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?
Juliana Damia says
Thanks for this very enlightening post!
Corinne McKay says
Sure, glad you enjoyed it!
JT Hine says
Nice summary, Corinne. Congratulations! I can vouch for everything you wrote, except selling the rights to my own books, because I have not done that — yet.
Corinne McKay says
YET! That’s the key word!
Lauri Lindqvist says
Thank you! This came right as pressure was building in my head to get moving on book translation. I never even thought of self-publishing, that’s definitely something I’ll have to look into. I was wondering if you have any insights on how to keep up with source language literature in order to find something to translate. I could look on Amazon, of course, but is there some more targeted method than just sampling random books?
Pedro A. says
this is an interesting read. Thank you for sharing your decision-making process and conclusions with us.
Good to know you’re doing okay.
Greetings from Portugal.
Corinne McKay says
Glad you enjoyed it!
Chus Fernandez says
This was very helpful as it is precisely what I want to do now.
Corinne McKay says
Great, glad to hear it!
Theodora Dahling says
That seems like a lot of books! Where can I find a list of all the books you’ve translated?
Also, where can I buy them, and what were their titles in the original languages? Thanks!
Corinne McKay says
Here you go! https://translatewrite.com/books/ Actually I have another book that was published in December that I need to add!
Theodora Dahling says
Thank you. That will keep me busy for a while.
Since the general public often confuses “translation” with “book translation,” it’s not surprising that many new translators are eager to jump in and try their hand. That excitement is palpable – and contagious.
Here’s my question: how does the aspiring translator know that she has the language skills and translation skills and cultural skills needed to do justice to a book (any book)?
Isn’t there a risk that an over-eager and well-intentioned translator just isn’t up to the task, and botches the job – doing a disservice to both the author (who trusted her, so betraying her duty of care) and to the profession (betraying our fragmented industry’s code of professional ethics)?
David Bellos offers some fascinating insights on how much knowledge and effort is involved in book translation in his recent W.G. Sebald lecture for the British Library (with reference to Les Misérables, no less). Highly recommended. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnvC8ufhnt8
But there’s also this: although I don’t claim to translate books, I’ve contributed my own writing to several, and hold the copyright to one. I’ve also seen other writing of mine, under my copyright, translated into a number of foreign languages. Call me a sentimental old fart, but the texts I write and send out into the world are very close to my heart. I pour a huge amount of thought and care into creating them, which may be why my jaw dropped at viewing the sale of translation rights as “easy money”.
“They pay you and you’re done”—really?
As an author, it would be unthinkable for me not to have many back-and-forths with my translator. And as a translator myself, I know how complex (and stimulating! and invigorating! and time-consuming!) moving from one language to another is. How deep the translator’s linguistic and cultural knowledge must be to have any hope of “getting it right”.
Speaking of which, a concrete example:
Years ago I wrote two little booklets—“Translation/Getting it Right” and “Interpreting/Getting it Right” – a mere 28 pages each, but distributed and used worldwide. Before publication in the original English, they were read by many revisers, and some comments were taken on board.
They’ve now been translated into 19 languages, and I’ve worked closely with the translation teams (note: *team*—usually a lead translator, but always revisers and re-revisers) on every single one.
I’m fluent in only two languages (English and French), but speak and read three others, so could work closely with those translators, discussing nuance and so on. Lots of Q&A.
And even for the 14 others, explaining the fine points of the source text and answering Qs – on a topic that the translators were familiar with, to boot — was necessary. Every. Single. Time. And that was with experienced, professional translators, with proven track records.
I wondered if this endless interaction (which some might view as fussing) was just me/brochures, so asked a full-time professional in the publishing industry, who responded: “It’s not just about ‘free money’ but [about] ensuring that the book is well translated and that the translation reaches a wide readership. Self-publishing offers no quality controls and no route to market. The fee for translation rights is basically an advance on forecast sales, and the source-language publisher has a duty of care towards their author and that author’s work, i.e., to ensure a quality translation that will generate an income for the author (and the publishing house, of course).”
