Book Reviews Translations

Writing a Reader’s Report

Reader’s reports are a fairly well-hidden part of the publishing industry, but they can make or break a book. It’s important to remember that there are two main types of reader’s reports – those which review a manuscript in the same language as the manuscript, and those which review a published foreign-language book for consideration for translation. Obviously, I will be focusing on the latter.

Esther Allen, translator extraordinaire and prolific producer of reader’s reports, once called it “the most silent of literary genres”. You can read her delightful Guardian article on the subject here. Publishers who want to keep an ear to the ground of foreign literature commission book-hungry linguists to read a manuscript and write a 2-4-page report on whether they would recommend it for translation. Thus, a reader’s report is a mixture of plot synopsis and personal commentary. They don’t pay well – between £80-120 per piece, but if you’re someone like me who devours books in a couple of days for the sheer joy of it, being paid a few pounds an hour to read and do a write-up seems like a slice of heaven, am I right?

I’ve never been paid to do a reader’s report myself, but we’re currently doing workshops on them for my Research and Methodology module, wherein our tutor has passed on many tantalising nuggets of information. For next week’s workshop, I’ve decided to do a Reader’s Report on Tausche Dirndl Gegen Sari, partly because I’m currently reading an English novel and this was the most recent German book I’ve read, and partly because I can give it a very thoroughly mixed review. The fact that this book is so specific to the Indian/Bavarian culture clash is my ultimate reason for not recommending it for translation. I doubt British or American readers would get much out of it, as charming as the book was to me in places.

If done well, and if they are particularly positive, reader’s reports can help you to get a foot in the door with a publisher and could even lead to a translation commission. However, opportunities for reader’s reports won’t be advertised anywhere and you need to contact publishers in order to start receiving requests. Remember that when you are emailing publishers about doing reader’s reports, small indie publishers are much more likely to give you a positive response, or even a response at all.

I’m writing a quick list of things to consider and questions to ask oneself when writing a reader’s report, partly to refresh my own memory and partly to summarise my scruffy handwritten notes:

  1. Remember that there are different literary conventions for writing reader’s reports depending on the source language of the book. Unfortunately, the format for reader’s reports of German books is much more regimented and thorough than most other languages. Why am I not surprised?
  2. Make sure to research the specific imprints of the publisher you are writing for. What kind of books do they publish? What would they be looking for? What makes them tick?
  3. At the start of the report, remember to include basic information about the book such as its original publisher, date of publication, author, length and a suggested translation for the title. If the title is particularly difficult to translate because of its cultural specificity, make sure you inform the publisher about this.
  4. It’s important to situate the book within its literary context. Is this a particularly ‘trendy’ area of literature in the source language right now? Is it full of historical or political references?
  5. Author: What does the author usually do? Do they also write other things such as plays or poems? Is this a debut novel? Are they prolific or do they have few books on the market? Does the author write across genres or in one specific genre? Do they have a significant online presence? Do some background research.
  6. Point of view: What kind of point of view do I write from? Do I use the first or third person? It may be useful to switch between the two, for example between the plot synopsis and your own personal commentary. Remember to always use the present tense when describing the book’s plot
  7. Tone: Think about the tone of the book. Is it dark or light? Uplifting or though-provoking?
  8. Genre: Think about the genre of the book. Does it already fit neatly into a well-established or pre-existing literary genre? Does it transgress genres or straddle various different ones? Does it bring anything fresh to its genre? Have similar books already been translated into English, or would it be unique?
  9. Style: What kind of literary style does the author have? Does it remind you of another author or group of authors in the source language? Are the influences on the author clear?
  10. Structure: how is the book structured? Are there long or short chapters or sections? Are there any paratexts such as introductions, discussion questions or an interview with the author? Would I recommend translating these too, or not?
  11. Intended audience: who is buying this book in the source language? Check reviews for its reception. You might want to translated a couple lines from prominent reviewers. Would it appeal to the same audience in the target language? Why/why not? Is it high-brow or low-brow, and would this affect its target audience?
  12. Purpose: What is the book trying to do or say? Did it lead to any self-reflection or throw up pertinent questions?

Ultimately, you need to give a clear answer on whether or not you think the book should be translated into English.