Business Musings: Translations

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One of my writerly email groups opened a thread on translations this week. In particular, the group wanted to know about Babelcube, a website where writers and translators can meet and, with luck, work on a project together.

On one of my panels at MileHiCon, I had discussed having your books available in other languages. I had mentioned that publishing your own translation was an option, but it was a lot of work as well. Later, I had a discussion with someone who had attended this year’s Ninc Conference, where translations also got discussed. Not to mention the fact that we dealt with foreign sales and translations ever so briefly at our Master Class.

Getting more of my work in other languages has been on my to-do list for five years now. I know how I want to go about it, but I simply haven’t had the time to invest in that part of my business. As I’ve mentioned before, there is so much to do in this new world of publishing that very worthwhile projects often get set aside.

But all of these discussions showed me something. First, translating fiction has made it to every savvy indie writer’s to-do list, and second, most American writers have no idea what a translation entails.

I stress American writers because the U.S. market is a bizarre one. Unlike the European markets, which are very accepting of translation, the U.S. market has been slow to accommodate them.

Much of that, like almost everything that is strange in the U.S. publishing marketplace, falls squarely on the prejudices and habits of traditional publishers. Twenty-some years ago, I wanted to include at least one translated story in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, but the publisher and owner of the magazine (my boss) said readers would rebel. Still, I mentioned in at least one editorial that I was open to works translated into English, but the handful that I got had some serious problems—which I will go into below.

I thought my boss’s idea that readers would rebel was strange. But he was steeped in old traditional publishing values, and he wouldn’t be the last American publisher to tell me that “readers” wouldn’t like to see works in translation.

This despite the occasional success of translated novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the 1970s, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco in the 1980s, and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg in the 1990s which showed that Americans could and did read works in translation.

Often the international award-winners, such as Nobel prize winners, were translated, but little else, at least in American English. After I read and loved Smilla’s Sense of Snow (which modern translations now call Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow), I searched for more of Høeg’s work. I ran into some issues, which I later learned had something to do with Høeg, whose work is hard to characterize by the common U.S. understanding of genre, and some of which had to do with U.S. publishers who were risk-averse with works in translation and works that were nothing like the previous one.

At the time, I mentioned my search to a publisher friend, and he shook his head at me. You won’t find a lot of good work in translation in the U.S., he said. There’s too much good American work to read, and besides, Americans don’t read books by foreign writers.

I thought those comments particular to him until I heard them from publisher and publisher after publisher. For some reason, American publishers of the 20th century believed that American readers hated works in translation.

Early in the 21st century, another publisher explained the economics to me. Let’s see if I can paraphrase:

A bestselling book in France or Germany sells a fraction of the copies of a bestselling book in the United States. The countries are smaller and have a smaller population, so there’s no guarantee that a book which sells well there will reach a larger audience here.

Add to that the cost of purchasing the rights to the book and the expense of paying a translator, and acquiring such books becomes cost-prohibitive.

Why then, I asked, do so many publishing companies in other countries publish books in translation?

Because, he said to me, they usually only publish American bestsellers, and everyone knows that will make money.

Fast forward a few years to my visit to my French publisher, and imagine my surprise when I saw that much of the work published there was in translation from dozens of countries, not just the U.S. That work wasn’t always bestselling work either. Or even anything above midlist. The books were simply books that the French editors had liked in the original and wanted to make available to the reading public.

I looked over the publishing lists from dozens of houses all over the world and realized that the U.S. was unusual in its desire to only publish American books. As my French editor said to me over lunch, the American marketplace was a closed market, narrow-minded and uninterested in anything “foreign” like, he said, America herself.

Prejudices on both sides of the Atlantic reared their ugly heads in those discussions, but the upshot is that readers from outside of the U.S. read a lot of work in translation because of publishing choices, and readers inside the U.S. might not have read anything in translation.

That is slowly changing. Some smaller publishing houses, like Soho Press, have made a point of publishing works in translation. They’ve acquired award-winning and bestselling fiction from across the globe, bringing authors like Fuminori Nakamura and Heda Margolius Kovály to the attention of U.S. readers.

Even large mainstream publishers are starting to look more favorably on works in translation. In 2014, Tor published Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. The novel had already won China’s Galaxy Award in 2006 and had become one of the most popular science fiction novels in China. The novel’s English translator, Ken Liu, had already won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. The quality of his work is undeniable, and he brought his considerable skills to bear on his translation of a novel that has received worldwide acclaim.

