UK-Swiss Publishing Day: The Recap. Translator Panel

7th December, 2020

Our resident ELNet blogger ROSIE EYRE shares her observations of the panel discussions through the day. Each blog includes a link to the video of each panel.
The goal of this, the first ever UK-Swiss Publishing Day, was to promote and support the translation and publishing of Swiss books in the UK. It was the concluding event of the Literally Swiss project in the UK, as it hands over operations to Pro Helvetia in Zurich.
Through the creative use of digital media, funding from Pro Helvetia and support from the SBVV and the Swiss Embassy in London, this also became the first ever ONLINE UK-Swiss publishing event.


Panelists: Jamie Bulloch, Jen Calleja, Clarissa Botsford, Adriana Hunter
Chair: Rosie Goldsmith

Round table discussion: how translators see their role in the relationship with publishers 

Jen Calleja

  • Jen suggested that translators have a very broad role that doesn’t just stop at translation – they also need to act as an ‘agent’ and mediator between Swiss authors and publishers based in the UK/US by: (a) proactively hunting down authors/works they would like to translate; and (b) keeping an ear to the wall to see if authors they are interested in have been picked up by English-speaking publishers. As part of this mediatory role, Jen also tries to get smaller pieces by Swiss authors she likes published in literary magazines and journals as a way of raising their profile and generating interest around them in the English-speaking world.
  • In Jen’s case (as a translator from German), her knowledge of Swiss literature has also been informed by working on Pro Helvetia’s 12 Swiss Books magazine (in the capacity of co-ordinator matching up translators from the four Swiss languages). She was equally able to expand her knowledge of Swiss-German literature during her time as editor for New Books in German – a role that gave her an insight into the Austrian and Swiss branches of German literature as well as books from Germany. 

Jamie Bulloch

  • Jamie believes that the more experienced you become as a translator, the more relationships you build with publishers both in the UK and abroad (in his case with Swiss literature, this has meant publishers in both Switzerland and Germany, since many Swiss-German authors are actually published in Germany).
  • He said these relationships are key for forming relationships of trust with publishers – and that trust is an essential factor when it comes to pitching books to publishers. Translators need to have been around for long enough to be able to judge what might work in the UK market, in order for publishers to value their opinion and suggestions when translators come to them with titles.

Adriana Hunter 

  • Adriana reiterated Jamie’s sentiments, stressing it is vital for translators to develop a good knowledge of their target-language publishers’ tastes and interests in order to pitch books that will sit well with the publisher’s existing list. It’s also crucial to consider what their marketing people will understand: it’s no good gushing to publishers about a book you love if there’s not a strong commercial/marketing case behind the suggestion – and to support this case, it’s important to be able to make comparisons with other texts to give publishers a sense of where the book could fit in. 
  • In terms of how translators can develop such market awareness, Adriana said book report writing can help with learning to pitch works in a market context. However, in her view market awareness isn’t really something that can be taught, and it is really incumbent on the translator to develop the requisite knowledge and instincts over time. 
  • Turning to consider translators’ relationships with source-language publishers, Adriana said these tend to be much easier than those with target-language publishers. In her experience, source-language publishers are usually very enthusiastic if a translator proposes doing a sample of a work for them with a view to pitching to UK publishers (thereby offering the source-language publisher a possible way into the coveted UK market). However, Adriana did acknowledge that having a proven translator track record is a big advantage here – and stressed that enthusiasm is key too!
  • When approaching source-language publishers in this way, Adriana suggested that translators may try to work with them by obtaining information about any UK publishers with whom the source-language publisher might have had luck in the past, or by suggesting pitching to UK publishers where the translators themselves have existing contacts. 

Clarissa Botsford

  • In terms of Italian-language publishing in Switzerland, Clarissa stressed the massive disadvantage of Italian-speaking writers compared to their German-speaking counterparts, owing to the relatively tiny proportion of Italian-language publishers (as highlighted by the discussion of the Swiss government’s federal publishing house founding programme during the morning’s publishing panel).
  • Clarissa explained that both of the Swiss-Italian books has translated were published in Italy – and suggested that for Swiss writers more generally (whether Italian, French or German-speaking), being published in Italy, France or Germany (rather than within Switzerland) is often perceived as the sign of having ‘made it’.
  • As a result, Clarissa said the publisher relationships she has formed have mainly been with Italian-based publishers – although trying to make suggestions to publishers in Rome is still often like ‘writing into a black hole’, or being a mosquito buzzing in their ear! Alongside these publisher relationships, she has also developed relationships with authors directly – and it was actually through initial contact with the author that she ended up translating Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin, after one thing led to another.