That duty of care thing, again.
If we’re talking about self-published authors, where there has often been very little editorial input in the first place —whoa, we’re back to my first point: these authors (who have likely poured *their* hearts into *their* books) cannot judge what they are getting in a foreign language. So who is doing the copyediting, checking for style issues and downright errors when it comes to the translation?
Or doesn’t it matter once the money has changed hands, and/or the aspiring translator has her name on the book? Is that the point? (Trying v hard to get my head around the implications.)
These questions leapt into my mind on reading this post. I think anyone considering book translation should be thinking about them, too.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Chris! I guess everyone does this their own way: once I sell the translation rights to my books, of course I answer questions if the translators have them, but otherwise I leave it up to them how much interaction they want.
Raymond Manzor says
Thank you, Christine, for this excellent comment. It seems to me appropriate that the comments on this article about translating books mirror the length of the books we aspire to translate. Cleary people are passionate about this topic.
I would expect a great deal of interaction with the publisher’s team. That is in fact why I would like to start translating books – I want to work on projects (long or short) in which everyone is working towards the quality of the final translation, rather than wanting the damn thing done now (for as little as possible).
Another point you mention is whether an aspiring book translator will be up to the task. If you’re a good translator, you’re a good translator. If you have the time, you can get comfortable with any kind of text on any topic. I repeat: IF you have the time. That’s our job. We analyse the source text, and then decide whether, given our prior experience and the deadline, we are capable of producing an excellent translation. Does that not also apply to translating books.
I would make an exception for books written long ago, for which the translator would need to be familiar with their language as written at the time.
If you’re serious about getting into book translation, check out the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) mentorship program and resources, including the ALTA Guide to Getting Started in Literary Translation https://literarytranslators.org/. Dip your toe in the water by attending workshops and summer schools, many of which are now online.
Ros Schwartz, literary translator and co-director of Warwick Translates summer school in the UK.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Ros! Yes, thanks for mentioning ALTA, and their conference this year is online: https://literarytranslators.org/ And for anyone interested in attending the Warwick summer school next year (let’s hope it can happen!!), here it is: https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/wtss/
Allison Wright says
Translating books, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a huge topic. On such a generalisation, I think we can all agree, and your attempt to demystify some aspects of it for the uninitiated might help to motivate those a little nervous of taking the plunge.
Nevertheless, I think the following excerpt from your post is misleading at best:
“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.”
Your statement ignores the most important aspect of translation, which is multiple layers of collaborative revision. Having been involved, variously as a translator, revisor, copyeditor, and proofreader of a good handful of fiction and non-fiction titles published by established publishing houses, I have never come across a situation where the translator’s role and responsibility were restricted to “just translating”. Never.
When quality of the printed word is equally as imperative as the accuracy of the translation, the process is methodical, systematic, and demanding – right up to the signing off on the final proofs before going to print.
For readers who have not yet experienced what translating “a book” might entail, here is an outline of what you might reasonably expect:
1. The publisher (and author) will want to establish your bona fides as a competent translator. If you cannot produce a portfolio or a sample of work of a similar nature previously undertaken, you might be required to translate the first couple of pages of the work, which will be assessed by the editor (or editorial team) at the publishing house. Once you have several titles under your belt, and particularly if a previous client with successful published works to their name has recommended you, your reputation precedes you and opens the door to the publisher for you.
2. Your contract, the terms of which it behoves you to negotiate to best mutual advantage, should accommodate the Steps 3-9, as a minimum, if you are the translator. They could also apply (as has been the case for me on four works) in your capacity as revisor or copyeditor). It is usually useful at this early stage to establish what style guide and other conventions are to be used: For example, changing straight quotes to curly quotes in works of 100,000 words after the fact is treacherous territory, or worse, changing inflections in gendered languages.
3. Translation, revised collaboratively by a revisor of your choice, whose fee is over and above the fee you charge for the translation. By the time the first draft is “complete”, you and your revisor will have read the entire translation at least three times.