The Three-Body Problem received a Nebula award nomination for best novel and won the Hugo award in that same category, the first time—to my knowledge—a translated work has received such acclaim in the U.S. sf community.

When Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo managed worldwide bestseller status, finally finding its way into English in 2008, large American publishers responded by buying a wave of Swedish and Norwegian mystery novels in translation. (I don’t know if the translations were conducted through the American publishers or through a British publisher.) To my knowledge, that’s the first time an international bestseller in another language sparked a literary feeding frenzy on this side of the Atlantic. And that’s a good thing.

But not good enough to make American readers—and American writers—understand the problems that can occur with translations.

Unlike their European counterparts, few Americans ever become fluent in another language. Aside from the cultural differences that someone learns when studying another language, a student also learns how some words can have more than one meaning. (“Sense of” snow versus “feeling for” snow. Subtlety different. And one is more poetic, but which one is more accurate? I don’t know.)

Then there are the words that simply don’t translate at all. Words that mean a lot in one language and have no counterpoint at all in another.

Idioms are the same thing. My French editor, who loved all things American despite his prejudicial comments at lunch, used his wonderful English to introduce his assistant to me, a woman he described as his “left hand.”

I didn’t correct him; I knew what he meant.

But his faux pas also told me that he didn’t know English as well as he thought he did.

Just like, if you read the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you realize that English was not the first language of the translator. Often, the idioms are as far off as “left hand” was here.

The book was very readable, once you got past the clunky and weird idioms, or it wouldn’t have sold well, no matter how well it sold in other languages.

There are other intangibles, as I learned in college when I read Federico García Lorca in the original Spanish. He’s had some excellent English translators, who managed to preserve the metaphors that abound in his poetry, but Spanish has a vivacious poetry all its own, a brightness that English simply does not have.

That lesson got reinforced for me in Leipzig, Germany, a few years ago, when I heard a performer declaim a section of Goethe’s Faust. I knew that Goethe’s Faust was considered one of the classics of German literature, but I had no idea that in the original, it had an internal cadence and a rhyming scheme that rivaled Shakespeare in English.

The translations I read were never able to bring that aspect of the German story to life. I’m sure that the translators made a conscious choice about which aspects of the original they would bring into English—and which aspects were impossible to translate without severely altering the work itself.

For those reasons, and many others, translation is an art, not a science. A literal translation might convey the words that the author had used, but not the author’s poetry or the flow that comes from good storytelling.

In fact, a literal translation is often clunky and hard to read, making the reader struggle with the text when she should be lost in the story. Those translated submissions I received at F&SF? They were all literal translations or, in the case of a few, they were written by someone with only a marginal understanding of English.

Not a single translation that I received in my years at F&SF contained that confidence with which a good storyteller weaves the language to entrance us into believing a thousand impossible things.

Which brings us back to Babelcube. I have not done much more than explore the website, and it strikes me as similar to Audible’s ACX for audio books. Babelcube might be useful, in the right context, if an author knows what she’s doing—and if she gets a good translator.

But, unlike listening to a good narrator of audiobooks, a writer can’t just read a translation of his work into another language to see if the translation is well done.

With varying degrees of competence, I speak four languages besides English. I can barely speak German, although I probably understand it better than I understand Italian (which I can speak better) because my parents spoke German in the home. I started learning Spanish at age eight, and my trips to France have made me comfortable (if tongue-tied) in that language.

I read Spanish, French, and Italian well enough to understand most things. I can’t read German at all, since I’ve only heard it spoken and never formally studied it. Which makes it impossible for me to know if my German translations are even close. I would have no real idea if Spanish, French, or Italian are all that good either, but at least I can struggle through those documents.

But my work has been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Czech, Norwegian, and many other languages that I can’t speak or read. I might not even be able to identify those languages if I heard them spoken.

How on Earth am I supposed to know if the translation is good or not?

Babelcube tries to solve this problem with translation teams—a translator to translate the story into another language, and an editor/proofer to “enhance the quality of the translation by reviewing it carefully and making suggested improvements.”

That last makes me shudder. Because I’ve seen how badly an editor can ruin a work with the wrong kind of input. So, imagine this: the translator comes up with a literal and clunky translation. The editor offers word changes when the only way to improve the translation would be to hire someone else to do it with ease and grace.

Instead of a wonderful story well told, the book itself becomes a hot mess of turgid prose that makes little sense and certainly can’t hold the reader in the project.

A bad translation is worse that no translation.

