Book translation has been on my radar screen lately; Eve Bodeux and I translated a novel together last year, and I’ve just finished translating another novel and a mountaineering memoir (more on these when they’re published!). Then, as if there were something in the air, a couple of readers e-mailed me questions about book translation. So, let’s have a crack at this interesting topic.
First, almost everything I know about the business of book translation, I learned from Lisa Carter. Her blog is truly a gold mine of advice for aspiring literary translators, especially those who want to make some money while they’re at it. So, for the authoritative word on literary translation, listen to Lisa! You can literally listen to her, in an interview on Tess Whitty’s podcast, which I also recommend!
The harsh reality is that unless you get in on the ground floor of the next Harry Potter series (and maybe not even then), book translation will never pay as well as commercial translation. It just won’t. Because the people who need book translations (authors and publishers) mostly earn a lot less than the people who need commercial translations. But a) if you look carefully, book translation can pay enough to be a viable addition to your commercial translation business, and b) it’s appealing for other reasons, which I’ll address later.
In my experience, there are two kinds of book translation clients: those with budgets so low that they really need a pro bono translator, and those that will pay enough to hire a professional translator. I’m assuming that you’re looking for the second kind of book translation client. If you love translating books and honestly don’t need the money, go forth and translate, because there are tons of authors out there waiting for you (and I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically).
To find decently-paying book translations I recommend a) working with self-published authors who have decent budgets, or b) contacting publishers in your target language, that publish the kinds of books you’re interested in translating. In my experience, non-fiction always pays better than fiction (simply because non-fiction books have a longer shelf life and generally sell more copies). But fiction, especially for the aforementioned self-published authors, can pay decently too. Working with self-published authors isn’t as crazy as it sounds, especially if the author is translating into a language with potentially higher sales than the original. Some authors are willing to self-fund the translation and then recoup the investment through royalties, and others are just interested in getting their book in front of a new audience. For more on working with self-published authors, see Lisa Carter’s interview with Rafa Lombardino on that very topic.
How do you find book translation clients? Of the four books I’ve translated to date, one was a referral from a colleague, one was for an author who found my website, one was through an agency, and one was through a specialized publisher that I cold-contacted (with a warm e-mail). So, just like any other kind of client, you can find book translation clients in lots of ways; but I would definitely recommend having a dedicated page for book translations on your website (here’s mine), and I would definitely recommend proactively contacting publishers that produce the kinds of books you want to translate.
So, if book translation rarely pays as well as commercial translation, what’s the appeal? Well, lots of things. Translating books is really interesting. Although I love my work, it’s rare that I would choose to read one of my commercial translations for pleasure. When I kick back and relax, I don’t crack open a report on performance-based funding of public health programs in West Africa, or a brochure to attract foreign students to a European university. I find them interesting when I translate them, but they’re not something I would read if I weren’t getting paid. But the books I’ve translated have been really, really interesting: the kind of thing I’d read for pleasure. Also, book translations are less immediately-deadline driven than most commercial translation. The books I’ve translated have taken three to five months, during which time I work completely on my own schedule; a nice alternative to 3,000 words for tomorrow. Book translations are also good for translators who want to be location-independent, for that same reason (once you sign the contract, you’re usually not in daily contact with the author or publisher).
A few caveats:
-Always get a deposit; even at a lower rate than your commercial translation work, book translations are a big chunk of money and you don’t want to risk not getting paid.
-Get credit: the gold standard is your name on the cover, in the same font as the author’s; your name might be on the copyright page or somewhere else, but your name should be there somewhere (ditto for the Amazon page: you should be on there).
-Avoid work for hire (with the disclosure that I’ve done a book translation as a work for hire, so I’m talking about the ideal here, not necessarily what I always do). Work for hire, where the client owns all rights to the translation once they pay the invoice, is the norm in commercial translation. In book translation, you want to avoid it. When you own the copyright to the translation, the client can’t deny you credit for it; if they never publish the translation, go out of business, or if the translation goes out of print, you may be able to do something else with it (for example, self-publish it or shop it around to another publisher).
-Negotiate long deadlines. To me, this is the key to making book translation financially viable. I couldn’t live off book translation alone, and I don’t want to tie myself up so that I’m turning down work from my commercial translation clients. So I negotiate a deadline that allows me to fit the book in as I have time; that way I’m not putting my commercial clients on hold for three months while I work on the book.
Readers, other thoughts on translating books?
Sue Anderson says
Some great tips here. Books are daunting but exciting. For me, working with publishers was unknown territory and I made mistakes initially until I found the UK Society of Authors who offer great support and advice for book translators. Of fiction or nonfiction. It also strikes me that an hour a day might not be enough to get into the necessary flow, 2-3 days per week still leaves time for commercial clients. And as you say, the key is to translate books you would read for fun!
Thanks for the kind words about my blog, Corinne! Congrats on these recent books. I love, love, love hearing about others’ successes, and learning from them, too.
Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. Rafa Lombardino, whom Lisa interviewed, is an expert on translating self-published authors, a trend that is growing and gaining respectability. She makes lots of information about this niche in many places: her blog, eWordNews.com; two webinars in Proz.com, “Translators and Self-Published Authors”and “How to Self-Publish Your Own Translations”; the Summer 2015 issue of “Source,” the newsletter of the ATA Literary Division; a back issue of the ATA Chronicle; and in several Facebook pages about literary translations. You can really learn a lot from her!
From my experience, I find your estimate that it requires only one hour a day for 3-5 months to translate a book to be much too low, unless it’s a really short or simple one. I would at least double your estimate for a realistic plan before undertaking the translation of a quality book, especially for translators considering translating one for the first time. It takes practice to translate books not only efficiently, but with high quality as well. Certain challenges exist for book-length manuscripts that do not appear in shorter commercial texts, such as maintaining consistency in tone and terminology during the many months it takes to complete a book translation, and revising the entire manuscript many more times than a commercial translation. Non-fiction books require doing a lot of extra research, fact-checking, and reference conversions, while works of literature (not mere pop fiction) require intensive consideration of alternative wording and phrasing to capture the artistry of the original. Finally, book translations of both kinds tend to involve much more communication with authors to ensure the best translation, which takes up more time as well. I also agree with Sue that a book translator should set aside more than an hour at a time to get into the flow and maintain it.
Perhaps I am too new as a reader of this blog to have noticed that it revolves mainly around the business side of translation. As a book translator and editor for 25 years, I find a bit unfair with us, book translators who have book projects all year long and who earn a living from that, that you don’t say anywhere that your thoughts around book translation focus ONLY and EXCLUSIVELY on the business side of the task… you deal with terms and conditions of the job, but don’t say a single word about the craft itself. The one thing I would like to tell you about your statements is that we do translate 3,000 words per day!!! That’s my daily quota, and I have to mantain it for as long as the book takes. So I have to translate that today, and then tomorrow and then the day after for 2-3 months, to finish the book on time. That’s why I compare translating books to running a marathon. You have to ration your energy and mental ability for the day’s quota and not a paragraph or a page more, so that you are able to make the same amount of text the following days.
Going back to the craft vs. business issue, there is a lot more in book translation (and literary translation) than just business. Those are especialized fields of expertise and just as we, book translators, wouldn’t dare to break up into legal or medical translation just for the fun of it, we expect the same kind of respect towards us.
We don’t work in books because we find it good fun. We do it because we love books, we are interested in literature and how language can be used to picture reality and feelings. We have trained in the use of language. We are voracious readers and have especialized in analyzing style so that we can render it as faithfully as possible in another language. We have learned enough about another culture so that we can understand cultural referents, puns, metaphors, word play, and also know our own culture so that we can find or construct equivalents to all that. We have worked on writing, enough to be able to recreate the style of an author and not impose our own style on him or her. And if we work in non-fiction, we don’t step out from our knowledge boundaries or we decide to plunge into the field, do lots of research and learn.
For a view of what I find missing in this post, you can check my article for the journal of ATA’s Literary Division, “Source”, entitled “The making of a literary translator” in this link:
Go to page 37, where the article starts.
yes, mercedes, a good article, I have read it….and agree with you. Book translators are almost genius if they do it right!!!!
Thank you for great tips! I really like your blog because it’s very helpful and interesting.
Can I share your post on my site http://2polyglot.com/?utm_source=2polyglotSEO&utm_medium=SEO&utm_campaign=2?
I will leave a link back to you as an author.
Corinne McKay says
Yes, feel free to share the post as long as there’s a link back to the original.
Great topic Corinne.
As an additional resource (and inspiration) I’d like to add Deep Vellum, an independent publisher here in Dallas that focuses exclusively on translating literature into English. Deep Vellum has published the first English translations of Sergio Pitol, considered a national treasure in Mexico but unheard of in the U.S. (especially compared to names like Octavio Paz or Gabriel Garcia Marquez–whose translator, by the way, evidently did not negotiate any royalty payments for 100 Years of Solitude). The owner, Will Evans, suggests that translators be the “scouts” who identify an up-and-coming or wildly popular book in another country and pitch the translation of it to different publishers.
A scout! That’s what I would like to be. Unfortunately, editors and publishers not necessarily trust their translators as scouts. The “commercial” bit in the publishing industry is very strong.
And just a minor precision: Gabriel García Márquez is not Mexican, although he lived in Mexico for over 40 years. He is Colombian and his texts always spin around Colombian matters.
I love this article! But I have a question. I’m only 15 years old but I love books and languages, so translating a book is something I would love to do. Would it even be possible for a teenager to have a chance of translating an actual book? And how should I do it/start it, should I contact an author?
