“The gifted translator is an alchemist who changes a piece of gold into another piece of gold.”

—Renato Poggioli


The literary translator, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, “is a person who translates works of literature from one language into another, especially professionally”. Literary translation is a translation of literary works, whether they be religious texts, books, poetry, short stories, plays… you get the idea.

Literary translation is different from other types of translation because the literary translation is often considered a “literary activity in its own right”1.

The difference between the literary translations and translations done in other fields is that literary translations can undergo a significant number of revisions and changes by a different number of translators, proofreaders and editors.

The best example in history has been the translation of the Bible starting by Saint Jerome and, eventually, translated by others into so many languages, all going through the same process and all claiming that their version is the best. Aside from the Bible, some of the most translated books and well-loved classics include: “Pinocchio” (Carlo Collodi) “The Little Prince” (Antoine de Saint Exupéry), “The Diary of Anne Frank” being the most translated Dutch book of all times.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), whose main constitutional objective is creating peace in the hearts of human beings, relies on literary translation as one of the essential means at its disposal to attain this goal. UNESCO has been developing programs which support literary and philosophical translation since its foundation in 1948 and intends to continue. 2

Does it sounds like a lot of work? Actually, becoming a literary translator, in theory, is no different than becoming any other type of translator. All you need is to start working in the field. However, there are universal characteristics of a literary text and it is very important for a translator to be well-aware of. Otherwise, he will not get access to a good translation without such knowledge. These are known as the “STYLISTIC APPROACHES TO LITERARY TRANSLATION“.

A literary translation should reflect the imaginative, intellectual and intuitive writing of the author. As you read, it is important that you can “hear the voice” of the author as you read, that feeling, that emotion, that passion with which the author has written his work. That is, literary translations should reflect all those literary features of the text of origin, such as effects of sound, the morphophonemic selection of words, figures of the language, etc.

Literary translation is characterized by style: allowing a fluid, elegant and readable text. It is important to do some research first before you start a translation project in order to be familiar with your subject matter.

A literature review from the linguistic, grammatical and spelling, as well as semantic and lexical point of view, are also mandatory. Just as in any other translation project.

It is important that the translator leaves the text in accordance with editorial style (format, design, etc.) and correct errors that may have occurred during style review, and printing of the original text.

If you are thinking of becoming a literary translator, it is very important that you know some legal aspects.

Even though translation is a derivative work that depends on the authorization of the holder of the original copyright, unless the work is in the public domain, they produce the protections of the Copyright laws. Copyright protection of literature, music, images and other works exists around the world. Since copyright is a creation of law in each country, there is no such thing as an international copyright law. There are, however, international treaties and national copyright laws designed to protect the rights of content creators around the world. An example of these is the BERNE CONVENTION which now has over one hundred member countries.

It is a common practice for editors to register the copyright of translations which lead to recruit translators under the agreements of “work- for- hire”. In this type of contract, the translation or “version” of the book, then, becomes the sole property of the editor. That is, the translator is paid a fixed rate without the possibility to earn royalties, often set by the number of copies sold. This, however, depends on contract negotiations. Whether you agree or not to the cession of rights, as a translator, you always keep the right to the proper acknowledgement of your authorship in the published translation and in the accompanying publicity. (Your name appears on the cover and title page, and in publicity material). Does this apply to e-books? Yes, of course! But, just remember, digital publishing is still a relatively new phenomenon for what there can be significant variation in the fee/advance vs. royalty structure.

Translating a book, besides breaking the language barrier, opens the door to a vast arsenal of literature that is traditionally unavailable to a far larger number of people. By recreating the original, you help many people to learn about other cultures, history, provide pleasure to readers …Literary translation is a special kind of translation!


1Wright, Chantal. “Literary Translation”. Routledge, Oxon 2016.

2 Rosi, Mauro. Programme Specialist, UNESCO, Sector of Culture, Division of Arts and Cultural Enterprise, Manager of the Clearing House for Literary Translation and the Index Translationum.

Claudia Ramirez
Claudia Ramirez
Born in El Salvador, Claudia Ramírez is a Lawyer, proofreader, and translator with over twelve years of experience including translation of literary texts. Member of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI), European Association of Translation Studies (EST), and Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios de Traducción e Interpretación (ALAETI). Claudia translates from and into Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian) and French.


  1. Avatar Nathan Cowell says:

    I’m very interested in this. It sounds to be more difficult than translation alone? However, you explained well that it isn’t. That is great news!

  2. Avatar Marcelo says:

    It is a pity some great writers can’t just be translated, like Raul Baron Biza.

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