The benefits of working with independent v large publishers

  • Jen said it can often be easier for translators to work with small independent publishers than major publishing houses, owing to a combination of factors: these independents tend to be more enthusiastic; may have more time; and are often seeking out more unusual texts – and since a lot of small independent publishers focus specifically on translations, the translator is spared having to make a disclaimer for the fact it’s a translation! As a result of these factors, Jen suggested that messages to independent publishers are less likely to ‘fall into the void’. Personally speaking, most of her contacts are with small independent publishers – and these are the ones she will approach first when she wants to pitch something, because of their ‘openness’.
  • Jen proceed to offer an anecdote about getting her translation of Michelle Steinbeck’sMy Father was a Man on Land and a Whale in Water published by Darf: having already read and loved the novel, she heard on the grapevine at London Book Fair that Darf had acquired rights to novel; she decided to approach them with a sample translation, managed to set up a friendly face-to-face meeting, and on the back of this they agreed for her to translate the whole book. 
  • Echoing Jen’s sentiments, Clarissa cited the problem of high turnover of editors at larger publishers, which can make it difficult to keep track of relevant contact person and build the all-important relationships of trust. By contrast, there tends to be a lot more continuity with smaller publishers – and it’s easier to build relationships when always speaking to the same person.
  • Clarissa proceeded to give the anecdote of how she came to get Sworn Virgin published, after sending it to And Other Stories in a ‘brown paper envelope’. However, she acknowledged that a key factor in the manuscript being accepted was the fact that the translation was already completed (with her having already received a PEN/Heim grant to translate the whole book). 

The impact of the pandemic on building relationships with publishers

  • The panelists agreed that on the one hand, the pandemic has affected the possibility for the kinds of face-to-face meeting that would previously have taken place at events such as the London Book Fair.
  • However, Clarissa expressed the belief that the current situation has also made things a lot more democratic in many respects – and has increased transparency in terms of knowing who does what within big publishing organisations. Additionally, she felt that the possibility for greater intimacy within new online formats (as touched on during the day’s earlier festival panel) helps to ‘widen the field’ – potentially creating exciting opportunities for emerging translators.
  • Adriana echoed this sentiment in the context of the 2020 summer’s BCLT summer school, citing the range of people who were able to attend who would not otherwise have been able to travel there in person due to disability, childcare commitments or other factors.

Translator participation in marketing activities – and how publishers treat the role of translators

  • Jamie stressed that the translator’s role doesn’t stop with putting the final full stop to the translation itself – it continues with associated marketing activities on social media/online, as well as through participation in events such as writer/translator readings. For Jamie, this is a positive aspect of the job rather than a burden – he considers his translation work a ‘privilege’ and views this marketing dimension as ‘part and parcel’ of the job.
  • Adriana echoed this sentiment, describing her ‘FOMO’ if she is not invited to an event where the author is presenting the book in translation! She believes that the translated book is fundamentally a collaborative work between the writer and translator, so it feels only natural for the translator to be involved in promotional activities.
  • On this subject, Jen cited a recent SoA webinar entitled ‘Is it my job?’, where different translators discussed the various ‘translation-adjacent’ roles they have been asked to do alongside working on the translation itself. In Jen’s view, the most important thing is to establish a clear dialogue between translators and publishers in terms of what translators are prepared to do and what is mentioned in the translation contract. In her experience, she said that some publishers recognise translators as assets when it comes to promoting books and really value this extra work, but others less so.
  • Jen also described strong variation between publishers in the practice of crediting translators on the cover of the book – in two recent anecdotal examples, one publisher had done so without being asked and without hesitation, whereas another had simply responded ‘no, why?’ when asked if they usually included the translator’s name on the cover. 

How can we help translators to negotiate relationships with publishers?

  • The panelists agreed that one way of supporting translators could be a database (like the database created by ELN in collaboration with Pro Helvetia) providing publishers with a one-stop shop when looking for translators to translate samples etc. There was consensus that such a facility could be appealing for busy publishers.
  • Jen also spoke about the value of more experienced translators recommending emerging translators to publishers. In her capacity as a mentor for emerging translators, she said she always lets editors know about her mentoring activities, as well as passing on details of mentees she would recommend (she gave the example of Federico Andornini at Weidenfeld and Nicholson, who regularly checks in with her to ask if she has any mentees he could contact for sample translations). In general, Jen believes that passing on work such as samples and reader reports can be a great way for more experienced translators to help emerging translators to gain experience.  
  • Adriana agreed, saying she keeps list of talented ‘up and coming’ people she has mentored/taught and will always recommend them if there’s a job she is unable to accept.
  • On this point, Clarissa suggested more events like this could be very useful too – these could be more language-specific (not necessarily nationality-specific) and emerging translators could be invited to talk about a book they would like to pitch. As well as giving these translators the chance to demonstrate how they think about literature, this would in turn provide an opportunity for publishers to widen their reference points. 

