JANUARY 16, 2023: Here’s part two of my response to a reader’s question about the publicity and promotion of literary translation works. Also, there are a few interesting links at the end.
Last week, I shared a note I’d received from a literary translator asking for some tips on how to promote their newly published translation. You can read part one of my response here. Part two follows below.
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Earlier, I’d written about readership, messaging, and resources. And I had shared a bit about the PESO model (created by Gini Dietrich) and how it applies to the book world. I had also mentioned that I’d discuss these two aspects separately: 1) different ways to convey the message points about your translation; 2) the importance and methods of literary networking and citizenship.
Let’s start with point 1). I’ll use my recently-published translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu, as an example. When it came out in India in 2020, it was the first ever book-length publication of this writer who’s known as the pioneer of the modern Gujarati short story. It was also, that particular year, the only Gujarati-to-English translation to be published anywhere. And, although it wasn’t planned that way, my debut translation came out just a month or so after my own debut story collection, Each of Us Killers, was released in the US. As you can see, there are a few key messages already in those statements about both books. By the way, if you scroll further on the book page, you’ll see some of those points.
Once you’ve got four or five such solid points about your translation, I recommend putting together a one-page press release document (if your publisher hasn’t already done this) highlighting them. We won’t get into how to create effective press release copy because you can google for many examples out there. However you choose to approach it, please make sure that you also create slightly tailored versions for different audience groups: news media folks, social media influencers, book bloggers, friends/family, etc. The translation will not matter in the same way to all of them. For example, why would a newspaper editor care about your translation being the first of anything? Why would it matter to them that the original author is a pioneer of X? Why would it be of interest to them that you, as the translator, have both a personal and a craft-specific connection with the original author?
The above may sound like more work but think about how many books are published every single day (while there’s no standard source of data, one metric is the number of ISBNs registered per country.) And, as we all know, translations are a tiny percentage of these published books. You’ve already invested so much of your life in this book. Why not do what you can to give it the best entry into the world? Yes, it does mean doing a bit more research to understand which venues or folks are writing or featuring books like yours.
Let me switch over to the other side of the table for a few moments and share what the generic book pitch feels like so you know where I’m coming from. Some of you know that I run a multimedia forum to showcase South Asian literature: Desi Books. Daily, we get about two to three books pitched to us. Sometimes, the pitches are from publicists. Sometimes, they’re directly from writers or translators. Only a small percentage of the people pitching these books have taken the time to look at the kinds of books we tend to feature and why their book might be a good fit for our forum. Also, as an independent freelance book reviewer, I often get pitches from publicists at big publishing houses. Again, a good number of them send me a form press release email without a single mention of why they think the book might be of interest to me as a reviewer. In all honesty, the personalized pitches grab my attention more than the generic copy-and-paste ones because I don’t always have the time to go research the book on my own. And, when I see the same person always pitching me in the latter way, I become conditioned to pay less attention.
It’s possible that Desi Books, as a venue, isn’t big enough for these folks to take the time to tailor their pitches. It’s possible that Jenny Bhatt, as a book reviewer, is small fry and they’d rather spend their time tailoring their pitches to the bigger name literary critics. Whatever the case may be, their approach clearly indicates to me that any efforts I might make on behalf of the book in question don’t really matter much to them and they only sent the form email because I was in their contacts database. So, well, you can guess what that does to my level of enthusiasm for the book and how much I’m likely to invest my personal time (under-compensated or non-compensated) in it over the hundreds of others being published that same week.
[Note: I get that most publishing industry professionals are underpaid and overworked. And tailoring pitches for every book isn’t always feasible or sustainable. But, with translations, I don’t see any other way. It’s a work from another language, culture, and literary tradition. Already, that means that the target readership and media gatekeepers know almost nothing about it. As the translator, you are also the unpaid literary agent for your author. If you cannot write a slightly personalized pitch to get the receiver to sit up and pay attention—especially when there are relatively much fewer translations being published and featured at mainstream media venues anyway—you’re missing some opportunities. One other important point here: personalized emails often lead to valuable insights, connections, and opportunities that are never possible with those generic form emails.]