Fortunately for those of us who write in English, English has become the worldwide language for business. If someone truly wants to read a book written in English, then that reader can pick up the English version (provided, of course, that the version is available overseas—which isn’t always true of traditionally published books).

And here’s the thing: I can’t tell you how many times someone has read one of my books or stories in English and has wanted to share that work with a friend or family member who can’t read English. Word of mouth gets started, not just in a you-have-to-read-this way, but in a recommend-this-book/author-to-a-publisher way.

A lot of times, this is how books by indie authors make their way into translation now. A reader has started the ball rolling.

Do I recommend that the author go with an overseas traditional publisher? If the contract is good, yes, I do. Because every single contract I’ve seen from a foreign publisher has a term limit. The book will stay in print for five years or ten years only, with a renewal on the same or better terms.

I should rephrase that above—every single contract I’ve had from a foreign publisher that has not been negotiated by an agent has a term limit. The agent doesn’t want the term limit, because that limits the agent’s involvement as well.

So once I was freed of my agents (some of whom embezzled from my foreign royalties), I got better foreign rights contract terms and I made more overseas sales.

A term-limited contract will allow your work to appear in a language that you can’t write in for a short period of time. You might end up renewing that contract, making a new contract with the translator, or finding a new translator years down the road. But the term-limited contract gets you into that market now while freeing you up to do what you want to do later.

Right now, I am biding my time until I can turn my attention to publishing my own foreign works. I might not do that in every language, but in the few where I have contacts and a long history of working with translators.

I doubt I will work with Babelcube. There are just too many ifs for me. But I do work with ACX on some projects, with careful choice of narrators, so I won’t say never.

I suspect, though, most of my translation work will be directly contracted. I will eventually do the research to find a translator in countries where I don’t have a translation history. How would I do that?

Translators in many countries (including the U.S.) have organizations that hire out or recommend services, give awards for best translations, and enforce certain rules and behaviors (generally for spoken translation). Those places are often a good place to start. (And no, I’m not listing them here.)

Then there are the books themselves. For the most part, in every country, the translator’s name is listed alongside the author’s name on published books. A letter, e-mail, or phone call to the publisher might secure contact information for the translator…if that translator doesn’t already have a website.

But here’s what you should expect if you go with an established professional translator:

  1. You will pay a lot of money for the translation. Often, four or five figures. And, frankly, you should pay for that translation. You’re collaborating with this person. You’ve written the story in English. They’ll do their best to make sure that same story has the same cadence, pacing, and power in their language. They are, essentially, writing the book all over again.
  1. You will have a binding contract with that person. The terms of the contract will be important. Who will own the rights to the translation? In traditional publishing, the publisher owns the rights to the translated work. Translators are usually working as a contractor or doing a work-made-for-hire. You’ll need a firm agreement—and it will probably have a term limit as well. That agreement will also specify how the book is delivered—print, ebook, audio or all three—just like any other traditional publishing contract.
  1. Someone will have to copyedit this book. In the translated language. That’s another expense. And someone will have to write the sales copy. And on, and on, and on.
  2. If the translation stinks, you’ll have to throw it out and hire someone new. You won’t be able to have a new translator monkey with the words. A translation usually stinks because it’s literal or the translator did not understand the work being translated or the translator really can’t write well in her own language. You can’t change a few sentences here and there and improve something that flawed. You will have to start all over again, and you will probably lose the money you’ve already invested in the translation.

I know of several writers who’ve contracted with established translators who ended up not using that translation. Not every established translator is good. And some translators might handle mystery just fine and be completely flummoxed by science fiction.

Remember, translation is an art, not a science. If you could do a one-to-one replacement of the words, then you could use a online translation program. And we all know how badly that would turn out.

(If you don’t believe me, here’s an article on just how easy it is for computerized translation to go awry)

Embarking on a translation of your work is not something you should go at easily or lightly. If you can’t figure out how to do it, then don’t. Just don’t.

There are simply too many ways that a translation can go wrong.

Remember that you will be collaborating with your translator. Whenever one of my translated works is up for or has won an award, I thank the translator first. Because that translator made the nomination possible, not me. The quality of the translation is as important as the quality of your story.

And unless you become fluent in all the languages around the globe, you won’t be able to police these books like you would one written in your native tongue.

Am I saying you should give up on translation? No, I’m not. But you need to realize that you’re hiring someone to do an exceedingly difficult task.

