The Symbiotic Relationship between Editor and Translator

In June 2019, SELTA member Tom Ellett attended a workshop run by the Association of Danish-English Literary Translators (DELT).

DELT, the recently formed association for Danish to English literary translators, organised a very successful (and welcome) event in Scotland in late June. Sponsored by the Danish Arts Foundation, the event took place at the University of Edinburgh and was hosted by the Scandinavian Studies section of the Department of European Languages and Cultures.

As professional development opportunities for Scandinavian translators are a rare occurrence north of the Border, I was sorry that a prior engagement prevented me from attending the first part of the event, a hands-on translation and editing workshop. By all accounts, this seems to have been a fascinating and productive experience, even for translators working mainly from Swedish and Norwegian rather than Danish.

I made it to Edinburgh in time for the second part of the event, a panel discussion on the symbiotic relationship between editors and translators. The proceedings were ably chaired by Kari Dickson, a prolific Norwegian to English translator based in Edinburgh, and there were three panel members: James Robertson, a Scots author, translator and publisher; Carolina Orloff, founder and editor of Charco Press, an Edinburgh publisher specialising in translations of Latin American literature; and Daniel Hahn, a writer, editor, translator from Portuguese, Spanish and French, and former chair of the Society of Authors and the Translators Association.

Kari Dickson got the discussion under way by noting that she loves both editing and being edited. The panel members agreed that they had learned from being on both sides of the editing process – both from having a fresh pair of eyes review their own work, and from editing the work of other translators and seeing how they had tackled various challenges.

Editor as beta tester

The consensus was that good editors do not try to impose their own style on the translation, by rewriting every sentence as they would have translated it, but make only those changes that are strictly necessary to eliminate errors and infelicities. Daniel Hahn drew a memorable analogy with the software development business, describing the editor as a ‘beta reader’. One of the best editors he had worked with had once told him (and I paraphrase): ‘All I’m saying is that I noticed this, and this, and this … and if I noticed these things, the chances are that other readers will too.’

A regular collaboration arrangement where two translators working in the same language pair review and edit each other’s work is perhaps the gold standard. James Robertson cited the example of his partnership with Matthew Fitt, his co-founder at Itchy Coo, an imprint publishing books in Scots for children and young adults. James considered himself prone to taking excessive liberties with the source text, which would be reined in by Matthew at the editing stage. Conversely, when Matthew as translator had taken an overly conservative approach, James as editor would encourage him to think outside the box.


Carolina Orloff remarked that editors were the invisible, unsung heroes of the publishing business. While translators as a profession had managed to win greater recognition for their work in recent years, it was still rare for editors to be credited. Daniel Hahn said this was why the TA First Translation Prize, which he had established in 2017, was to be shared between the translator and their editor.

On the perennial question of whether the editor needs to know the source language, the panellists’ opinions and experiences varied. Bilingual editors were naturally more likely to pick up on any misunderstandings of the source text, but might be more inclined to unnecessary rewriting to make the translation more ‘faithful’. Monolingual editors, focused wholly on the reader’s experience in the target language, might be more alert to infelicities resulting from source language interference.

In an amusing digression on the subject of editors’ foreign language skills, James Robertson mentioned that commissioning editors and rights agents from other European countries tended to be more receptive than their English colleagues to the idea of publishing translations into Scots – perhaps because they had encountered other examples of closely related but distinct languages in regions such as Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula.

Pre-empt questions

Although the panel’s experiences of editing and being edited were generally positive, they also shared a few horror stories. Daniel Hahn said that, when he delivers a translation, he also sends a covering letter or email in which he explains his choice of voice, register and vocabulary, and his approach to any particular challenges the translation has thrown up. This helps to pre-empt some questions and overzealous editing, and may reduce the risk of being paired with an incompatible editor.

After an hour and a half of free-flowing discussion, it was time to vacate the room. The panellists and most of the 35 audience members adjourned to the adjacent hallway for refreshments, networking and more lively conversations about translation and editing.

