Pitch Perfect: Is Translating Publishers’ Proposals the Hardest Gig of All?

I’ve just reached the end of my first year of describing myself as a literary translator. This does not, unfortunately, mean that I’ve spent the last twelve months translating high-quality fiction for discerning independent presses. Instead, the bulk of my work continues to be non-literary: academic papers, documentation for NGOs, corporate communications. My literary work, also, has been a mixed bag. I’ve translated my first “proper” book (a piece of narrative non-fiction), had a play performed and published, and churned out a scree of samples (some paid, others speculative initiatives of my own). And sitting in the middle, straddling the literary and the non-literary worlds, is the occasional work I do for agents and publishers, translating book proposals, more commonly referred to as pitches.

There’s a widespread, if largely unspoken, assumption that literary translation in some way represents the pinnacle of the translation profession, if not for the financial rewards it offers then for the satisfaction it provides and, perhaps, the challenges it poses. To put it bluntly, people think not only that literary translation is more interesting than other forms of translation (I’d tend to agree) but also that it is more difficult. Looking back over my translation year, I’m not so sure. It’s true that I’ve faced plenty of literary challenges. In the first chapter of my narrative non-fiction text, I had to master a bewildering range of voices: from contemporary reportage to seventeenth century Spanish colonial chronicles, from the Quechua-inflected voices of Bolivian tin miners to the cadences of a liberation theologian from the Basque Country. For the play, I had to translate a song, sight unseen, to fit music that had not yet been composed, delivering the full script in a fortnight so that the theatre could cast and rehearse actors. And for a commissioned sample, for a chapter of Buenos Aires noir set in the 1930s, I found myself in a state of mild linguistic paranoia as I came to realise that every other sentence of the text concealed a tango allusion.

My non-literary work, too, has thrown up its challenges. There was the analysis of European Union migration policy that I had to rewrite on the fly as part of the translation process. Evidence of a job well done and (paradoxically) of a lot of hard work, was a target word-count that weighed in a full 25% lighter than the source. Or perhaps the delicate letter I had to translate, balancing the cultural sensibilities of Barcelona, Tokyo and Los Angeles. The addressee was unlikely to read the letter, but only because he had died a month earlier. My translation was to be included in the corporate magazine of a pharmaceutical multinational by way of an obituary.

But none of these assignments compares for sheer trickiness with the proposals I’ve translated for a clutch of agents and publishers that I’ve made contact with as a result of my relentless book-hounding. These proposals are the texts that agents and publishers put on the foreign rights section of their websites, include in catalogues for book fairs, and send out to their contacts whenever they have a title they think might work in translation. I’m going to start with a couple of caveats, though. What follows refers to the proposals of the select band of Spanish agents and publishers I work with. I’m sure that other agents do things differently. And I’d be very surprised if things weren’t done differently in other countries, too.

It’s also worth noting that agents have to take a somewhat scattergun approach. Of course there’s the odd safe bet, but most titles won’t be picked up, so agents tend to present a fairly extensive list of potential candidates in the hope that a few of these will appeal to buyers. (One of the side benefits of doing this work is that it helps me to keep abreast of the Spanish publishing industry in general, gives me insights into what agents think is likely to sell, and also allows me to develop a feeling for what does and doesn’t work, which, hopefully, I can apply to any pitching I might do on my own account.) It’s also important to realise that English is a vector language, used to sell on into other languages. And, finally, the deadlines are pretty tight, with proposals generally being put together (and then translated) at short notice.

All of this means that, far from writing bespoke pitches for the English-speaking market, agents have little choice but to cut and paste from existing material, with minimal cultural adaptation or rewriting. And the existing material may have been created for a home audience (Spain, in my case) and with a different purpose in mind (persuading booksellers to give shelf space to a title that has already been published, for example, or facilitating the work of critics and reviewers in the hope of garnering media coverage).

Those disclaimers aside, the typical proposal document I receive looks something like this: a paragraph or two about the author; a paragraph or two about the book itself; and some external validation of the text, in the form of sales figures, prizes and quotes. So, a page in total, which really consists of three rather distinct micro-texts, each of which requires a very different approach.

Author bio

Let’s see what this looks like in practice, starting with the author bio. Here’s the opening paragraph of a pitch I translated recently. (I’ve changed a few of the details for reasons of confidentiality.)