4. Consultation with the author (if alive) by e-mail, phone or video call, and in person on any queries that arise during the course of 3. above.
5. Consultation with the author might involve only minor edits but could easily affect other sections of the work concerned. So those changes need to be thrashed out between the translator, revisor and author too.
6. Now, as translator, you submit the translation to the publisher.
7. The publisher assigns the work to an editor, who reads the entire manuscript. Invariably, there are a few suggestions that the editor/copyeditor makes which require the agreement of the translator (and sometimes also the translator’s revisor, depending on the contract, but this is the responsible thing to do anyhow). The copyeditor may or may not have a knowledge of the source language, but might bring another competence, such as in-depth subject knowledge to the text.
8. Once all is settled and agreed at this stage, the work is sent to the graphics and layout department, who produce proofs, which are sent to the translator (and revisor, depending on the contract, but this, I repeat, is the responsible and ethical thing to do anyhow). At this stage, a final check is made as to chapter titles and page numbers, page breaks, and even spot checks that the most recent changes agreed have, in fact, been incorporated. The copyright page also has to be checked. This is the page which has been revised the least and most likely to contain errors, so needs extra attention at this stage.
9. Once the translator (and revisor) has signed off on the final proofs, the publisher sends the work to print. For this, you need nerves of steel – as you do for anything that has your name on it. The intensity of signing off on an extended work is, however, in a league of its own.
10. Often, the translator, in tandem with the revisor, is required to produce a blurb on the book, translate a blurb on the author, and produce a mini-biography of the translator and revisor (depending on the contract). Some of this material will appear on the cover of the book, and some online. Proofing the cover also falls to the translator (and revisor). In some cases (and this is probably unusual), the author, translator, and revisor are invited to suggest artwork for the cover or asked their opinion as to the suitability of the artwork proposed by the publisher. This step often involves a flurry of collaboration between all interested parties. To my mind (and those of many others who translate published works) this is definitely part of the exhilarating process of “book translation”.
It is worth noting that Steps 7-10 can take as long as it do Steps 3-6.
While not all publishers follow such a thorough process, many, many do. The translators who translate for these publishers seldom think of their role (and how can they possibly?) as one where they “just translate”.
To newbies who would like to translate longer, published works, my advice – aside from being an utter bookworm in your source and target language – is to hone your craft on smaller stuff, to begin with. Take an excerpt (a paragraph or page, or two) of a book in your source language that has already been translated into, and published by a reputable publisher in, your target language. Translate the source yourself without reference to the published translation. Then compare your output to the published work. How do you measure up? There’s a wealth of material online. You might like to pick short stories available online for translation and have informal “competitions” with colleagues in the same language pair, with a discussion online once you have all considered each other’s attempts. Sounds like too much like hard work? Ooh. Perhaps “book translation” is not for you.
Lauri Lindqvist says
Thank you for this, it was super informative! As someone who maybe takes their translations a little too personally, I’m actually glad to hear the translator is so involved in every step of the process. I’m looking forward to hopefully participating in this someday. And I like the ideas of practicing with pages from a book or short stories from online.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Allison, especially for those tips for newbies; super helpful! The publisher workflow I’ve experienced is pretty different from what you describe (in one case, I submitted the manuscript, said, “Let me know when you’d like to schedule some time to go over the first round of edits,” and the next I heard from the publisher was when they mailed me a copy of the published book), but it’s really interesting to hear about the various ways publishers and translators collaborate.
Linda Gunnarson says
Excellent summary! What you describe has been my experience as well. ”Translating” is only a small part of the job.
Mercedes Guhl says
Your comment is a blog post in itself, Allison. I think you give an excellent description of the editorial process. In my own comment I recommend finding some sort of a primer about publishing and editorial work, but you offer a good overwiew of it, with a bonus: when you read about editorial work and publishing, the translator’s role may get a bit lost, as not every book published is a translation.