DELT’s own blog post about the event can be read here.

Meet the Publisher – Finding out how Hachette publish books

In early July, the publishing group Hachette ran an afternoon session about how books are published. SELTA Chair Ian Giles was there and has written this report.

In early July, the publishing group Hachette hosted members of the Society of Authors who had previously been published by the group and its imprints (whether as authors, illustrators or translators) for an afternoon event on how books are published at its beautiful headquarters on the Thames, just round the corner from Blackfriars station.

Billed as ‘Meet the Publisher’, the session promised attendees that they would find out about all aspects of a typical book cycle and have the chance to ask plenty of questions, as well as networking with Hachette’s great and good afterwards. The participants included Hachette CEO David Shelley, Ruth Alltines (MD of Hachette Children’s), Jamie Hodder-Williams (CEO of Hodder, Headline, Quercus and JMP & Director of Trade Publishing), Nick Davies (MD of John Murray Press) and Diane Spivey, the group contracts director. Chairing proceedings was the SoA’s Chief Executive Nicola Solomon.

The panelists first discussed how a book is chosen. It was noted by several that although Hachette acquire a lot of titles (around 6,000 per annum), the vast majority of titles they consider are ultimately not acquired. However, there was an emphasis on the fact that acquiring titles was a dedicated, detailed group effort that involved multiple members of staff from a range of specialisms being consulted before a decision was made. In particular, the speakers were keen to emphasise that acquisitions were not solely sales-led, and that costing on projects was actually something that took place much later in the process. Instead, the greatest importance was on finding titles that fitted the list.

There was a focus on how rights were negotiated on contracts, with Diane Spivey stressing that contracts should always seek to cover all elements of payment and which rights were and were not being granted. One interesting nugget to come out of the discussions about contracting books was the discovery that the contracts team, at least at Hachette, are responsible for creating the metadata relating to a title. The resolve to include a translator in a book’s metadata consequently resides with the contracts team. More generally, the contracts team provide advice to acquiring editors who are unfamiliar with the process. In this regard, it would seem that no matter how virgin a buyer an editor is – even of translations – they should have suitable advice available to them in-house. There was also an explicit acknowledgement that an initial contract is always considered to be a draft and that there is room for negotiation over most issues, although Hachette has firm lines in the sand on certain matters and rights.

Discussion moved on to other elements of the Hachette operations, including details about its new distribution centre in Didcot, which cost a ‘high eight-figure sum’ to construct and is capable of distributing one million books every day. There was also an explanation of what Hachette does for older books in its lists, with a focus on enhancing searchability of titles and improving metadata so that customers can still find them and buy them.

There were a couple of questions from the audience relating to how the process works when applied specifically to translated titles. In general, dealing with foreign literary agents was deemed a rarity (and it was noted that many countries simply don’t have any), with publishers often choosing to look and see what their ‘partner’ publishers abroad were acquiring. None of the panelists had experience with translations, but they had consulted Katharina Bielenberg of MacLehose Press beforehand. The reported response was that many acquisitions were done on the basis of trust and long-term relationships with foreign publishers and authors.

MacLehose Press publishes about 30 books per year, and takes a cautious approach to acquisitions. Apparently, they frequently commission two or three reader’s reports on a title before buying rights, and will often commission a paid sample from a translator before finalising that decision too. Once again, the element of trust-based relationships was emphasised in the process of finding translators.

Other questions from the audience were interesting and diverse, including queries on whether existing children’s writers could make the jump to adult fiction (or vice versa) within the Hachette umbrella, promotional strategies for educational titles, and how to keep track of royalties on old titles where digitalisation of records might be wanting.

Soon time was up, however, and there was an opportunity for networking over a glass of wine in the lovely roof garden on top of Hachette’s offices. While the event was largely not translation-focused, it still offered a lot of insights into the workings of the industry that were helpful. Perhaps the most useful element was the discussion of contracts (both during the session and afterwards). Most pleasant was the humanising element of making the creators and the commissioners seem like normal people to each other. If Hachette (or another publisher) runs a similar event with the Society of Authors in future, I would strongly recommend that SELTA members consider attending.