Cristina Jiménez nació en Cádiz en 1990. Es arquitecta por la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona y tiene estudios en Derecho por la UNED. Ha sido redactora en la revista especializada Arquitectura Hoy y escribe también en otros medios de comunicación y difusión cultural, como la web literaria Letras. Ha traducido textos periodísticos y libros. En 2013 obtuvo una beca de residencia literaria en la Fundación José Martínez para Jóvenes Creadores de Zaragoza, durante la que desarrolló su primera novela, Al otro lado del mar.

Here’s a faithful translation (so minimal adaptation of the content):

Cristina Jiménez was born in Cádiz (Spain) in 1990. She graduated in Architecture from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and studied law with the Spanish national distance learning university, UNED. She has been an editor at the specialist journal Arquitectura Hoy and also writes for other media and cultural outlets, such as the literary website Letras. She has translated journalistic texts and books. In 2013, she obtained a literary residency grant at the Fundación José Martínez for Young Creative Artists in Zaragoza, during which time she developed her first novel, Al otro lado del mar.

And here’s my adapted version:

Cristina Jiménez was born in Cádiz (Spain) in 1990. She holds a degree in Architecture from the Autonomous University of Barcelona and studied Law at UNED. She has worked as an editor for the journal Arquitectura Hoy, writes for some of Spain’s leading cultural platforms, including the literary website Letras, and has translated books and articles for publishers and news outlets.

In 2013 she was awarded a José Martínez Foundation grant for Young Creative Artists in Zaragoza, which funded a residency to work on her debut novel, Al otro lado del mar.

Now, if it was up to me, I’d cut this down further. I can’t imagine any commissioning editor being swayed to buy a comic novel because they are impressed by the young author’s architectural and legal background and, personally, I don’t include this kind of biographical detail in a pitch. But the nature of my relationship with the client and the constraints of time and budget mean that I prefer not to make that suggestion for now. Instead, I focus on cutting out any excess information, making the piece flow, and subtly refocusing it towards the business of writing.

Synopsis

Now it’s on to the next section: the synopsis. The following is from a different novel, which the publisher categorises as “up-market women’s fiction.”

La anodina vida de Samuel y su esposa Carmela cambia radicalmente cuando él recibe una carta anónima en la que se le dice que Rosario no es su verdadera madre y que si quiere conocer la verdad de su origen debe volar a Roma esa misma noche. Hay preguntas que necesitan una respuesta. Aunque los secretos familiares a veces son de los más temibles.

Descubrir que uno tiene a un hermano gemelo desconocido, y que este decida usurpar tu identidad en tu propio matrimonio solo puede provocar una sucesión de terribles acontecimientos… tanto como encuentros inesperados. En el oscuro Berlín de la RDA, ¿todo vale para conseguir la libertad? ¿Acaso Carmela se dará cuenta? ¿Hasta qué punto a ella misma le conviene asumir esa nueva realidad?

Here’s a rather literal translation:

The anodyne life of Samuel and his wife Carmela changes radically when he receives an anonymous letter in which he is told that Rosario is not his real mother and that if he wants to know the truth about his origins he must fly to Rome that very night. There are questions that need an answer. Although family secrets are sometimes the most frightening.

Discovering that one has an unknown twin brother, and that he has decided to usurp your identity in your own marriage can only provoke a succession of terrible events… and unexpected encounters. In the dark Berlin of the GDR, does anything go to achieve freedom? Will Carmela realise? To what degree is it convenient for her to assume this new reality?

We get the gist. There is subterfuge, romance… and melodrama galore. But the job of the synopsis is not just to summarise the plot but to sell the text. So I have to do my best to make this synopsis shine. Some of this is just the usual business of intelligent word choice, taking care not to mindlessly reproduce source structures in the target, and the like.

The mundane lives of Samuel and his wife Carmela change radically when Samuel receives an anonymous letter informing him that Rosario is not his real mother, and telling him that he must fly to Rome that very night if he wants to know the truth about his origins.

Some questions demand an answer. But family secrets can be the most terrifying of all.

And the discovery of an unknown twin brother, one who has decided to steal Samuel’s identity and supplant him in his marriage, inevitably unleashes a succession of terrible events… and unexpected encounters. For someone trapped in East Berlin, is anything fair game in the search for freedom? Will Carmela realise what’s going on? Or perhaps she has her own reasons for accepting the new situation?

