In the Racket

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It’s been going on two years since I first inveigled myself into the business (sic) of literary translation. This I achieved mainly by cunning and deception: the truth being that, if you want to be a literary translator, you have to present yourself as one, credentials or no. Credentials? The classic conundrum: to be a literary translator you need to have published literary translations; but to publish literary translations — well, to get the permission to do so — you need to be a literary translator, who has published… literary translations. Round and round we go round the mulberry bush. — I was not, however, entirely uncredentialed; I had a university degree in French literature, I had taught French in a high school, I had studied contemporary French literature in graduate school, I had lived in France and achieved fluency, and I had even taken 3 credit hours of a translation course, way back in… 2005? (a disheartening experience, truth be told). But experience?

A little rancor, a little bile now, but without getting too carried away; hmm, let’s say I happen to be a literary translator who wants to do literary translations and publish literary translations. I need to find some texts I want to translate, I need to determine whether a) they are in the public domain (fantastic; but wait, does anyone want or need another translation of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Louise Labé? etc.) or b) under copyright, in which case let’s find out who owns the copyright and ask for rights. Let’s just say things there go swimmingly, permissions are granted with the wave of a wand, to translate! What could be easier? Nothing! I make a rough draft, I correct it, I revise it twice, thrice, then some more and some more and then I go back and second-guess every single choice I’ve made and now let’s say it’s perfect. Merveilleux. Now, to send out this thing I parasited myself onto. At whose august feet shall I depose my monstruous offering? Let’s see, there’s Journal Hoobastank, a leader in publishing literature in translation, one of whose editors once queried me to ask if I would like to review for them a title of my choice “on a trial basis,” after which, if all goes great, I would be eligible to receive US $25 for my second review. (Scratch that, they don’t take open submissions.) OK, my pride is still smarting a little from that underhanded query, I’m not going to submit there and apparently I can’t anyways, who’d a thunk… — but fear not! there are many other great editors eager to read my monstruous thing. Like Granta… or not. Granta has had one of my submissions for about five months without yet even opening the file. OK, Granta is the establishment, they are miles above scrappy, up-and-coming translators and writers like me, I’ll go cold-calling again. But wait! what are my criteria? How am I going to determine whether or not it’s more desirable to publish in Journal Zibbazazza or Hubbahubba Mag? Lists! A spreadsheet! — (Alright, I’m not actually going to reveal my spreadsheet and all the sensitive information it contains.) And I’m running low on vitriol.

Let’s put it this way: I am interested in the tacit (often unspoken) motivations that lead writers and translators to view publication in one journal as more desirable than another. Let me advance some hasty generalizations, my own:

  1. The prestige or desirability of a given publication is socially determined; if I see that a lot of people whose viewpoints and tastes align with my own are saying good things about Rub-da-Dub Journal, I’m going to tentatively look into it, and unless I see anything that clashes with my sense of quality or my own ideas of what a good journal or magazine is, I’m probably going to tentatively agree.
  2. However, if I read an article (or two!) in a journal, and I find said article totally repellent, my interest in having my own work in said journal is probably going to diminish. Equally so, if the author of said stinker of an article/essay/story is the co-editor of Zoobabang Publication for the Avant-Garde Arts, I’m going to make a special note of it so that I don’t forget.
  3. If I discover a relatively new journal or publication that looks promising, I may be more excited to submit there than to one that’s been around and is already part of the so-called establishment. The older, more well-established journals that seem to connote prestige are swamped with unsolicited submissions and they have a slush pile out the door. I might even feel a little antipathy towards them, since they are so loath to pay me any notice.
  4. Publications edited by university students: Could go either way; on the one hand, it’s a little humbling to think about people who are probably much younger and less experienced than I am, both in life and in books, rejecting my offerings; but on the other hand there happen to be some very good publications run by undergrads (or so I’m told — I’m a little on the fence about what I think of, say, Ribbit Ribbit Mag).
  5. Submittable: as I mentioned elsewhere online, I was a little stunned to realize recently how few of my accepted translations have gone through Submittable. That ultrasleek look and rapid loading time just about had me fooled! Well, I’m batting something like 3 for 20 there, which probably isn’t bad if you compared it to other writers’ and translators’ acceptance rates. But the greater part of my accepted translations have been through email submissions. The explanation? publications that can afford to use Submittable are swamped with submissions and said submissions are more likely to get lost in the melee. Other reasons too.
  6. While I’m on the topic of submissions, I would like to say a word of thanks to the publications that have accepted and published my translations in the past year or so: Black Sun Lit (Vestiges), Numéro Cinq Magazine, Gorse Journal, CB Editions (Sonofabook), The Brooklyn Rail InTranslation Series, The Collagist, The White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Ambos, and Contra Mundum Press (Hyperion). AUX ARMES, CITOYENS.
  7. Lastly, if you are a translator or writer, or not, I would invite you to leave a comment about your own criteria for selecting journals to submit to. I am well aware that there are many websites that keep lists of translation journals or places accepting general submissions (Entropy, ALTA, PEN, I believe), but I would be most curious about more personal criteria that govern your decision to submit to Ribbit Ribbit Magazine and its peer publications.

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  • This is so close to my own experience. The first step was to start pretending to be a literary translator and I was surprised when nobody challenged my (dubious) claims…
    I’m struggling now to decide wether to submit to print journals (so satisfyingly tangible) and online journals (which people can actually read) and of course how to exorcise those ghosts which haunt my submittable account?


  • Hi Daniel,

    I agree as to the difficult decision about prioritizing print or online journals. One thing I sometimes find hard about online publication is that it can be very hard to know how many people will read the piece, even if it is available on the open web. Sometimes I’ve had the impression that a piece is published in a good journal, but that it quickly gets buried among other content, rarely to be seen again, if even read much in the first place. The one exception would be when there is sharing and/or comments about the piece on Twitter or elsewhere; that sometimes seems like the most tangible form of success — confirmation that a piece is being read and appreciated. Failing that, it can feel like the translation has not found an audience. Especially when we can’t see any metrics/analytics (pageviews & time spent on page, for instance).

    Lastly, thanks for your comment. Best of luck in your translation work.



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