There is a great book in Spanish about publishing, for both publishing houses and for people going into self-publishing, and I’ve been tempted to get in touch with the author and ask her to work together on an extra chapter or section about publishing translations. Editors and publishers who are new to translation don’t know much about how to deal with it.
Raymond Manzor says
Alison’s description of the entire workflow for a book translation is informative and of great use to someone who is interested in this kind of work. However, I wonder where the project manager, typesetter, proofreader and proof collator have gone? I can’t see why the translator and revisor are doing so many checks, particularly at proof stage. Or being asked to handle other details like choosing an image for the cover. I’m sure that the translator, just like the author, needs to approve many of these choices, but is the translation not the publisher’s project? Is the translator not just one (important) member of the team? What you describe makes it seem as though the translator is in charge of everything. I would have thought that the publisher was responsible for the final publication.
Sara Freitas says
For someone who wants to translate their first book, there certainly are a lot of ideas here on how to get started (including some contributions that made me hungry for separate blog posts…so much expertise and experience to share!).
My first and only book translation was a vanity project (never got published, not even self-published, for a variety of reasons that were as odd as the rest of the project was). It was posted on Proz (of all places) by a translation agency (of all things). I had no experience (it was my first translation job ever and I applied because the topic appealed to me), but I did have absolutely unbelievable luck not only to be chosen for the project, but to be paired with a revisor who was actually a seasoned literary translator (and by “seasoned” I mean bestsellers, Goncourt winners, etc., by the dozens and over decades).
Like I said, the project was about as wacky as the author bankrolling it. Why did he choose me? Why did a very senior literary translator agree to revise it for peanuts? No-one will ever know! I learned a ton about translation (including that I did not want to do books) and gained a mentor and a going-on-20-year friendship.
Over the years I have had customers ask me to translate other self-published books (not for sales, mainly consultants who are experts in a given field in France and who want to use their books to get speaking gigs on the international conference circuit), but I have always declined or scared them away with the budget, LOL.
Every time I ask my mentor for advice on behalf of someone wondering about book translation he always seems to have a different answer depending on the type of book (fiction, non-fiction, topic, what it would be competing with on the US market, etc.). The last request was in the yoga/wellness field. The author has a French publisher, but dreams of publishing in the US. My friend says don’t bother…too much competition for those kinds of books on a saturated market. No publisher in their right mind would pay “twice” (for the rights and for the translation). It really does seem to depend on so many different factors. At some point I think you do just have to jump in with both feet, regardless of what kind of new project it is.
Corinne McKay says
Hi Sara! Wow, that book translation experience sounds like it’s worth a blog post in and of itself 🙂 From ProZ to the Prix Goncourt! And really interesting to hear your mentor’s take on the case-by-case nature of the book translation world.
Mercedes Guhl says
As a seasoned book translator, over 30 years in the publishing industry (Spanish-speaking world) and more than 80 books under my belt (plus the ones I’ve edited, proofed, and 2 that I have written), it’s nice to find such enthusiasm towards book translation. I don’t want to mean to be a party pooper, but I think there are important areas that this blogpost is not addressing. My two cents.
It’s easy to read a book. It’s not so easy to understand it in all its layers. Coming up with a strategy to re-verbalize that book in another language asks for additional skills. The mere wanting to translate a book is not powerful enough to make for those additional skills required. You must feel driven, so that the impulse takes you to improve and hone your abilities. You need to develop your reading and writing skills for that. A person who translates a book for publication should be able to justify their word choices, and to be humble enough to admit their errors, make amends and choose another solution. A book translator should have read enough books in both working languages that he/she can detect any innovation from the author, and is perfectly capable of reproducing innovations in the target language with a wide range of assorted stylistic and lexical elements. In other words, the translator needs to be accountable, because the way this person reads and interprets a text, and the way that he/she re-verbalizes the text has to stand the contest of other readings and criticism in general.
