Translation Fund, Anyone?

In my spare time—ha!—I am thinking about setting up, or helping oversee the setting up of, a translation fund driven by donations.

Here’s a hypothetical model.

Using carefully vetted translators, strong centralized oversight, and soliciting the opinions of experts in non-English-speaking countries (editors, etc.), we’d oversee the translation of short stories into English, our only focus being “non-realist” fiction (or whatever term denotes the totality of fantasy/SF/horror/surrealism/magic realism/etc. without dividing things into the false camps of genre and literary). The emphasis would at first be on stories by writers not yet translated into English.

Donations would fall into “small” and “investor” categories. Small donations would truly be donations, with no return. Investor donations, which could be targeted toward specific writers or countries listed by the translation fund organization, would have the possibility of monies being recouped.

How? Donated monies would be paid to the translator for the translation. The writer would, as part of the deal, agree to turn over a % of any resulting magazine or anthology sale to our translation fund. The investor could then either put that money back into the fund or take it out.

It’s late and it’s possible I’m reinventing the wheel. I’m sure also there are a thousand holes to be poked in the logic of this idea. But I thought I’d put it out there since even if the above isn’t practical perhaps something good would come out of the discussion.


  1. Chris says

    Are there “classics” that are not protected by copyright in the US that you can start with? That lets you skip negotiating with agents and worrying about copyright law. Then you would just be dealing with the translator, who would of course own copyrights to the translation. You would have to agree on whether the foundation or the translator would market it and have an agreement that the proceeds would pay back the foundation. But you wouldn’t have to negotiate with an overseas agent.

    Otherwise you would have to check if it is even legal to translate a work without permission, even if all you do is sell it to the author of the original work for $1.

    Another option: the foundation could promote its goals by funding translation of *samples* of works to encourage publishers of anthologies etc. to negotiate with the agents to acquire rights to do full translations. (Thus avoiding many copyright issues.) The foundation could also maintain a directory of those willing and able to do translations of speculative fiction, which would aid the publisher.

  2. says

    I’d support this. Don’t know what else I could do other than some donation of cash, but I’d love to help out any way I could.

  3. Kakan says

    As someone who works full time as a freelance translator, I have to say I’m skeptic. How would you handle copyright? Most publishers secure foreign rights in the pub contracts. You would have to rely on the author releasing the rights themselves—but there still needs to be a contract, unless you intend to only work with public domain texts (which are usually >70 years old). And how would you find competent translators? There are so many poor translations floating around, in this day and age of machine translation and “fan subbing” (subtitles for movies), and a large market for bottom feeders offering ridiculously low rates for translation. Finding a cheap translator is easy, finding a cheap and GOOD translator is virtually impossible because we know our value and have our own businesses to run.

    I rarely do literary translation simply because it doesn’t pay enough. To translate, you have to basically write the novel from scratch. It’s not just replacing a source text word with the equivalent in the target language. To do literary translation well, you need to think like an author, not a translator. The time and effort that goes into that, in my opinion, does not match the compensation we can get, even from established publishers.

    I would love to spread foreign literature to the Anglophone world, who often miss out on excellent works; agreed. But I don’t know if crowdsourcing translations would work. A lot of legal and quality related issues in the way.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Chris and Kakan:

    I’m well aware of the issues, having just about finished dealing with 114 estates, agents, lawyers, publishers, and writers for our Weird anthology. Obviously, we would go the path of least resistance, but it’s also a mistake to believe that all writers have ceded rights to publishers, for example. I know this is not true in several cases.

    I’m also aware that good planning must be combined with the willingness to be bold and jump in.


  5. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Competent translators is easy, actually. I know some translators like to think it’s a specialized thing, but in fact you can find good translators for a reasonable price, and you can also pair an inexperienced translator with a good prose stylist for whom English is a first language. In many cases, the writer can *read* English but not *translate* and is certainly competent enough in English to check the translation. This has worked more than once for us with Ministry of Whimsy books in the early 2000s, and I’ve helped facilitate the process for other books/writers in the past.

    In any event, there are plenty of pitfalls to consider and plenty of things to consider in building a process for this–to dismiss them would be foolish–but I would also argue it’s very easy to say “no” and much harder to say “yes” to new initiatives.


  6. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Oh–just so it’s clear. I am not an advocate of crowdsourcing translations.

  7. Nick Mamatas says

    Sounds good, except that the US/English-speaking world magazine market for non-realistic fiction is itself dying, so the chances of “investors” actually gaining any sort of ROI is tiny at best.

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says

    True, but it’ll make ‘em feel better. :)

    There’s also an argument for providing assistance by doing whole books, but then I’m essentially becoming a publisher again, which is not something I can do. Still thinking about it.

    Hoping actually to publish a Michal Ajvaz collection, though.

  9. Chris says


    I am sorry if the tone of my post was more negative than I intended. My point was not that I think it’s a bad idea. I think it is a great idea. I think of how great Stanislaw Lem is and wonder at what I am missing.

    The question is how best to accomplish the goals of the project given the available resources. You can see the focus on cost and rights to be either negativity or you can see it as trying to recognize the legitimate hurdles. If the costs are high, then money won’t be returned to investors and the overall amount of available funds will not be as large as it would be if the fund became self-sustaining. It is hard to picture how the fund would operate or how its goals would be defined without a grasp of the economics.

    If the cost vs. income is favorable, then the difficult issues will be things like selecting authors and negotiating rights. If it is marginal, then small improvements to the efficiency and gathering donations and investments may be the hardest part. If the finances are utterly dismal, then it becomes a desperate scramble to accomplish something concrete. Probably you have a good idea where along this spectrum things would lie, and that makes the things said by those who don’t already see the economic picture seem ridiculous.

  10. jeffv says

    Oh heck. No worries. All reality checks welcome. But i have run a publishing company and commissioned translations and worked with translators. I am used to work arounds and creative solutions while committng to high quality. Any initiative wld start small too

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Just FYI–I’m going to continue to think on this, note everything in this thread and stuff coming in via email, and then sometime in late August begin to put together a plan, if this seems like it’s actually viable.

  12. m says

    I like this idea and would donate. As a NPO employee I’d say avoid setting up a non profit unless you really have the desire and to run another company because that’s really what it amounts to to properly register and stay in compliance. Also standard NPO charter / board rules type language about employees / board members not deriving benefits from their NPO work means that you mgiht not be able to publish works translated through the fund if you get benefit out of it. You could set up on fundable or something that doesn’t require the recipient of the funds to be a NPO. You could do a pilot fundraising drive for maybe 1 piece and see how it goes.


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