the publishing rights (also written in my next article). 

And if nobody decides to hire you, then what do you do?

Of course, no matter what controls you have in place, there's still risks. There was a possibility that the book I recommended wouldn't have any takers for publishing. In that vein of thought, I could have thought that spending several days writing a draft proposal and translation sample would be a useless endeavor. Yep, this risk is always inherent, and the risk can sometimes be really massive. This is how I think about it:

My thoughts at the time: I'm not "working," but doing this out of a labor of love. I was extremely happy during the process of writing and so I already got my reward. If my recommendation to a publisher succeeded, then it would just be icing on the cake. I am not being naive. It is my philosophy.

My thoughts now: This is actually an investment, but all investments have risks. Investment is when you put forth some overhead when you still haven't confirmed your yields. You look at the future with a positive outlook but when it boils down to it, how much of it becomes a risk depends on your ability to control your risks. Of course, you could also miscalculate. But if you must get a guarantee that you will get a return on your investment before you will do any of the work, then many opportunities and possibilities will forever slip through your fingers, and your revenue will be kind of paltry and meager.

I recently became aware of a professional freelance translator of technical documents. He's been buying advertisements on Google for many years now to acquire new clients. Buying advertisements isn't anything special, but when I first heard that this translator was using "investment behavior" to develop his customer base, I thought it was quite different from the norm. I asked him how much he spent on his advertising budget and he told me that it's a little lower nowadays, because there's so many customers to almost make the ads a negligible expense.

Even though he and several good friends had set up a company to reduce the caseload, the workload is still just a tad bit too much. Even so, he said finding new customers is always an imperative, because no matter how good your service is to your customers, there will always be a certain loss ratio.

By the way, he wasn't solely using advertisements to win over new customers. It's like what I had mentioned earlier: customers basically won't purchase your services just because they see your advertisements. You will get some customers' attention with advertisements, but whether they are actually interested in your services and them actually hiring you are two separate things. Sales are based on trust, and customized information is effective because it can build up that trust the customer has in us (with much of it done subconsciously). 


1. Creating personalized experience is a good way to make your clients remember you. But to achieve this, you have to understand what your client's need.

2. Control your risk and give a try of new things! You can start with something small, or something that doesn't' a dime, e.g., time.

This article was originally written in traditional Chinese by Joanne Chou, Co-founder of Termsoup, 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.