Translating a book – Literary translation – Verity Roat Language Solutions

Translating a book – Literary translation

Last year, I agreed to take on my first full-length literary translation. I had translated a novella in verse from Arabic to English but never taken on the job of translating a book…a full-length book! It’s always been a dream of mine to see my name on the cover page of a book and I might finally realise that dream! However, this task is a lot different to how I thought it would be, so I thought I’d share my experience.

Translating a book – know what you’re getting into!

It is not the same as taking the amount of time a shorter translation takes and multiplying it up. It actually takes a lot more time than that! I have found that translating a novel requires a lot more research and thought than other translations. This is partially because of the artistic nature of translating a book, which usually contains many more idioms, metaphors and poetic writing than other translations.

Footnotes can be your friend – but don’t overdo it

Regarding the research you might need to do, you may need to look up certain cultural terms and experiences that might not be familiar to your target audience. Therefore, you might find that some footnotes are handy to explain certain things that are not in the public consciousness of the target demographic.

On this note, I have mixed feelings about using italics. I have read from other translators that they have qualms with them, but I think they can be useful personally. My rule for literary translation is to use them sparingly – only when the words are so unknown to the target audience, but when there is no equivalent. For example, I italicised ‘zir’, a drum used in the Arab world, because it refers to a very specific drum in the Arab world, but it might not be known to the target audience of this novel.

Think about what you’re charging

I definitely didn’t think this through well enough. In the same way that you can’t just multiply up the time, you also can’t multiply up the money. It will take you more time than timesing up a shorter translation, so you need to ask for more money too.

It is so rewarding…but exhausting

I also made the mistake of assuming that I could work solidly on the literary translation for several hours each day. This was completely wrong because it’s really hard to sustain that amount of concentration on one translation. It’s so rewarding, interesting and creative, but it also takes a lot out of you because of that. So, give yourself a break. Accept smaller pieces of work to keep money trickling in and to give you a break when that one paragraph is really frustrating you because you can’t find the right words.

Also, don’t be afraid to keep revising and editing! I do a ‘first pass’ at the translation and highlight anything I’m not happy with or need to research in orange. Then I go back and read it through again and make changes. Then I run spellcheck and Grammarly before reading it through with Read Aloud to make sure it sounds right.

So that’s how I’m finding translating a book! If you have any more questions, let me know in the comments. And if you would like to engage me to translate your book, I’m currently at capacity but would love to fit you in later in the year. You can reach out to me on

Published by verityroat

Verity Roat BA CANTAB MA TRANSLATION CIOL Career Associate is a UK-based Arabic and French > English translator, Copy-writer, Copy-editor, Transcriber, Role-player & Tutor.

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