International Translation Day 2011

In association with the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre and its partner organisations

A report on International Translation Day – 30th September 2011

Download full pdf of report here

Literary translation brings readers the best writing in the world today. It can also facilitate creative collaboration and encourage the free flow of ideas. At this year’s International Translation Day (ITD), an event coordinated by several partner organisations, literary professionals gathered to celebrate translation and successful new initiatives at the Free Word Centre; Sarah Ardizzone updated us on ‘Translation Nation’, a scheme that takes translators into schools across London to inspire the next generation of translators. Ros Schwartz described a successful new approach to mentoring new translators and Rachel Van Riel excited the audience with a range of schemes introduced by ‘Opening the Book’, designed to connect readers with literature from around the world. Jane Aitken from Gallic books also talked about publishing The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book translated from the French that reached record sales, and English PEN outlined a new translation fund that will be launched in April 2012.

This Year’s International Translation Day also saw Free Word’s Translators in Residence, Nicky Harman and Rosalind Harvey, launch their brand new events programme and the publication of Taking Flight, a report that sets out ten clear values of literary translation. The report, presented to ITD delegates by PEN’s Jonathan Heawood and Julian Evans, brings together eighteen vital and illuminating essays from distinguished translators, authors, publishers and journalists from around the globe. As well as celebrating the many achievements of literary translation, the essays also shed light on the obstacles facing the translation community across the Anglophone world.

The report is a result of the culmination of a two-year project, the Global Translation Initiative (GTI); a collaborative research project which aims to identify perceived barriers to literary translation, to explore successful models of best practice, to celebrate progress and achievement, and to establish ways of building infrastructure for literary translation. Director of English PEN, Jonathan Heawood, pointed out that the values set out in Taking Flight are by no means definitive and are intended as a starting point to fuel debate and discussion. This was certainly the case on International Translation Day, where, in a series of afternoon workshops, delegates themselves had their say.

Here are just some of the ideas and action points that emerged from morning discussions:

Sarah Ardizzone, translator, presented a progress report on ‘Translation Nation’, a two year school-based translation programme run by the Stephen Spender Trust and Eastside Educational Trust that is currently rolling out in primary schools.  

The programme was piloted in January 2011 with primary years five and six and delivered in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi and Gujarati, though the number of languages spoken by young people on the programme was much broader. The programme runs for three days, starting with a large group of students on the first day and working with a smaller, selected group of 12 – 16 young people on the second and third days. This group is asked to bring in stories, usually from family or friends, and they work with a translator to create polished, translated stories; working on story-telling skills, detail, nuance and redrafting.

 Positive outcomes and developments to look out for:

–     One of the biggest incentives for the project is introducing young people to the concept of translation at a young age so that they might think of becoming a translator as a valid career choice. Young people were keen to talk about being translators and interpreters between their parents and school.

–     The project also reverses the student-teacher relationship, with young people teaching some of their own languages to their teachers.

–     Finished stories were judged in a competition and winning stories were recorded. All the winning stories will be posted on the Translation Nation website (part of Eastside Educational Trust website)

–     The project will run for another year and next year will be a range of different languages, particularly community languages; this is interesting because a lot of these languages don’t have such a strong relationship with publishers in the UK -something  the translation community and Translation Nation needs to work on.

–     There will be an intense period of recruitment and training and there is an ongoing need to develop training and workshop skills. Contact Eastside if you are interested in getting involved.

Jane Aitken, Publisher at Gallic Books, discussed the enormous success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Despite the book’s philosophical tone, which was thought not to be popular among main-stream readers, this translated book was a bestseller, published in about 38 languages. The book is now into its 25th reprint.

Being a small and relatively new publisher, Gallic Books wasn’t able to spend much money on the marketing campaign for this title. They had to think strategically and in doing so, noticed that book sales in France had been driven principally by booksellers. They ensured every bookshop had a proof copy (550 proof copies in total) and worked hard to get booksellers and major newspapers onboard. The theme might not have been accessible, and reviews were negative in the first instance, but word-of-mouth and reputation soon took and readers responded to that. 

What publishers can learn from this promotional campaign:

–     The interaction with booksellers and media were active choices that can be replicated for other books in translation.

–     It is encouraging that readers are looking and asking for something different, something they don’t know.

–     Reading groups are a significant driving force to boost interest and sales in translated books, something for all publishers to consider.

Ros Schwartz, translator and Chair of PEN’s Writers in Translation programme,  highlighted new and developing mentoring programmes for upcoming translators; both in-house schemes within publishing houses and other programmes.


