Translation rights and diversifying the sector by Will Forrester, English PEN

Literary translators are excellent scouts. As Anton Hur says, they are excellent readers, first and foremost. They also have their ears to at least two patches of ground – the literary markets between which they work. So where even the best-read commissioning editors are constrained by language barriers, translators are perfectly placed to help overcome them.


Literary translation also has a tendency towards fostering diversity – not just in linguistic and cultural terms, but in the broader terms of bibliodiversity; literary translation is, at bottom, activist, working to make voices heard by new ears, with those voices often emerging from spaces more diverse than that of Anglophone publishing. (It’s worth saying that issues with what we might call “canon lag” – the translating of classics and other older works that reproduces the poor representation of the time of their original publication – are being met by initiates actively working towards, and succeeding in making, change).


Publishing in translation is also able to lean on a kind of “filtering” inherent to its processes: titles have their original-language versions, which come with track-records of sales, criticism, prizes, and so on. And so the jigsaw of acquiring excellent, diverse literature, with the support of skilled and well-positioned literary translators, should all fit together rather neatly.


But, in the Anglophone, this jigsaw has been organically cut over the years, with individual parts of the publication chain (translators, scouts, agents, publishers, and others) determining the ways their individual parts operate, with little sector-wide conversation. Translation samples – how they are commissioned, paid for, edited and used, and who’s being commissioned to create them and by whom – reveal the result: that the jigsaw doesn’t quite fit together.


When English PEN began consulting with translators, agents and publishers in 2020, about an intervention in support of samples, it became quickly clear that there was both need and opportunity – need, because the lack of an industry standard for sample translations has meant translators doing unpaid labour, publishers having limited routes for acquiring work from relatively underrepresented languages and territories, and both parties separated by barriers to communication and connection; opportunity, because addressing these challenges of economics, representation and access goes hand-in-glove with diversifying both the literary landscape of international writing and the communities involved in creating it.


The programme English PEN has designed in response is PEN Presents, open for translators anywhere in the world (and at any stage of their careers) to propose a sample translation, with a shortlist of applicants receiving grants to produce samples, and a final selection of those samples (made by an international, cross-sector panel of experts) given editorial support, published online by English PEN, and promoted to UK publishers of translated literature. A first call in 2022 – focusing on literatures of the languages of India – received 49 submissions from 13 languages; an open call in January this year drew 125 from 51 languages. The size of these responses bears out two points: that excellent literature of course already exists, along with the talented translators poised to convey them into new markets; and that there’s an imperative (and demand) for financial and network-development support that can enable acquisition, prioritising bibliodiversity as it does.


Interventions like these need to be carefully calibrated, supporting the development of the whole chain of production, rather than unwittingly throwing it out of kilter. For instance, while growing the number and diversity of literary translators working from a particular language through craft-development initiatives is valuable per se, it becomes less valuable if there isn’t also increased investment in work from that language from publishers, booksellers and, ultimately, readers – the result would be less work to go around for each translator, with no material change to the literary landscape readers are able to access. Instead, wholesale change demands engagement at every stage of the chain, which is why sector-wide collaboration – between translators, agents and publishers, and with initiatives such as Shadow Heroes, Visible Communities, the Warwick Prize, Literature Must Fall and similar international programmes – is needed to foster a more sustainable and diverse translation economy.


This sort of collaboration reveals the priorities of pay, inclusion, and access as complementary demands, rather than competing ones: paying translators for their work, breaking down barriers between editors and translators, and giving publishers access to more – and more diverse – literature is in everyone’s interest. And when the puzzle pieces fit in this way, they reveal a rather beautiful picture.


Will Forrester Headshot credit Grace Hutchison




Blog written by Will Forrester, Translation and International Manager, English PEN