PS from SELTA member Anna Paterson, who also attended:

Because I’m translating a book for one of the Hachette imprints, I was there on the day or, rather, afternoon/early evening. I thoroughly agree with Ian’s account; as he says, ‘the humanising element’ was important. The event seems to have been an initiative organised by the young and driven CEO. It is a pity that not many more of ‘The Creatives’ had taken the opportunity to meet ‘The Publishers’ on a slightly business-oriented terms than usual.

A Riveting Reviews Workshop

SELTA members Sarah Death, Fiona Graham and Kate Lambert attended the European Literature Network’s workshop on review writing in February 2017.

On 1 February SELTA members attended a workshop on writing book reviews, especially reviews of fiction in translation, run by Rosie Goldsmith of the European Literature Network. The event brought in an impressive range of reviewers, critics and editors to share their reviewing experience and opinions with an audience of aspiring reviewers, translators included. Here Sarah Death, Fiona Graham and Kate Lambert give their thoughts on three and a half hours listening to, sometimes contradictory, words of wisdom from the experts.

Sarah Death:

This non-stop three-and-a-half-hour sequence of engaging speakers left us with heads in a whirl and checklists coming out of our ears, but it was packed with good practical advice. One of my overriding impressions was of the goodwill shown to the European Literature Network and its energetic founder Rosie Goldsmith by all these translator-friendly movers and shakers in the literary media, who gave their services without charge, making this a free event for participants. Speakers included seasoned reviewers, writers and publishers, some wearing multiple hats, and they were generous with their top tips.

Read the whole book (not everyone does), and allow it to settle in your mind before starting to write. A strong personal response and going with your gut instinct is a good thing, but avoid being over-emotional, or your review will say more about you than about the book. By all means be witty and funny, but also take your job seriously and do your homework. Try to make your review a narrative, with a beginning, middle and an end. Arifa Akbar said the best reviews were rather like telling someone in the pub what happened in a book, in two sentences.

The reviewer should attempt to establish her authority, but she can achieve this in far better ways than the clever comparisons with other authors in which some reviewers indulge. (In this, a review of course differs from a reader’s report for a publisher.)  In terms of reviewing translations, the perennial question arose of whether someone who does not speak the source language can judge the translation. Even if they do not, as is usually the case, it is possible and desirable to make informed comment. Boyd Tonkin took the view that while translators of, say, genre fiction might be happy to be self-effacing, the majority of translators hoped to feature in the review and not just be skimmed over with a ‘deftly translated by X’. He felt that with experience, the reviewer develops an instinct for the strategy a translator has developed and employed.

He also answered the question I raised in an earlier blog on the SELTA site, namely whether a publication like SBR could be expected to avoid spoilers altogether. He agreed that we can, and should, allow ourselves these, because we are largely reviewing as-yet-untranslated books, whose endings the average Anglophone publisher cannot know unless we tell them.

The discussion kept coming back to the vexed question of the negative review, especially in a small circle where it will be easy to ruffle feathers. The majority view was that we cannot always run away from writing negative reviews, but there is no excuse for hatchet jobs. One can write a rounded review which acknowledges a book’s good points while also pointing out what one perceives as its flaws. Alexandra Masters from the online magazine BookSmoke reminded us of a wonderful quotation from Kurt Vonnegut:

‘As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.’

A reputation for honest reviews – such as that we have sought to build up in SBR – helps to give a publication and its reviewers credibility. It was heartening if surprising to hear that statistics apparently show a shockingly bad review has just the same effect on book sales as an effusively good one: the public is drawn to both equally. The real trick is to become adept at writing all those in between, or what Claire Armitstead referred to as ‘the three-star area of reviewing’.