At last year’s ITD, a number of publishers commented on how difficult it is to find good translators. There isn’t any form of professional development for a translator, after university courses. Not only does this make it challenging for translators to learn, but it’s also difficult for publishers to place their faith in a new translator with no experience. Since last year’s symposium, several schemes have emerged to address this problem:

1.    Gallic Books launched a workshop and one-to-one mentoring programme for translators, a scheme through which Mentors offer suggestions and comments on mentees’ translations. This scheme also encourages the experienced translator, who ordinarily works alone and intuitively, to articulate their intuition.

2.    The Translators Association worked with Nottingham and Westminster Universities to develop an online translation programme and summer school. The programme featured a sample translation competition and the winner was rewarded with a commission.

3.    The British Centre for Literary Translation (in partnership with the Translators Association) launched a mentoring scheme for emerging, promising translators. This scheme was piloted in 2010 with two pairs mentored for 6 months. All mentees are given assistance with both ‘craft’ and professionalism and there’s now a full scale version of this scheme running 2011-12 for 13 pairs of translator mentors and mentees. The programme includes an ‘industry day’ and culminates in a public event showcasing their work and small publication. This programme is supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation and individual language foundations.

Mentorship programme development:

–     Translators need better training on ‘self-marketing’ and getting books in to print.

–     Programmes need to be developed so that more translators can benefit and pass on their skills in turn.

–     Publishers are far more likely to take on translators that are working with more experienced industry professionals as it is a guarantee of quality. These programmes need to be communicated to publishers.

–     Public speaking, interpreting and other promotional skills need to be part of the training that upcoming translators receive. Publishers and event organisers need to differentiate between translators and interpreters, as not all translators are comfortable interpreting.

 Rachel Van Riel, director of Opening the Book, discussed perceived barriers to literary translation and various reader development initiatives in libraries that are attempting to address these barriers.

The Anglophone reader has certain prejudices about translated literature; translated books will be boring or too serious, perhaps too high-brow or they won’t be able to pronounce the characters’ names. In short, they’d rather stay in their comfort zone. But a translated book might actually be bang in the middle of their comfort zone. Most promotion of books focuses on the author, but a lot of readers are not too concerned with authors, nor are they preoccupied with awards and accolades. In any case, if you’re a reader that is outside the world of academic performance, you may not feel confident.

Opening the Book provides online training for libraries all over the world; training packs include a virtual library where librarians can practice arranging books on shelves and displays, working out how to make them appealing and what works for readers of all levels. 

Reader development ideas and strategies:

–     Access shouldn’t be equated with ‘dumbing down’. Don’t ever lie about the difficulty of a book; make the difference the point of celebration, it’s worth the work. 

–     Lots of people are looking for something different; they just don’t know what to go for or don’t know how to get out of their reading rut.

–     ‘What we’re reading’ recommendation stands in libraries can be very effective and they can be used to push certain books.

–     Libraries can have a bigger range of translated books than bookshops; this creates an opportunity for libraries to go beyond the ‘bestseller’ focus.  

–     Layout of libraries is important. Table display books go first so it’s important that translated titles are prominent

–    The initiative, run by Opening the Book, has 160,000 unique visitors every month. The principle of this ‘book-search engine’ is that readers select books by genre and style as opposed to author. Visitors to the site choose from a sliding scale of genres; imaginative to realistic, happy to sad, exciting to relaxing, sexy to no sex etc. This site is packed with translations accompanied by a comment from somebody who has read the book, as well as an extract.

–    Another feature of Whichbook is the ‘spinning globe’. Readers choose a country, and the site generates all the books set in that country, as opposed to books written in that language or whose authors were born there.

–    Whichbook allows anyone to create a ‘guest-list’; intriguing mixes of books that may not ordinarily be put together, including translations.

–    Reading groups are great for pushing readers slightly outside their comfort zone. Unlike individual reading, where you can stay in your zone, readers join a group to find out about something different. Libraries can influence this with their relationship with reading groups.

–    Libraries don’t need to display bestsellers in the age of supermarket books. They should promote more unknown books and can do so using the above techniques.

Afternoon Workshops

In the afternoon, workshop d

elegates were invited to choose from a series of workshops. These sessions were introduced and ‘steered’ by guest hosts, but the focus was on open discussion and ITD delegates were encouraged to bring their thoughts, opinions and questions along to share and debate. Each session was appointed a rapporteur, who was responsible for noting and delivering three key points in the feedback forum.