How to gain the confidence of publishers

  • While none of the panelists had direct experience of a publisher not going ahead with a translation commission because they weren’t personally available to translate the book, there was agreement that publishers tend to know which translators they want to work with – and again, this preference is often based on existing relationships of trust formed between publishers and translators.
  • There was consensus that having the completed translation already under one’s belt can also boost chances with publishers (as illustrated by Clarissa’s earlier anecdote about getting Sworn Virgin published on the back of her PEN/Heim grant). Adriana seconded this with example of her translation of Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea, which came about after she used a translator’s residency to work on the translation, despite not having an existing publishing contract for the novel. It was agreed that it would be beneficial to have more grants/residencies like these, available to translators who are working on a text speculatively (with the relevant vetting procedures to ascertain that the translator is up to the job – and has the ‘sheer passion’ required to see the project to completion).On this point, Jen mentioned a Cove Park residency she is currently applying for in Scotland, which is one of the rare residencies that doesn’t require an existing contract.

Why do some books simply not make it in the UK?

  • Jamie highlighted the fact of more books being published per head in the UK than anywhere else in the world – as a result, the market is incredibly crowded, and this isn’t helped by the fact that reading rates have actually gone down. Jamie cited the example of bestselling Swiss author Martin Suter, perhaps the ‘greatest enigma of translated fiction’, whose novels have struggled to gain commercial success in the UK despite huge success in other countries.
  • Adriana pointed to the added complication of publishers having a very small list available for any given year – and often, they already have a particular kind of list in mind for that year up to two years in advance. As a result, when a translator comes along and pitches a book on a subject that doesn’t fit with this pre-imagined list (even if it would seem to chime with what the publisher is currently publishing), the translator is effectively pitching to deaf ears.
  • Jen said that another big stumbling block can be if the translator is unable to offer the publisher a direct comparison with an English author (e.g. ‘she’s the Swiss so and so…’) – and for translators, it can be very difficult to reduce a book to a few key words or comparisons as publishers require.
  • Jamie also underlined the time-sensitive nature of certain titles – by the time the book has actually been translated and gone through the publishing process, two years have elapsed and the discussion may well have changed.

Round of translator pitches of Swiss books

  • ClarissaMaiser by Fabiano Alborghetti and La Pozza del Felice by Fabio Andina
  • Adriana – Une Famille by Pascale Kramer
  • JamieDie Nachkommende by Ivna Zic and Keiths Probleme im Jenseits by Linus Reichlin
  • JenWährend wir feiern by Ulrike Ulrich

Final tips for how to move forward

  1. Adriana suggested more regular meetings like this – these could adopt a format similar to the author presentations earlier in the day, with translators pre-recording videos in the comfort of their own homes, then grouping the videos together and airing them in batches for more impact.
  2. Jamie stressed the need for more grant funding for book promotion after translation – support for marketing to ensure books don’t just ‘disappear’ once translated (and this is a joint appeal to both Pro Helvetia and UK publishers).
  3. Clarissa called for improved communication – making things more transparent in terms of making it clear who is responsible for what within different organisations (i.e. who is the editor, what are their fields?). She felt there should be ways of finding this information more easily, even if one isn’t a big user of platforms such as Twitter.
  4. Jen appealed for publishers to listen to translators – as translators spend their whole lives looking for books, publishers should be more proactive about coming to them for tips, rather than always waiting for translators to hunt them down.

Video link

Watch the full panel here:

Blog by Rosie Eyre

Clarissa Botsford is a literary translator from Italian with a particular interest in contemporary literature, crime, women’s literature and new Italian voices. Since the 2014 publication of her debut full-length literary translation, Elvira Dones’ Sworn Virgin, she has worked prolifically with publishers in both the UK and the US – including And Other Stories, McSweeney’s, Europa Editions, and Harper Collins. She also works as a musician, singer and Humanist celebrant and trainer, as well as teaching Language and Translation at Roma Tre University in her adopted home city of Rome. 

Jamie Bulloch is a British historian and has been a professional translator from German since 2001. One of the most prolific literary translators working in the UK today, he has translated more than 30 books over the past decade for a range of publishers, including numerous titles for Maclehose Press and Peirene. In 2014 he was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for Best German Translation for Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast, and was also shortlisted for the 2020 Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for his translation of her latest novel You Would Have Missed Me.

Jen Calleja is a writer and literary translator from German. Last year she was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize for her translations of novels by Marion Poschmann and Kerstin Hensel. She has worked in an editorial capacity for New Books in German and 12 Swiss Books magazines, and was Translator in Residence at the Austrian Cultural Forum London and the British Library. She translated the Swiss author Michelle Steinbeck’s My Father was a Man on Landand a Whale in the Water, and next year she will translate Swiss artist Reto Pulfer’s experimental novel Gina.

Adriana Hunter is a literary translator from French, who has translated over 80 books since ‘discovering’ the first book she was to translate in 1998. Alongside her primary interest in literary fiction, she has experience of working on biographies, memoirs, popular fiction and graphic novels, as well as non-fiction areas including the arts, childbirth and family, dogs and horses. The winner of the 2011 Scott-Moncrieff Prize for her translation of Véronique Olmi’s Bord de Mer (Beside the Sea) and the 2013 French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize for her translation of Hervé Le Tellier’s Electrico W, she was also shortlisted on two occasions for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (now the Man Booker International Prize). 

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