A blog on the Soho Press website lead me to an essay on translation by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov said that a translator must possess three qualities:

  • The translator “must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses.”
  • The translator “must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations.”
  • The translator “must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude.”

Yeah…well, I think very few translators have all three. I think any writer who finds a translator with all three of those skills should consider herself very lucky indeed. But as I tried to figure out which of the three I would cut out for the sake of this blog post, I couldn’t decide.

You want the most talented writer you can find translating your work. You want a writer who respects the original and tries to remain faithful to it in the best possible way. You also want a writer with the knowledge of both nations and both languages.

(Nabokov was smart in mentioning nations: American English is very different from British English. Not to mention the fact that idioms from South Carolina are different than idioms from New York State. English is not English. It is a varied language that changes color and meaning depending on where the English speaker learned to speak.)

So, if you decide to get your novel translated into another language, realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. And good luck.

There’s so much work that we can now do because of this new world of publishing. It’s all there, shiny and fun. The possibilities seem endless—and they are. The opportunities are also endless. But the one thing that remains finite is, unfortunately, the amount of time in every day. At some point, something has to give.

Because of time, I haven’t yet gotten to a lot of things that I want to do. And this blog takes some of my time. Too much, when I’m deep in a project. I had to quit for a while last year, although I’m back on my streak. 48 weeks without a miss, despite travel and car accidents.

Still, I’m aware that I can use the blog-writing time for other things. So the blog must earn its way.

Which is why I add a donate button onto every post. If you learned something, or value what you read here, please leave a tip on the way out.


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“Business Musings: Translations,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. / shmeljov.

32 thoughts on “Business Musings: Translations

  1. Hello, Kris & everybody else! ESL writer here! (for Kris, the crazy Italian who made it twice to the offline workshops and wonder when she’ll be able to come for the third time).
    A couple of comments.
    1) Italian readers – Italians don’t read much, if they do it’s either bestsellers, cookbooks or celebrity books. That said, I had a retired man liking the Italian version of my science fantasy novel and posting a review and everything and someone wrote to him saying, “I don’t read Italian authors because they’re not on par with the great American writers” So, the bias is not only in the US. Genre readers in Italy don’t read Italian authors because they think they suck. It’s true that many small publishers don’t even proofread your manuscript (so you might as well indie publish it and keep all the earnings, but that’s something that hasn’t really caught up yet – I’m a pioneer), but bad proofreading happens even with big publishers (all over the world!)…
    2) How many of you read translated foreign books? And I don’t mean the obvious classics/bestsellers… I was chided for my said-bookisms and told that if I wanted to publish in English and not sound amateur I should use only “said”… except in Italian it’s the exact opposite, and I was trying to keep my Italian voice (I know I have a non-Italian pseudonym, so I see your point – besides my voice has evolved in the past 5 years, both in Italian and English).
    Thing is, like Kris says, most novels don’t get translated at all. Brunella Gasperini was the translator of the first work(s?) of Stephen King (she died in the late 1970s). She was a journalist. But she was never considered a writer (therefore I doubt her novels were ever translated) because she wrote “pink fiction” (women’s fiction) which isn’t considered a literary genre in Italy. But she’s my example and the way I started writing in my teens…
    I try to avoid translations, but sometimes (like in the case of Gaby Hauptmann’s novels – I don’t speak German) I must go through them. I read the Belgariad in Italian first, then bought it in English – it felt like different books… But enough ramblings, and sorry for taking so much space!

  2. A brilliant post, Kris! Thanks for this–I’ve been wondering about this subject.

    A couple quick points:

    One place where Americans seem to be happy with translated works is in the Mystery magazines. I think EQmm has a foreign story in almost every issue. Not always translated, but often they are.

    Your Stieg Larsson example is very good. Loved those books. The translation was good enough and the story was so compelling that those books were engrossing. An interesting example of story trumping sentence-by-sentence quality.

    My understanding (I’m not an expert) is that there is no such thing as a “correct” translation. It’s entirely subjective. Douglas Hoftstadter, author of Godel-Escher-Bach (sorry, don’t know how to put the umlaut over the o in Godel), devoted a whole book to the difficulty of translating a single short French poem: Anyway, more evidence that you’re right when you say translation is an art form–every bit as difficult as the drafting of the original work!

    1. If I may: There is not ONE way to correctly translate a work, that’s true, but it’s not entirely subjective, either. You can have several different good translations, but they will differ very little, and you can have bad translations, which will, of course, be bad in different ways and to different degrees.
      Translations er timebound – a classic will need to be translated every 50 years or so, or the translation will seem dated. I always think that the translation made immediately upon release should reflect the time of the book itself and be good forever, but no one seems to agree with me.