Here are some of the key points that were shared by delegates:

WORKSHOP A: How to get started as a translator, hosted by Nicky Harman and Rosalind Harvey, Free Word’s translators in residence.


1)    Network: Attend events like International Translation Day to meet other translators but also try wherever possible to network with publishers. Make the most of the courses and workshops that are available; PTC courses and BCLT Summer School for example which offers opportunities to network but also to practice.

2)    Practice: Try all sorts of translation; collective translation is a very different experience as it is much more reflective. Experiment with short stories, essays, anything you enjoy but never translate a whole book for free!

3)    Research: Persevere with publishers. Always be well prepared and confident that you know why you’re approaching them (and with what). Know your books and know your culture; perhaps go to live in a country that speaks the language you translate. Always read in the languages you’re translating from and go along to meet authors at events; ask them what they’re reading.

WORKSHOP B: Education, hosted by Dominic Luddy, Speak to the Future campaign manager.


1)    Employability: The number of young people studying modern languages at GCSE has dropped 50% in the last 10 years. We need to emphasize employment opportunities that come from language learning; not just obvious career paths like becoming an interpreter, but the transferable skills that are acquired through language learning like empathy, communication, etc

2)    Awareness: We need to increase public awareness of the need for language skills in various areas: media, campaigns etc. One way of doing this is getting involved as an ambassador for the Speak to the Future campaign. They are currently looking for partners, sponsors and volunteers. 

3)    Early years education: Within the education system we need to start building cultural awareness and language skills at a young age, before Primary level. 

WORKSHOP C: English PEN Grants for Translation, hosted by Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN and Ros Schwartz, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee.


1)    New fund: English PEN Grant launches in April 2012. There will be two submission periods, and circa £60k available for each round.

2)    Feedback from publishers:  Publishers want PEN to be aware of complications with deadlines and dates as they often don’t find out whether grant applications are successful until late in the acquisition/publishing process. A main problem with applying to grants programmes is that there is a lot of uncertainty; if this can be considered or addressed in any way that would be appreciated.

3)    Sharing Success: Publishers felt that paying a royalty back to PEN might not quite work but that a donation might be made if a PEN-supported book reached sales of 50,000 copies.

WORKSHOP D: Literary Festivals, hosted by Geoffrey Taylor, director of the International Festival of Authors, Toronto

1)    Festival Outreach: In Toronto, while the International Festival of Authors takes place, writers also take part in an outreach programme, visiting very small locations as well as larger venues on a tour. The smaller the town, the better the audience and this is important for building readership of translated works.

2)    Partnerships and alliances: Building relationships and networks with other festivals internationally is of paramount importance.

3)    Digital: the way in which festivals use digital technology needs to be developed.

 WORKSHOP E: Minority Languages, hosted by Sioned Rowlands, director of Wales Literature Exchange and Wiliam Owen Roberts, writer

1)    Concern: The Situation of minority languages in translation reflects the state of translation market in general, there simply isn’t enough of it.

2)    Communication: Using less traditional methods;  ‘bridge language’

3)    Exchange: It is vitally important to translate ‘lesser known’ languages as medium of cultural exchange

4)    Semantics: ‘Minority languages’ can be a misleading term – often these languages are not actually minority.

WORKSHOP F: Media, hosted by Samantha Schnee, editor of Words without Borders and James Woodall, writer and editor

1)    Self Promotion: we need to improve promotion for translators by developing personal website or blogs for translators as well as the authors

2)    Multimedia: Always make effective use of radio, video, youtube, podcasting

3)    Positive campaigning: Celebrate translation and diversity

4)    Endorsement: Use local celebrities where possible.

5)    Listen and look: Read tweets as well as tweeting yourself and follow up on media.

Late afternoon and evening sessions

We closed the day with a remarkable presentation from Charles Hazlewood, conductor and fierce advocate of widening audiences to orchestral music, whose enthusiasm for promoting both musical and literary art forms was contagious. Finally, Ahdaf Soueif joined the discussion in the evening, delivering a fascinating talk on her role as a writer, journalist & translator during the Arab spring.

International Translation Day, The Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair, The Global Translation Initiative and other emerging initiatives within – and beyond – the translation community, indicate that a certain momentum is gathering: people are beginning to stand up and shout about the issues close to their hearts and are becoming increasingly confident in doing so. We look forward to next year’s ITD symposium.

Download last years programme here

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