Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

...Get a contract. Make sure it’s unambiguous. Make sure it’s comprehensive. Make sure you understand it.

Our literary translator on the street, award-winning writer and editor Daniel Hahn, is back with another installment of “Ask a Translator,” the monthly column responding to readers’ deepest questions about the day-to-day practice of literary translation. This time around, Asymptote reader Marius Surleac asked the following:​

Have you experienced troubles with any publisher and if so, what’s your advice for a novice?

Have I ever experienced any troubles with a publisher? Yes!

(Finally, a nice, easy one to answer.)

Because honestly, I’ve published close to fifty books so far, with publishers of all kinds, in various countries, so it would be surprising if every experience had been equally, perfectly smooth. Yes, of course there’s trouble, sometimes. And that trouble, naturally, can take several forms.

But before I go any further, I should make you aware of two very basic things, which I think are essential to keep in mind:

  1. Yes, the way publishers behave can cause problems in our working relationship, but so can I. I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive list, but the odds suggest that on about half of the occasions when there’s been a problem between us, it’s been my fault. (And surely I can’t be the only translator who gets things wrong occasionally?)

And also:

2. When I’ve experienced problems with the way publishers have behaved towards me, even at its worst it has only ever been neglect, never ill-intent. I’ve had plenty of publishers who’ve forgotten to tell me something important or to send me something important, who’ve forgotten to pay me or didn’t build in ample time for me to do something, or omitted my name or my copyright line – all these things, and oh, a long list of others. But I have never experienced dealings with a publisher I thought was trying to deceive me, or screw me out of my money, or deviously to keep me out of a loop, or pull a fast one. I’ve had plenty of publishers who have given me more leeway (and indeed more money) than they were required to do contractually; I’ve never had a publisher who has intentionally given less. Yes, I’m sure such things happen, because there must be unscrupulous publishers out there – likewise unscrupulous agents, writers, translators – but I’ve never worked with them. I’ve experienced plenty of basic human incompetence (I’ve been responsible for plenty, too – and folly, casual delinquency, etc.), but never yet bad faith.

But… Yes. Of course there have been problems with publishers, problems of all kinds. And so what’s my wise and insightful advice to help you, as a novice, to avoid them? Well, that’s simple enough, too – no more than basic common sense, really. It’s all a matter of being professional.

Meaning what?

Meaning, basically, get a contract. Make sure it’s unambiguous. Make sure it’s comprehensive. Make sure you understand it. Make sure you can comply with your part of the bargain. Oh, and don’t start work till you’ve got it.

Um… yeah, that’s it.


[Quick plug: If you’re eligible to join the UK’s Society of Authors—which you are by definition if you’re embarking on a book for a publisher—then do so at once. Why? Three little words: Unlimited contract advice.]


I’d bet that 99% of the problems translators have with their publishers—and publishers have with their translators—are to do with a lack of clarity in their contractual agreements.

If the contract specifies with absolute clarity that you’re being paid per thousand words of the original then you won’t find yourself having an argument four months from now when the work is done about whether the word count should correspond to the original or the translation. (I’ve had that argument. We ended up splitting the difference. Everyone was left slightly irritated.)

If the contract specifies with absolute clarity what happens—if anything—when your book sells over a zillion copies, then you won’t find yourself surprised and trying to claw back a royalty where you didn’t bother to negotiate one and aggrieved if they won’t reward you as handsomely for the success as you feel you deserve.

If the contract specifies not only how much time you have to deliver your translation, but also the window within which the publisher has to publish it, they’re less likely to sit on a manuscript for twenty-six months without getting round to sending over their edits. (Yeah, I signed a contract that didn’t specify the time frame, and yeah, I’m still waiting. Twenty-six months and counting.)

If you know, going in, what standard the publishers expect of your work, what kind of editing will happen to it, what input you’ll have at copy-edit and proof stage and so on, you won’t be affronted at the very idea that someone might have the gall to suggest improvements to your precious commas, and your publisher will know they have to run things by you. (Personally, I love being edited, even in some cases if it’s done quite heavily; but I absolutely hate being edited by people who send things to press without my signing off any of those edits. That happens rarely, but it happens.)

And so on. And sure, it’s possible for a publisher not to comply even with obligations that are clearly stated contractually—the contract may say they have to pay you within 30 days and you may still be waiting after 60; but it’s not only less likely that this will happen if it’s in the contract, it’s also more likely that you can do something about it if it doesn’t.


I’m currently having quite stressful trouble with a publisher. And this time it’s to a large degree my fault. (It’s also in some part the fault of the writer’s agent, but that’s a long story.) Back in January I got to the end of a translation and discovered that for various annoying reasons I was going to need to do a few extra days’ work on it that I hadn’t anticipated. I’d planned very carefully how long I’d need to complete the book—I’ve become good at that—but stupidly hadn’t built in a bit of leeway in the event of any unforeseeable problem. And that problem then happened. So despite being very close to delivering at the end of January, I was then carried away by a flood of other things in February and March – my schedule can sometimes be quite tightly packed – and now we’re in April and I’m still just as nearly done. My patient publisher, then, will be receiving the book three months after deadline. I’ve missed deadlines before, but never this drastically. There will be a variety of complicated implications following on from that. (Implications for him, that is. For me—reputational damage apart—it’s really just the relatively minor matter of dealing with the guilt.) One would think that having done as many books as I’ve done, I wouldn’t make this kind of mistake, but yeah, it happens.

So yes, I’ve had trouble with publishers. If you want to avoid it yourself, just do two simple things:

    1. Get everything in writing, with everybody’s obligations clearly expressed for every eventuality.
    2. Don’t screw up.

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