      1. Ulla said: If I may: There is not ONE way to correctly translate a work, that’s true, but it’s not entirely subjective, either.

        Fair enough, Ulla. Perhaps saying it’s entirely subjective is a bridge too far. I suspect, however, that ease of translation is related to the lyricism of the underlying text. I bet that the translation of a set of dishwasher operating instructions would vary little from translator to translator–just as you say. But I suspect someone trying to translate Shakespeare would have a much harder task. His or her translation would depend heavily on the his/her understanding of the original work–AND finding the “right” non-English word to convey both the meaning and flavor of Shakespeare’s words. My guess is given a large pool of talented, intelligent translators they would make different decisions . . .

  3. A fascinating subject!
    My mother, many years ago, did her master’s thesis (I think) on the problems of teaching literature in translation, a topic closely related to this one. She used many examples from Albert Camus’ famous novel L’Etranger, which for many years was taught via a translation titled The Stranger. Problem number 1: “l’etranger” doesn’t mean stranger, but rather, foreigner. The same translation added all sorts of metaphors utterly inappropriate to the style of the original.

    1. A worthy subject. I shudder to think what may come out of doing close, scholarly interpretations of translations. When I did my masters in literature, we only read works in the original languages (German, French, English, the Nordic languages), but on the other hand – I’m sure we misunderstood things for that reason from time to time. Students using translations should definitely be aware of the pitfalls and limitations.

  4. I’m a longtime reader but have not commented before. This, however, I have to remark on.
    First of all, thank you for even writing about translations and translators with insight and respect. We are not used to that 🙂
    I’m a Danish translator, and a member of the board of the Danish Translators Association. I would like to add that most good translators are busy and would be very wary of taking up with an indie-published American author directly. How would I make sure the author was actually going to pay me? How would I sue to get my money in another country?
    Many translators, even good ones, live a precarious existence money-wise, and just wouldn’t be able to run such a risk. I take my chances with translation agencies in other countries, but only with commercial translations that take a couple of days – then the damage is limited. A book, on the other hand, is two or three months of work, and few can afford to loose that kind of income.
    You are quite right in all other regards, though. To recruit a good translator in a language – say Danish – you can’t yourself read, I would, if I were you, contact the translators’ organization, as you suggest, and ask to be given a couple of names of translators who have worked within your genre. They will probably be booked up, but they might be able to point you to a young, promising colleague, who are willing to take her chances with a freelance author rather than a publishing house.
    Sometimes other authors are very good translators, as you point out – but sometimes not. While they love the genre and write well, they may not have the requisit knowledge of your language, idioms, cultural memes etc.
    I disagree with you quite a bit on editors, though. By far the majority of translations editors are former translators themselves, and what they do is make sure the translator has made no mistakes. I’m a good translator, but everybody makes mistakes, and I am eternally grateful for good editors who make sure those mistakes are never published. They do a bit of line editing, too, if the syntax is not optimal (the syntax of the original sentence may ‘shine through’ if the translator is inattentive for a second), comment on choise of wording (maybe ‘feeling for’ rather than ‘sense of’? they might say) and comment on any localization that has been done.
    I could go on and on and on about translation, which I do on my blog – if any reader here is unsure of how bad google translations are, you may go to my blog and read it with the help of Google 🙂
    Thank you again for writing about translations and please contact me if I can be of service in any way regarding the Danish market.

    1. Thanks for the marvelous comments. They’re quite illuminating.

      I think on “editor” we’re talking about two different things. I should probably be clear to everyone. I think a great line editor/copy editor are essential, but that’s not what the Babelcube agreement says. It says someone who will oversee the project and perhaps do some writing of her own. That sounds like a content editor, which could make things into a disaster.

      So, I suspect you and I agree even more than you thought we did.

      Again, thanks. I’m so pleased you and the other translators have weighed in. It helps tremendously.

