ICYMI: Translation & Advocacy: Just Translation Isn’t Enough

On January 24, 2021, Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria in Washington Heights hosted an open conversation about the nuts and bolts of translation contract negotiation and the critical importance of finding a community with translators Julia Sanches, and Umair Kazi ’16 (Fiction). Writer, translator, Word Up volunteer and Columbia alumna Daniella Gitlin ’12 (Nonfiction) moderated the event. Kianny Antigua and Dominican Writers Association founder Angela Abreu also participated in the conversation.


Julia Sanches began by pointing out that works in translation still only account for 3% of all books published in the United States. Over the past 20 years, this has begun to change as a result of the work of small presses focused exclusively on translation, including but not limited to: Open Letter Books (Rochester, NY), Transit Books (Oakland, CA), Deep Vellum (Dallas, TX), Europa (New York, NY and Italy), and renewed interest from mainstream readers in reading works of translations, like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels

The Players in the Business of Translation

The publication business is incredibly fascinating and complex. The players in the business of translation include scouts (professional gossips), literary agents, estates, authors, and editors.

In this world, which in the U.S. is largely white, in English, and not necessarily concerned with access, the art and practice of translation have traditionally been downplayed as rote and mechanical rather than a creative expression capable of standing alone.

Genesis of Translation Rights

Translations can come about in different ways. A publisher may acquire rights from a language (language X) that the publisher would like to put into another language (language Y) and ask the translator to translate the work. Or a translator may reach out to an author for permission to translate a chapter. 

Do not underestimate the power of the original author and the original author’s agent in advocating for the use of heritage translators and in helping the translator get a better bottom line for a book. 

When publishing a chapter in translation, make sure that the literary journal holds a term rather than perpetual or exclusive rights over your translation! The majority of literary journals publishing translation typically ask for a three-month period, thus allowing you to publish the rest of the translated book.

The Contract

The key is to remember that every contract is negotiable! The two most important sections to look to are the “grants of rights” clause and the “payments” clause.

1. Grant of Rights

The grants of rights clause is very important because a translator has copyright rights. Though derivative of the original author’s copyright, because the translation has elements of the original embedded in the translation, the translator has rights that are very similar to the copyrights of the original author.

Thus, a phrase like “work-for-hire” means that the translator’s translations will be owned entirely by the publisher, rather than retained by the translator.

2. Payments (The Ask)

In addition to the fee paid for translating the work from one language to another, an astute translator would ask for: royalties (a percentage of the sales of the translation) and subsidiary rights (film rights, audio rights). 

In addition, it is ideal to have a reserved rights license and adaptation. In contractual language, look to general language as to whether you are affirmatively granting the publisher the right to create derivative work or for more specific language as to whether you are granting the publisher the right to license film productions or audio rights.

Translations from a relatively obscure language into a more common language may result in relay translation, or translation into a third language from the more common language (skipping the original, more obscure language). 

Translating as a Heritage Translator

The marginalization of translation engenders particular challenges in translating to Spanish, where differences in peninsular Spanish, Catalonian Spanish, Caribbean Spanish, Latin American Spanish creates a “síndrome Anagrama.” (Anagrama is a big publisher in Spain, hence the namesake of the “syndrome” of all translated books in Spanish sounding like Spaniard Spanish.) A Mexican or a Salvadorian sounds like a Madrileño, to illustrate, after the translation.

This leaves a blindspot for Spanish-speaking members of the Latino community in the U.S. that is further exacerbated by the practice of American publishers selling the Spanish world rights to behemoth publishers based in Spain. The end products, Spain-sounding Spanish, often never make their way back into the United States.

Recognizing this problem,Veronica Liu of Word Up Community Bookshop and Dominican Writers Association advocated for a U.S. Dominican-American based Spanish translation of Angie Cruz’s Dominicana (originally written in English). They were successful, and Seven Stories Press was able to purchase the translation rights and is now set to publish Dominicana in Spanish in June 2021. 

In staying faithful to the quintessential story of Angie Cruz’s Dominicana, Kianny Antigua spoke of the importance for the characters to speak like Dominicans, by incorporating regionalismos, or the specific linguistic words, expressions, or turns of a given culture. This in turn, carries the translation beyond Spain, and puts into the realm of possibilities for future heritage translators what has been out of reach.

Translating Well and With Commitment

Sanches notes that in their relatively rarefied position within the publishing world, translators, then, carry the special ethical obligation to dismantle and not to perpetuate the colonial model through their work by carefully choosing the stories to translate and the way to translate these stories. Just translating isn’t enough, she says, there needs to be advocacy of translating well and with commitment.

In the context of her own translation of the Spanish of Islas Canarias (the Canary Islands) into English, Sanches notes that she corresponds with the authors and does online research to ensure that her translation is accurate to the original. To her, furthermore, it is critical to note her own limitations as an American translator into the English. In creating a British English translation of a work, for instance, Sanches has asked the publisher to work with her as opposed to leaving her to fly solo.

Kazi notes that translators pour their hearts and souls into translating works that readers in English would otherwise not have access to. It is incumbent, then, on translators, to keep doing their work so that the translation sector of the publishing industry becomes self-sufficient.

Finding Community

In translation, where half of the battle is reminding the U.S. audience that the rest of the world exists, finding a community of writers and translators interested in asking questions in an industry that seems impenetrable is critical.

The Story

Kazi came into translation as part of his MFA in Fiction from Columbia. The models of creative experience he was asked to read and extol did not speak to him and his experience as an immigrant to the U.S. when he was fourteen. More specifically, he straddled between cultures. Kazi grew up speaking Urdu, which has a tremendous literary tradition. Poetry in Urdu is used very colloquially, and cited in explanations of quotidian happenings. Translation, then, became a way for him to provide his friends with some reference to where his literature came from. Kazi believes that all literature is translation.

As a unicorn, a rare member of the niche community of translators, Sanches came into translation after college, wanting to translate Clarice Lispector from the Portuguese into English. She talked about translation with her friends and professors but no one seemed to know what to say or where to direct her. After college, Sanches completed a Masters in Comparative Translation in Universitat Pompeu Fabra, connecting with people from a translation school she attended one summer. She left translation for a while because it did not pay much, and went into work as an agent before returning as a translator.


The translators spoke of several resources, including Word Up and Dominican Writers, both based in Washington Heights/northern Manhattan, which have been particularly meaningful to them:

-Interest groups like the Author’s Guild, which focuses on the bread and butter services for authors, including contract negotiation and copyright advocacy.
-Smaller collectives like Cedilla & Co., an informal community and support group that shares translations for insights, and Smoking Tigers, a collective of Korean translators.
-The American Literary Translation Association hosts an annual conference.
Publisher Weekly keeps an index of works in translation.
Translationista, a blog kept by Professor Susan Bernofsky with translation events and news.

Programa Sur of Argentina funds translations of works of Argentine authors.
United States
PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants
National Endowment for the Arts
New York State Council on the Arts funds nonprofits and is interested in projects that connect directly with communities within the state. 

Live interpretation into Spanish for the event provided by Ali Toxtli and Alíz Ruvalcaba. This event was part of Word Up’s Bookmark Series, a program supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. The Bookmark Series is a collection of workshops and panels on the behind-the-scenes life of books that also aims to make the publishing industry more accessible.

Tiffany Troy is the assistant online translation editor at Columbia Journal. She is grateful to Camille Jacobson and Brittany Nguyen, for their editorial insights and Daniella Gitlin for moderating the event and compiling resources to share with the community!

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