Fiona Graham:

‘Critics and reviewers are like vultures – not popular, but essential to the ecology,’ according to Claire Armitstead, head of book reviews at the Guardian. If that unflattering description applies to book reviewers in general, what can one say of translators who review the work of their peers, literature in translation? To extend the zoological metaphors, are they not doomed either to play the piranha in the proverbial duckpond if critical, or, conversely, to engage in the mutual grooming typical of gibbons if they praise the work of a colleague?

The European Literature Network’s February workshop on reviewing translated literature helped allay some of these fears. A recurrent theme in the top tips shared by an impressive array of professional reviewers and writers was the reviewer as ‘book appreciator’, to quote Alexandra Masters, founding editor of BookSmoke. ‘Reader-to-reader generosity’, she said, was the key to good reviewing. While several speakers acknowledged the facile entertainment value of slating a book, all stressed the superior skill that writing a measured critical appreciation involves.

Is there a big difference between reviewing a work in the original language and one in translation? Several speakers said this depended largely on the genre. Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer at the Independent, suggested that reviewers of crime fiction in translation would probably pay less attention to the translation aspect. This view was echoed by Max Easterman, a regular reviewer of crime writing at the European Literature Network’s Riveting Reviews. On the other hand, Max stressed the importance of getting the language exactly right in this often underestimated genre. The writer – like the translator and the reviewer – needs to understand the milieu, including authentic terminology and slang, to ‘make the story come alive’.

When reviewing more traditionally literary fiction, the reviewer may decide to pay greater attention to the translator’s role. Sadly, few are able to compare the translation with the original – and even if they were, the business model for reviewing allows them neither the time nor the money to do so. However, skilled reviewers develop an intuitive ability to ask pertinent questions about the quality of a translation, and may call on friends with the relevant linguistic knowledge to investigate their hunches.

Translators who review books from their own areas of linguistic expertise are, of course, equipped to make informed judgments. However, Boyd Tonkin counselled against devoting too much of the review to the translation itself. Most Anglophone readers, after all, are interested in a book as an English text, not in the process of transformation. Samantha Schnee of Words Without Borders went even further in warning reviewers not to ‘show off’ their knowledge of the original and to avoid nitpicking.

So one message that came across clearly was that a translator reviewing a translated work of literature engages with it primarily as an English text. And in producing a critical appreciation, the translator should be bold and original. A good reviewer will have read and collected plenty of reviews and analysed what makes for success. However, it is probably advisable not to read a lot of reviews of the particular book you are going to write about, according to Arifa Akbar of Wasafiri. Reviewers need to develop their own individual voice and should not be afraid to depart from the consensus or to be ‘unfashionable’. As regards the form the review takes, writing is no longer the only option. The European Literature Network has recently been publishing video reviews – a new and exciting way to engage with a potential readership.

‘The anguish of writing reviews never lessens,’ according to Arifa Akbar. Moreover, reviewing can be very labour-intensive. (Rosie Goldsmith, ELN founder, spent a week on her first review, a 600-word write-up of Hotel du Lac). But for those of us who are keen to build cultural bridges between the Anglosphere and the rest of the world, this is another way to do so which may enrich our work as translators.


Kate Lambert:

It says something for the impressive line-up of speakers taking it in turns at the microphone that the audience sat still for three and a half hours. The speakers were informative and entertaining, just as they told us reviews should be. Claire Armistead, books editor of The Guardian, quoted Stanley Fish in describing the informative aspect, in that reviewers should assume that their readers are ‘intelligent, interested and ignorant’. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press, giving a publisher’s view of reviews, said that reviewers need to be sincere readers, even if the publisher or the author would disagree with their view, and advised that reviews need a storyline of their own. Lucy Lethbridge recommended selecting three separate quotes to launch three paragraphs, and picking out quotes while reading rather than afterwards. ‘Read the book!’ was another piece of advice that should go without saying, though apparently not always followed, but ‘let the book settle before writing a review’ was a useful warning to the last-minute adrenaline deadline merchants amongst us.

