Some thoughts on translating books

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?

21 Responses to “Some thoughts on translating books”
  1. Sue Anderson July 10, 2015
  2. intralingo July 10, 2015
  3. TranslationCraft July 11, 2015
  4. mercedesguhl July 13, 2015
  5. laubazz July 14, 2015
  6. Efe July 15, 2015
    • Corinne McKay July 15, 2015
  7. hbehl August 8, 2015
    • mercedesguhl August 17, 2015
  8. deele October 22, 2015
    • Corinne McKay October 23, 2015
  9. Beverly Hayes October 4, 2016
    • Corinne McKay October 5, 2016
  10. Nancy Foster November 27, 2016
  11. Jessica February 27, 2017
    • Corinne McKay February 28, 2017
      • Jessica February 28, 2017
        • Corinne McKay February 28, 2017
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