The right time to translate a book?
Lots of us have more time on our hands during the pandemic. Maybe your work volume has dropped, or maybe there are other factors at play. My work volume has been fairly steady, but many of my non-work activities have been cancelled, or take up much less time than they used to because they’re happening via Zoom. Whatever the case, it seems like book translation is in the air; lots of former students have contacted me during the pandemic, looking for book translation advice. It’s definitely a good time to dive into one of those, “If only I had the time” projects, but book translation can also be daunting. If you don’t want to go through the lengthy process of identifying a book you’d like to translate, seeing whether the rights to your language are available, looking for a target-language publisher, waiting for the rights transfer to happen, etc., what are the options? There are actually a few!
What’s your goal?
Book translation is very different from commercial translation. Specifically, most people’s primary reason for doing commercial translation is to make money. Perhaps there are some people out there who would translate shareholder agreements and real estate leases if they weren’t getting paid for it…but I’m guessing that’s a tiny minority in our profession! But when it comes to book translation, money may be your primary motivation, or no motivation at all. Before you dive into book translation, ask yourself (and be honest), “Is my goal to…”
- Make money
- Pursue my own intellectual enrichment
- Bring a specific work or author to light in my language
- See my name in print
- Something else
Answering those questions before you get going will save you a lot of pain. Attitudes toward money in the book translation world are all over the place. For you, maybe it’s a labor of love that might happen to pay something. Maybe it’s an addition to your commercial translation business. Maybe you’ve just always wanted to translate a book. Whatever the case, identify your goal before you go any further, and specifically answer the question of how much you care about earning money from your book translation.
My take on the money question
I love translating books. My dream job would be to translate books, teach classes, and interpret. However, there’s no way I could live off book translation alone. Theoretically, my agency clients pay 15-16 cents per word, but that’s only in theory, because these days I find very few/almost no agencies that are willing to pay those rates. So in practice, my standard translation rate is now what my direct clients pay–generally 20-25 US cents per word. By contrast, my book translation clients generally pay around 10 cents per word, and the work is a lot more time-consuming than much of my commercial translation work. More rounds of revisions, more going back and forth with the author, suggesting text for the cover, the title, and on and on. I love it–but/and it’s too low-paying for me to live off until I’m semi-retired.
I generally try to translate one or two books a year on long deadlines, so that I’m not turning down commercial translation work to work on them. For me, this is a good compromise between waiting until I’m semi-retired, and trying to live off 10 cents a word. Everyone has to find their own balance here, but I think you have to be honest with yourself about how much money matters before you seek out or accept book translation work.
Be aware that in the literary world, some people think that wanting to make money from book translations is kind of an icky topic, as if everyone should be doing it for the greater cultural good. That’s a nice idea, but it’s also OK to want/need to make money from your book translations.
So you want to start right now
Translating books for traditional publishers can be gratifying and lucrative. I love the fact that when I translate for a traditional publisher, I just translate. They handle the proofreading, graphic design, and production of the book. Of course there’s a downside, in that you have to find publishers or they have to find you. I’ve translated for three traditional publishers: one was a windfall (another translator who accepted the book translation and then couldn’t finish it), two (for the same publisher) were from a cold marketing e-mail that I sent to the publisher’s acquisitions editor suggesting a French to English book translation (that didn’t work out, but they had two other French manuscripts on the shelf waiting to be translated), and one found me via my website.
It’s definitely possible to find work translating for traditional publishers. And as a beginning book translator, you may inadvertently try things that experienced translators wouldn’t do–and sometimes they work! When I sent that cold e-mail to the publisher’s acquisitions editor, I had no idea that most people don’t do that. Whoops. But in the end, it worked out really well. Moral of the story: if you have an out-of-the-box idea for contacting publishers, go for it.
If you’d rather not wait for publishers to find you, there are a few options. If you’re that translator who says, “I want to start translating a book today,” here’s what I’d suggest.
A bit about rights
Many would-be book translators don’t know that rights are the linchpin of any book translation deal. Two questions: are the rights for your language available, and is the rights-holder interested in selling/transferring them, must be answered before you can translate a book. I guess you could secretly translate the book and never show it to anyone, but if you want to make it public in any way, you, or a publisher, has to obtain the rights to the book.
Rights can be complicated. Authors often think they own the translation rights, when sometimes they don’t. Publishers don’t always respond to inquiries about whether the rights for a specific language are available. Publishers sometimes buy the rights and then never have the book translated. Rights-holders sometimes–for reasons I have yet to understand–don’t want to sell the translation rights to a book that’s still in print in the original language.
I can attest, because I’ve sold the translation rights to my own books, that making money does not get a whole lot easier than selling the translation rights to a book you already wrote. You negotiate and sign a contract with the party purchasing the rights, they pay you, and you’re done. So I find it a bit perplexing that publishers aren’t more enthusiastic about, for example, selling the translation rights to their books to translators who would then self-publish the translations. Translation rights are basically free money once the book is published in the original language, but perhaps publishers see it as too downmarket to be associated with self-publishing? Maybe someone who knows more than I do about the publishing industry has insights into this.
Translating books in the public domain
I’m somewhat puzzled as to why more people don’t do this. Public-domain book sites such as Project Gutenberg have literally thousands of books that you can legally translate because they’re in the public domain. Remember, “free” (as in free of charge) and “public domain” (as in not copyrighted or out of copyright) are two different things. If you’re going to go this route, make sure your book is in the public domain, not just cost-free. For example on Project Gutenberg, the vast majority of books on the site are in the public domain in the US, but some are not, and Project Gutenberg can’t advise you on the copyright situation in every country in the world. Here’s their page on copyright and permissions for reference.
On the Project Gutenberg site, there are 16 languages that have more than 50 books, and some very small diffusion languages (Occitan, Ojibwa, and Old English, to name a few) that have at least one book.
So there’s a quick-start option at your fingertips: translate a book in the public domain, and self-publish the translation using one of the many self-publishing services out there. But how do I go about self-publishing the book, you ask? Well, if you want a super-simple option, just make a PDF and sell it from your website or a service like E-junkie. If you want to make a real book, I recommend Joanna Penn’s website to teach you all the options.
You could also…
- Use (with caution), sites like Babelcube that match up self-published authors with translators on a royalties-only basis. Here’s a guest post on my blog by a translator who used Babelcube. Caution: I know several translators who have had great experiences on Babelcube. I’ve also heard from translators who earned around $5 total in royalties (no kidding) from their translations, and worse yet, from one translator who thinks that the author absconded with the translation and published it somewhere else (so no payment to the translator) and from another translator who said that the book was never published on all the channels that Babelcube promises.
- Poke around for self-published authors who want their book translated and would give you the translation rights for free or sell them at a reasonable cost. I charged $1,500 for the translation rights to How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, because I felt it was an amount that the translators could recoup with a realistic amount of sales. Other self-published authors might charge more or less, but you might find some whose price is in the budget of a freelance translator.
- Other ideas? Anyone else have thoughts on this?
Book translation is a real rabbit hole of information, so it’s good to read and study up before you get going. I would recommend:
- A Speaking of Translation interview that Eve Bodeux and I did with experienced book translators Kate Deimling and Mercedes Guhl
- Literary translator Susan Bernofsky’s blog Translationista
- Joanna Penn’s website The Creative Penn, with everything you ever wanted to know about self-publishing
- The website of the American Literary Translators Association
Readers, over to you! Any other questions or comments about book translation?