‘Nuff said about that for now, I guess.
Let’s discuss the point about literary networking and citizenship briefly. First, let’s agree that such activities are not only for when you have a book about to be published. The writers and translators who do this admirably well aren’t doing it simply for something in return. They do their literary activism work because they see themselves as part of that world. I will never understand those writers or translators who shake their virtual fists at every sociopolitical injustice they come across and never once consider the industry they’re part of—their own backyard—for their activism efforts.
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Now, I realize that most of us, especially translators, are working hard to earn a living as best we can through our work. And there’s rarely time left over for our personal lives, sometimes, so never mind literary activism. But, you know, you can start in small ways. You don’t have to make grand gestures. Could you read and share the works of other translators and writers? Is it possible for you to pitch one or two interviews annually with writers or translators? How about attending their book events and then sharing some photos on social media? Maybe consider offering to moderate panels with other writers or translators? If you write a blog or newsletter, is there a way to feature a writer’s or translator’s work there? All of these could be part of your own writing or translating practice because you’re likely to learn more about the industry and/or the craft by doing them.
This kind of literary citizenship may not always result in direct reciprocity. In fact, it mostly never does. The writers and translators I’ve featured or spotlighted have rarely done the same for me. But others have reached out to do something similar for me. And the readers of those other writers and translators (the ones I’ve uplifted and those who’ve uplifted me in turn) have then discovered and appreciated my work as well. It’s my version of karma: what you put out there will eventually come back to you. That said, none of this happens overnight, of course. I’ve been doing this consistently for almost a decade now—whenever I can and however I can. Among other things, it’s also about walking my own talk, right?
One tangential note on this topic: literary networking and citizenship work doesn’t always have to involve other writers and translators in your particular genre. In fact, I often feel that events and interviews that involve similar writers and translators can sound like echo chambers. Widen your lens. Reach out to or spotlight folks in other related fields who might be interested in your kind of work. I’ve written before about how a translator is often also an anthropologist, a historian, an ethnographer, a linguist, etc. Maybe see if folks from those fields might be interested in sharing or discussing your work. You might be pleasantly surprised. Note: if you do this, don’t forget to personalize your pitches to them too as discussed in the first point above.
With that, I’ll get off my soapbox. I do believe deeply in these two approaches as more effective and sustainable ways of bringing attention to your own work.
I hope this was helpful in some way. Let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, or suggestions about any of the above in the discussion area below.
Some Interesting Links
1) Words Without Borders announced the first annual Momentum Grant for Early-Career Translators to support early-career translators seeking to bring international work into the English-language marketplace.
2) David Owen writes about ‘The Objectively Objectional Grammatical Pet Peeve‘ at The New Yorker (might be paywalled.) He discusses several grammatical pet peeves here. And let me just add that, in my experience, it’s not only writers or translators who are guilty of these. Oftentimes, our editors push us into them because of word limits or simply because they believe the poor grammar sounds more interesting or better for a particular readership.
3) TranslateDay listed the nine most translated books in the world. Can’t say there were any surprises there for me other than the sheer number of languages with each one. To be honest, this kind of thing makes me even more determined to champion the under-represented and yet-to-be-translated works out there.
4) I’m not necessarily a Kafka fan but I enjoyed reading this essay at Literary Hub by Ross Benjamin that contextualizes Kafka’s diaries and Benjamin’s translation of them.
5) Arirang News talked with Anton Hur and Kevin Smith about the growing popularity of Korean literature in translation (video.)
And, on a personal note, last week, I had a short story (crime/noir forward) in a new anthology, The Dark Waves of Winter. It’s quite the lineup so I’m thrilled to be included. If this is your kind of thing, please check out the ~500-word excerpt and maybe get a copy?
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