I was interested to see how much the advice of professional reviewers, with a slant towards books in translation, would apply to reviews written of books in the original language, often with a view to encouraging their translation but there was plenty of practical advice for us all. Swedish Book Review tends not to go in for what Boyd Tonkin referred to as ‘male oedipal gladiatorial butchery’ in the style of early Martin Amis, however, entertaining though this might be. One question asked was whether reviewers change their voice for different publications. Boyd’s response was that reviewers might use different vocabulary but that it was essential not to disguise yourself, to honestly reflect what you think and not to use a voice that is not yours.

A big thank you goes to Rosie Goldsmith and the European Literature Network for putting on the event, and to all the speakers for sharing their tips and especially for being amusing about their own initial forays into the careers in which they are now prominent, which ranged from dogged and determined to cheerfully clueless. There is hope for us all.


Is the ultimate taboo in modern-day reviewing appropriate for Swedish Book Review? SELTA member Sarah Death reflects on the thorny issue of spoilers.

Two experiences this week have finally prompted me to write a piece that has been forming in my mind for some time. The other day I read two Danish newspaper reviews of a new book translated my colleague Anne Marie Bjerg: a volume containing the Selma Lagerlöf novellas Dunungen and Tösen på Stormyrtorpet (Gyldendal), neither of which had appeared in Danish previously. Both reviews of these classic stories, which have, after all, been available for over a century in a neighbouring language fairly easily read by Danes, were complimentary. I was struck, however, by the fact that one reviewer felt the need to avoid revealing how the plots of the two stories developed.

Meanwhile on BBC Radio’s Today programme this week, an interview with Patricia Routledge (Patron of the Beatrix Potter Society) about a late, unpublished Beatrix Potter story that has been found in the author’s archive at the V&A, was full of remarks from the interviewer about ‘getting into trouble’ if they gave away too much of the story – even though Patricia Routledge had already told us she had only been allowed access to the first few paragraphs. I was put in mind of the translators of the Harry Potter books around the world, who were sworn to contractual secrecy as they scrambled to meet their unfeasible deadlines.

In an age when publishers and booksellers love to generate excitement round an ‘event’, the Beatrix Potter case is perhaps understandable, but when future new editions or productions of such well-worn classics as A Christmas Carol, Anna Karenina, Miss Julie, A Doll’s House, or Conan Doyle’s cliffhanger ‘The Final Problem’ appear, are reviewers to tie themselves in knots trying not to reveal the endings, just in case they inadvertently spoil the surprise for a few people? Will Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well ultimately have to be re-titled? Has the appreciation of literature really been so infected by our love of crime fiction and the conventions of reviewing whodunnits that our enjoyment potential has been reduced to the frisson of not knowing how a story ends? In my view, the whole phenomenon has been allowed to get out of hand.

And it is not only in the case of established classics that the modern spoiler phobia is misplaced, in my view. More seriously for my own work, every time I review a fiction title for Swedish Book Review nowadays, I have to consider whether my plot outline should be left incomplete. Reviewing Jerker Virdborg’s Skyddsrummet Luxgatan (The Lux Street Bunker) for the spring 2016 issue, I ended up writing one full text and then an abridged version – with possible spoilers excised – which I then submitted for publication. In other reviews I have sometimes trodden the tricky path of trying to hint at the ending without stating it outright, as for example in my review, for our Finland-Swedish themed issue, of Ulla Lena Lundberg’s novel Is (Ice), which is now, gratifyingly, about to be published in a translation by Tom Teal (Sort Of Books).

Although it is always SBR’s aspiration for its reviews to interest non-Swedish-speaking publishers enough to make them consider acquiring translation rights to the books, the majority of the titles we cover are unlikely to become available, at least in English, within a short period of time, and in many cases they never will. That makes it pretty ridiculous for us to have to avoid revealing endings, especially as the very publishers we are trying to attract will by definition want to know as much about the plot as possible, just as they do when commissioning formal reader’s reports from SELTA members.

It would be fascinating, and very useful for SBR contributors and editors, to receive feedback not only from publishers but also from other categories of reader on this subject.

By Sarah Death