Also, translating a book is like running a marathon, an endurance race. You need to train yourself for that. Even for a full-time book translator, like myself, a whole book means several months of work, in part Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, when you are producing the raw text, and then rounds of revision and feedback. And this translator/long-distance runner has to get to the finish line fast, in order to be included in the podium. You don’t go through a 350-page book to produce a so-so translation. You do it to win the gold (or silver or bronze). Therefore, you have to make sure you can really run the 26 odd miles and get to the finish line among the first ones.
Besides that, the translator of books must understand the book industry and its workings. The text provided by the translator to the publisher/editor is a raw material, and it undergoes several readings by different people, to turn the raw translated text into a shiny finished one. When you take the self-publishing path, you often remove that very important stage of book production. Self-publishing lies on the outskirts of the publishing industry, where the standard industry processes that aim for text quality and book quality may not take place due to lack of expertise or budget or means. In self-publishing, you need people skilled in editorial tasks in order to produce a book that looks “professionally published” and not amateurish. And then, the whole phase of distribution to sales points and agreement with bookstores relies on the self-publisher (that is, you) or else you have to hire someone.
Goals like having your name in print are not worthy at all costs, I think. When my name is in print in a book by a well-established publisher, I feel my work and worth are being acknowledged. It’s like getting the recognition of the industry.
My advice for those who want to translate a book, short and sweet, is: work in honing your reading and writing skills and get a primer on publishing and the book industry. And find someone to read your translations and comment on them, whether a mentor or a colleague with fine ear for the text. That feedback will prove invaluable!
Lastly, something to add to the list of further reading: a review of two very interesting sessions about breaking into book translation (“Building and Maintaining a Healthy Professional Network” and “Moving Sideways: Breaking into Book Translation and Working with Publishers”) by Ruth Martin, DE>EN literary translator. Click on http://www.ata-divisions.org/LD/wp-content/images/publications/source/Source079_March_2020.pdf and go to page 8.
As for the question of why publisher don’t sell translation rights to translators, I can risk some thoughts on that. Foreign rights contracts tackle at least these aspects: an amount of money (usually more than what a translator can pay and recover easily) for the rights, an amount of copies to print, a geographical range (the US; the US, Puerto Rico and Philippines; the US, Canada, UK; world rights in English), and a date to have the book in translation ready for sale. A translator alone cannot handle all that. If you look at grants and bursaries for translation, they usually require a rights contract and a publisher. Acquiring rights means to take care of a lot of details of publishing that are beyond the translator’s capabilities. But why? Because a book is the product of teamwork (editors, copyeditors, proofers, designers, printers, etc.), even if only the author’s name appears on the cover. As an editor, or author, or editorial director, I wouldn’t like any of my books to be sold to a certain somebody and have the text turn up in a less-than-good translation and published below the industry standards. Negotiating with another established publisher or literary agent looks like a safer bet.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Mercedes! Great to have your perspective!
Allison Wright says
You make some valuable points, Mercedes, and I agree with you completely on all of them, particularly as to the dedication involved in honing your craft, and the development of stamina and dogged determination.
Steve Dyson says
I specialize in French to English translation and adaptation of technical journalism on naval defence. What you might call a very small niche market. You can find my blog by simply Googling “translating technical journalism”. I also enjoy reading, among other things, Patrick O’Brian’s famous seafaring tales (Napoleonic wars, fighting sail, etc.) in both the original (period) English and in French translation, sometimes comparing a pair of books paragraph by paragraph.
One day, I thought I’d pick an excerpt from a suitable book and have a stab at a bit of literary translation. The excerpt I chose is here (L’arbre de nuit: https://steve-dyson.blogspot.com/2017/07/larbre-de-nuit.html) and my translation is here (Night Jasmin: https://steve-dyson.blogspot.com/2017/07/night-jasmine.html).
I thought I know something about the subject. I was wrong. I spent tens and tens of hours first researching then drafting and redrafting this 1650-word sample. Then I sent it to a colleague (Graham Cross) who knows decidedly more about these things than I do and who has even sailed in a replica of a sailing-vessel from the same period. He tore parts of my draft to pieces, so the version I posted went through another couple of rounds of fine-tuning before it was good enough to post on my blog.