I can’t change the content, obviously. Who am I to say whether a commissioning editor somewhere will be intrigued by this tale of identity theft and espionage behind the Berlin Wall? But I do need to make my translated synopsis as appealing as possible. I gently clarify that confusing first sentence by repeating the protagonist’s name, craft a punchy middle paragraph out of the final two sentences of the opening paragraph of the original, and make the final paragraph more cohesive by introducing a hunting theme (“unleash”, “trapped”, “fair game”).

Quotations

And so, fresh from crafting a piece of micro-fiction, I move on to some quotations. These are always tricky. Quotations make people nervous. Understandably, the general rule is to privilege word-for-word accuracy over fluency. I guess that’s why it’s now so common to see Google-translated quotes dropped into newspaper articles. I can see the thinking: who am I to change the speaker’s words? (Although, of course, you’ve already changed them by turning them into English. And happily incorporating the unedited output of Google Translate into your carefully crafted article strikes me as the journalistic equivalent of trailing a pair of muddy boots across an Afghan rug.) But in this context, the quotes are not courtroom evidence, to be tampered with at the translator’s peril. Rather, they are there to demonstrate the credentials of the text, to show that it has been read and appreciated by discerning readers.

Here are a few examples of fulsome praise for a Spanish crime series:

«¡Qué maestría para convertir a Goya en el protagonista de una novela negra del siglo XXI! El lector se emborracha de felicidad leyendo esta novela.»

«La comisaria Figueroa es el mejor ejemplo de novela de procedimiento con ritmo, pulso narrativo, creación de personajes y acción.»

«Ana Cristina Sánchez pinta un Barcelona de espacios míticos y nuevos fantasmas de la ópera. Una novela para el placer y la reflexión.»

«Sánchez ha sabido entender un talante tan peculiar como el de los policías y convertir todo lo que sabe por su oficio en ficción y literatura.»

Here, for what they’re worth, are the direct translations:

“What mastery to convert Goya into the protagonist of a thriller novel of the 21st century! The reader becomes drunk on happiness reading this novel.”

“Commissioner Figueroa is the best example of a procedural novel with rhythm, narrative pace, creation of personalities and action.”

“Ana Cristina Sánchez paints a Barcelona of mythical spaces and new phantoms of the opera. A novel for pleasure and reflection.”

“Sánchez has known how to understand the very particular character of police officers and convert everything she knows from her craft into fiction and literature.”

I hope we can all agree that these are somewhere between unusable and incomprehensible in this form. They certainly aren’t going to help convince a wavering commissioning editor that this is the title they need to add to their list. And here are my adapted versions:

“What a touch of genius to make Goya the protagonist of a thriller set in the 21st century! The reader is in for an absolute treat.”

Harbour of Death is a brilliant police procedural, narrated with rhythm and pace, packed with action, and full of characters who are all too believable.”

“Ana Cristina Sánchez’s Barcelona is a city of timeless spaces inhabited by modern-day phantoms of the opera. A novel that provides both pleasure and food for thought.”

“Sánchez has drawn on her experience as a journalist, transforming her detailed knowledge of the police into fiction and literature.”

Some of this is fairly standard mildly creative translation, so that maestría becomes “a touch of genius” (rather than “mastery”) and espacios míticos are “timeless spaces” (rather than “mythical” ones). But in other places I’ve had to engage in full-blown transcreation, transforming the happily drunken reader of the first quote into one who is in for an absolute treat, or specifying the title of the book in the second quote or, in the final quote, informing the English reader that the author—a well-known Spanish journalist—draws on this experience in creating her fiction.

And there’s one more factor to consider. I already mentioned the tight deadline, which means there’s no question of sitting on these texts for days and going through multiple revisions while you wait for inspiration to strike. But to make this job pay (and I don’t do it just for the love of it), I have to get through about 2,000 words a day. In practice, that means that the work I’ve just walked through here has to be turned around in about 30 minutes, from rough draft to finished product, including any background research.

I think those practical constraints, combined with the conflicting challenges of information transfer, creative translation and cultural adaptation, make this the hardest work I do as a translator. Now could someone please just commission me to translate a big fat novel?

This article originally appeared in In Other Words (Issue 53, Summer 2019), the journal of the Translators Association, published by the National Centre for Writing.