Corinne McKay says
I’ve never heard of a teenage book translator, but that isn’t to say it couldn’t happen! For everything you need to know about literary translation, I would check out Lisa Carter’s website intralingo.com. Her blog is a gold mine!
I finished translating a (35,000 word) non-fiction book shortly after I turned 19. If you’re able to get in contact with an author who wants their book translated, can’t afford a professional, and thinks your writing is good enough, then it’s possible. It depends greatly on who you know, however.
Beverly Hayes says
You mentioned how as translators we should avoid work for hire, “where the client owns all rights to the translation once they pay the invoice.” So, if we ask for the translation rights, will there be authors who won’t be pleased with my request? I was just contacted by a children’s book author about my rates. I’ve never translated a children’s book before and I’m not sure how to stipulate and ask for those rights. Does that mean I will receive royalties from the sales of my translation? Just trying to understand. Thank you, Corinne!
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Beverly! You have to negotiate all of that for each project, and it needs to be in writing in the contract. To me, the three main things I want are a) my name on the cover, b) copyright to the translation in my name, and c) royalties. I would look at the PEN model contract for a baseline set of contract terms.
Nancy Foster says
Interesting article. I feel fortunate I’m a billingual english-spanish speaker which allowed me to translate my first novel to spanish without forking money or the hassle of royalty payments because basically I did everything myself.
Is it a 100% perfect translation? Might not be in everyone’s eyes because I use mexican spanish which could confuse or annoy some readers but it has indeed opened a huge set of doors. I have noticed releasing the spanish edition has helped increased notoriety of the english original novel a bit and given spanish books are more uncommon than english ones the book shoots up the rankings on Amazon more easily. I wasn’t planning on translating the book but my best friends urged me because he was too lazy to read it in english.
After seeing the interest the spanish translation is getting I’m translating the sequel right now. Since I am essentially translating my own book I don’t take so long top translate. The first novel took me 15 workweek days in the afternoons after my regular daytime job and then after a quick revision searching for problem verb tenses and accents that get missed from autocheck I left the book idle for a few weeks to keep my mind off of the thoughts of the chosen words. When I felt ready I read the novel and fixed incoherent grammar and pretty much it was good to go in just 6 weeks. Not bad considering the novel is almost 100,000 words.
I find it’s less daunting to first translate the one liner sentences everywhere, then the two liners and leaving the chunky big paragraphs till the end. It both makes you avoid the pitfall of wasting time reading the entire book and keeps you focused on just translating random separate pieces of text. It’s annoying to do because of the length of the books but I feel it’s worth it in the end because I reach to a lot more readers.
I’m interested in translating a Japanese children’s picture book to English and need some tips on how to get started. Do I need to find out who owns the publication rights? Should I contact the Japanese publishing house or publishing companies in my target language?
I would love to hear advice you may have.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Jessica. The first step is to find out who owns the translation rights and whether the English rights are available. The original publisher’s foreign rights department is a good place to start. If the English rights are available, then there are various options: look for a US publisher who would buy the rights and hopefully hire you to translate the book (but don’t invest more effort than you’re willing to lose without a contract); see if the Japanese publisher would sell you the translation rights so that you could self-publish the translation, or shop the book to US publishers already translated. You might also be interested in the book translation course I’m running in April. https://www.trainingfortranslators.com/product/breaking-into-the-book-translation-market/
Thank you, Corinne!
What do you mean by “shop the book”?
Corinne McKay says
Hi Jessica; by that I mean that you would send either query letters or a full book proposal to publishers, to hopefully attract a publisher that will either a) buy the English rights to the book and hire you to translate it, or b) publish the book as if it had been written in English, if you were able to first buy the English rights from the Japanese publisher and then translate it. Option b would kind of surprise me (traditional publishers generally steer clear of anything related to self-publishing), but it’s probably worth a shot. Good luck with it!
Thanks again, Corinne.
This is my last question. I hope you can help. When I contact the publisher to ask about whether or not the rights are available, what is good to include in the letter? In my case, the publishing company in Japan seems to be quite small, and only has a physical address to contact them (no email!). So I have to send them a letter. Should I tell them a little bit about myself and why I think the book should be translated into English? or is it better just to cut to the chase?
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Jessica. I think there are various ways to look at it. In one sense, it’s just a factual question: are the English rights available? In another sense, that’s kind of a subtle question. Sometimes, for reasons unknown, the English rights aren’t taken, but the publisher doesn’t feel like selling them. Then, giving a little more information about yourself might be appealing, especially if you’re considering trying to purchase the rights yourself. So I’d probably go with option 2 (a bit about yourself and why you love the book).
Thank you so much!
Katharine Ukraine says
That’s a great article! Thank you!
Interesting topic for me – I am freelancer-translator and copywriter at uatxt.com, but I’d love to polish my skills so hard to became at once a real corrector at publishing house… Wish me luck!
I appreciate your tips.