If you have any feedback or comments, they’re most welcome.
Had the published wanted to have the book translated into English and had I won the contract even at a rather fancy price for page-rate literary work, I’m not sure I could have earned even a handful of dollars per hour.
All of this just to express a word of caution. Conscientious translation, even when you start out knowing something but not lots and lots about the subject, can be incredibly time-consuming. One should only translate certain books for the love of the job, not for the money, because there may be very, very little in the end.
PS If you’re interested in other topics on my blog, you’re welcome to read and comment on anything that takes your fancy. Unfortunately, I have to warn you that my blog was recently hacked resulting in the corruption of nearly all the links. Sorry about that.
Allison Wright says
Steve, in all honesty, you chose an incredibly difficult piece as a teething ring. I daresay only you, with the assistance of Graham Cross, and the combined decades of experience the two of you bring to matters involving seafaring vessels, could have produced such an accurate and pleasing piece of prose.
Steve Dyson says
Allison. You’re too kind. But one of the points I wanted to make is that you often find incredibly technical and difficult passages in all sorts of documents including literature, whether great or less great. Anything set long ago can be a trap.
A quick story: A translator friend and I both read Vikram Seth’s “A suitable boy” at about the same time and both of us remarked on one very short chapter that went into amazing detail about shoe-making in India at the time. Then the French translation came out. We met up and beelined for a bookshop to see how the French translators got on in this challenging little chapter. What did we discover? The translator(s) did great. They skipped that chapter entirely!
I have other stories along similar lines. Perhaps I should write them up some day?
Raymond Manzor says
Thank you very much, Corinne, for this excellent article. I am one of those who’s mentioned wanting to translate books to you.
You tackle the money issue – it’s vital, and somewhat depressing to see your take on it. But then you mention that working with traditional publishers can be lucrative. I would like to work with publishers. So will it be well or poorly paid in your opinion.
I want to translate books so that I can work with a team of professionals who are passionate about producing great prose, great stories and beautiful books (and who get paid accordingly). Am I living in a dream world?
Ros Schwartz says
Some very useful advice here from seasoned translators. A few years ago we held a symposium in London on translation and editing practices, with translators, publishers and editors in conversation. The event resulted in a publication: Translation in Practice. The PDF is available free of charge here: https://www.societyofauthors.org/SOA/MediaLibrary/SOAWebsite/Documents-for-download/Translation-in-Practice_-A-Symposium.pdf?ext=.pdf
Or it can be purchased from Dalkey Archive Press. It covers a lot of the issues discussed on this blog.
It’s been inspiring to read professional book translators’ insights in the comments to this blogpost.
Following Ros’s input, here’s another suggestion:
On October 9, 2020, ITI offered an exceptionally good online webinar entitled “Writing and translating: a happy symbiosis”. The recording will soon be up on the ITI website at http://www.iti.org.uk (free for members, small charge for others).
You can read the blurb below.
This is really worth listening to if you’re considering an attempt at book translation at a professional level — or simply to enjoy the clear, insightful comments of the participants, including moderator Kari Koonin. One of the best pro translation webinars I’ve listened to in 2020 (and I don’t even work in the field!).
“Are you interested in translating books and want to know what is involved? In this interview-style webinar, Kari Koonin talks to translator/author Aletta Stevens MITI about the two non-fiction books she has written about people and their experiences in war-torn Holland and Britain, and to EN-NL translator Meritha Paul-van Voorden AITI about her experiences translating Aletta’s first book into Dutch.
Aletta and Meritha provide some fascinating insights into:
• The processes and practicalities involved in writing and translating non-fiction
• What skills a translator can bring to writing non-fiction
• Why Aletta decided not to tackle the translation of her first book into Dutch herself despite being a Dutch native speaker
• How writer and translator can learn from each other
• How they both managed to balance these large projects with their regular translation work.”
Corinne McKay says
Interesting, thanks Chris!