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Nicky Harman: What translators can do to promote 'their' books

Nicky Harman gives her top tips on promoting books in translation

Notice the quotation marks around ‘their’? They are there because translators are in an ambiguous position when it comes to promoting their work. They are normally contracted to translate the work and follow it through to proof stage, but hardly ever obliged to promote it. So it is perfectly legitimate for translators to draw a line under the project at that point, and leave the promotion to the publishers. Having said that, providing you still believe in the value of your book when you have finished it, it is possible to contribute to its success by helping to spread the word about it, and enjoy doing it.

In the last month, I have supplied a small publisher with a list of useful literary websites and blogs, and a couple of contacts for him to follow up: a well-known author who wants to review it, and a BBC arts editor who might cover the story if we could pitch the right line to her. I have also written a piece for Necessary Fiction to promote three novellas I am translating for an e-publisher. I have offered to write up interviews with two authors for different books websites, one UK-based, the other in Australia, and have arranged for the publisher to send them an e-pub version of the book. I have uploaded some information about a novella to (a huge American-based books website) and persuaded a friend to join Goodreads and review it. (In theory, I could review it myself but that seems a bit disingenuous, since I translated it.)

Some publishers, especially small ones, actively want to collaborate with the translator post-publication. Even if they don’t, they are unlikely to object, but I always let them know what I am doing because it is, after all, their book by this time. If the publisher is a big one, your help is unlikely to be necessary, and you can sit back and let the paid professionals get on with it. One, big enough to have a dedicated promotions department, brought out a translation of mine this year. They have published the author before, and neither they nor the author, who speaks fluent English, needed any help from me. Except that, even here, I found myself being contacted by a couple of people who wanted to interview the author but had failed to get any contact details from the publisher. The author, clever man, has a special email address for his translated books, and was happy for me to pass it on to them. 

Supposing you decide to give your book a bit of a push, the first and obvious place is on social media like Twitter. Mention Twitter to those who don’t (yet) and they usually groan, but I urge you non-Twitterers to try it! Many publishers and authors have developed very sophisticated ways of using Twitter, but you can make an impact just by posting simple tweets flagging up book events and passing on review links. Consider using a hashtag such as #readwomen2014, or #namethetranslator (for reviews that do not). ‘Follow’ Twitter accounts relevant to general translated literature, such as Translated World (@translatedworld) and Words Without Borders (@wwborders) or language-specific ones like China Fiction Book Club, (@cfbcuk) and they will follow you and re-tweet your tweets. Keep your eyes open for special days or weeks dedicated to something relevant to your book, and use the hashtag (or invent one for it).  Facebook is another obvious home for posts about your book, though few translators would go as far as the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex In China. Lurid title notwithstanding, this is a serious academic book and had, for the first year of its life, an exemplary Facebook page set up personally by its author, filled with links to interviews, events and reviews.

There are various ways of using blogs to spread the word, from persuading other people to write about your book to offering to write something yourself, perhaps in conversation with the author. In an ideal world, translators would also be invited to speak, solo, at literary festivals, on radio or TV. In practice, this hardly ever happens unless translators have a public profile of their own, for instance, as authors in their own right, although of course authors and translators often do joint events. Frustratingly, authors can be turned down for interviews because they speak poor English… one Radio4 programme refused to interview my author because they thought her accent was too heavy, but they would not use an interpreter, or allow the translator to speak for the book.

Finally, it is entirely appropriate for translators to be interested in prizes offered for translated fiction, such as Three per Cent (USA) and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (UK). In most cases, the publishers have to submit the book, but the translator can still jog their memory.

I am often not sure just how much of a difference I have actually made to any success my translations have had, and figures are hard to come by. Besides, all this is enormously time-consuming, I hear you say. Well, yes, it is. And time is money, or rather no money, since most of this kind of work will be unpaid. However, it is perfectly legitimate to negotiate a fee for attending events, especially if you get roped into interpreting, and/or the event takes you away from home for a day or a night. If I were deep in the next translation project and facing a tight deadline, I would probably put promoting the last book to one side. Ultimately, how much of your precious time and energy you devote to it is usually entirely up to you... but it can be very rewarding and, personally, I am (almost) always up for it.


About the author

Nicky Harman lives in the UK. She has worked as a literary translator for a dozen years and, until the spring of 2011, also lectured on the MSc in Scientific, Technical and Medical Translation at Imperial College London. Now, in addition to translating, she organizes translation-focused events and mentors new translators from Chinese. She was Chinese-English workshop leader at the Literary Translation Summer School of the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) for three successive years (2009-2011) and in 2011 was Translator-in-Residence at London Free Word Centre. She was workshop leader for Chinese at the UYLUYE summer school at Birkbeck in 2012 and 2013.

Her recent translations include Snow and Shadow,( 雪與影) a collection of short stories by Dorothy Tse (Muse), The Unbearable Dream World of Champa the Driver ( 裸生)by Chan Koonchung (Doubleday) and A New Development Model and China's Future (新发展方式与中国的未来) (non-fiction) by Deng Yingtao, all due out in 2014; Gold Mountain Blues (金山) by Zhang Ling (Penguin Canada, 2012); Flowers of War, by Yan Geling (Harvill Secker UK, 2012); and A Phone Call from Dalian, Han Dong's Collected Poems (Zephyr Press, 2012). She also translated Han Dong’s first novel Banished! (扎根) (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009). This won a PEN Translation Fund Award (2006) and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2008. She regularly translates for Ou Ning's literary journal, Chutzpah (天南), and for Words without Borders, and has translated Hong Ying and Xinran. She acted as judge on the Harvill Secker Young Translator Prize in the same year.

Posted by Emma Cleave, Monday 1st September, 2014


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