As a freelance literary translator, I am on the lookout for great untranslated works of literature written in French that I might be able to pitch to a publisher. After discovering such a work and verifying that the English-language rights are available, and that the rights holders would, under the right conditions, be amenable to negotiations with an English-language publisher, only then is it wise to begin translating a sample and preparing a pitch to publishers.
I have found such a work, and I have verified that the rights are indeed available, and begun translating a sample. Soon I will finalize the sample, prepare a short pitch that incorporates biographical information for the author and praise from various critics and writers for his underground classic, and then I will begin to send it out.
This time around, though, I’m feeling rather wary. Suppose the book and my sample are both really good, and I submit widely. Suppose that I succeed in interesting a mid-range publisher, or even one of the big five. At this point I am acting as a de facto literary agent for a deceased author, and also as a prospective translator of the work. Even if they like the sample and agree that the work is the sort of work that belongs in their catalog, nothing can compel this publisher to choose me to translate it. Recognizing the book for the masterpiece that it is, they might decide that it’s a task too important to be entrusted to a translator still near the beginning of their career, and they can simply take my suggestion and hire another translator with more books under their belt, and maybe even some small prestige attached to their name. This is one way I could get screwed over, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. One hopes that a publishing house would have the conscience and the ethical sense not to do such a thing, but with a lot of resources on the line, one understands their motives well enough. I worry about this. Back to my sample.