      1. Yes, we are very much in agreement.
        That is also why no sane translator would sign the Babelcube agreement. It explicitly states that the rights holder can change the work any way they see fit while still putting my name on it. In Denmark, at least, I hold the rights to my translation, and while the editor can make suggestions, I have the final say. I pride myself on being professional and easy to work with, but when I say ‘no, absolutely not’, it is always respected – I know the text intimately, after all, and I don’t mind explaining exactly why. I would be rather suspicious of the quality of editor available on Babelcube, though.
        The other thing a pro would object to is payment terms – royalty only, when and if the book is ever marketed, let alone sells. There are only six million Danes. A normal print run is 1000 books, a book that sells 10.000 is officially a bestseller. Once in a while a book sells 200.000 copies – but how is that going to happen to a book by an unknown American author with no marketing? You could get lucky and translate a runaway selfpublished bestseller like ‘Fifty shades of Grey’, but it’s unlikely. A pro much prefers a bird in the hand to two in the bush. And it is not specified how the translator/editor-team splits the money. If it’s 50/50, that is ridiculous.
        And finally: While some of my colleagues disagree, I absolutely stick to the rule of only translating into my mother tongue. That’s difficult enough for me.

        1. I am a French translator and I agree with everything Ulla says. Babelcube payment scheme is indeed quite bad for the translator. It’s not 50/50, it’s worse :
          “For the first $2,000 in (net*) sales, the rights holder/book author would receive 30% ($600), the translator 55% ($1,100) or $1.64 per book and BC gets 15% ($300)
          For the next $3,000, the rights holder would receive 45% ($1,350), the translator 40% ($1,200) or $1.20 per book and BC 15% ($450)
          For the next $3,000, the rights holder would receive 65% ($1,950), the translator 20% ($600) or $0.60 a book and BC 15% ($450)
          For all remaining sales after $8000, the rights holder would receive 75%, the translator 10% or $0.29 a book and BC 15%.”

          Another problem you mention is the fact that you own the rights to the translation. It is the same in France, as professionnal translators are protected like authors. But that would put surely not be very agreeable to an English or American indie author who would wish to have his/her work translated, and would just like to “rent” the services of a translator, just as he rents the services of an illustrator or proofreader…

  5. It can be highly annoying to even read an “Americanized” (“Americanised”?) adaptation from British English. After living Over There for a number of years, I found Scholastic’s adaptation of the first two Harry Potter books jarringly annoying — “trunk” for “boot” wasn’t so bad, but children saying “Merry Christmas” (instead of “Happy Christmas”) was a bit much.

    Just be glad it’s only fiction. Translating legal documents back and forth between German and English is enough of a nightmare before considering the entirely different legal systems…

  6. For the senior project for one of my undergraduate degrees (Spanish Translation), I translated a collection of Peruvian folk tales (circa 1675) from the original Peruvian Spanish into English – one of the most difficult pieces of writing I have ever done. The previous summer, I acted as an interpreter for a local summer-stock theater program (from English into Spanish), which was also incredibly difficult. I have the utmost respect for people who take on either of these monumental tasks. And I will never, ever attempt to translate my own work or anyone else’s. 1:1 language issues aside, the sheer difficulty of capturing the nuances of one language and conveying them effectively in another goes far beyond mere fluency in either the source or the target language. I applaud those translators who possess both the language and writing skills to pull it off.

  7. RE: Translations

    Errors creep in when the translator is a non-native speaker. I read an author I knew was German in an English translation. Airships were central to the plot. The translator, who was accustomed to working volume in liters, gave an airship’s volume in gallons. Native speakers would give gas volumes in cubic feet.

    I prefer to read German and Portuguese works in the original. Conceivably, I could translate my own works, but I choose not to, because 1) translating is time I can spend writing and 2) I can think in German but I cannot think like a German; the phrasing and pacing a native speaker uses is not second nature to me. Same for Portuguese.

    1. This discussion about native vs. non-native speaker keeps coming up every time, and I honestly don’t think it’s as black and white as that. How many native speakers do you know who write poorly? Far more important than what passport you hold or where your mother was born is how well you write in the target language. That should be the determining factor, because translating is, first and foremost, writing.

      1. I agree with you that translation is first and foremost writing. I will just maintain that it is very, very rare to be as comfortable in a second language as in your native one. As for native speakers who write poorly – well, obviously, no one suggested they should translate anything.

  8. I’m an author and I translate for my day job; last year I translated a 50,000 word novel into English via Babelcube. This took about 100 hours of work. I poured all of my skill into it, essentially rewriting it, finding English metaphors where the original ones would not have worked. I think I did a damn good job.

    Unfortunately, the author had no interest in marketing to an English-speaking audience, so it has hardly sold at all. I could have done more marketing for it, but that’s not what I signed up for (plus I have my own books to market, and we all know how consuming marketing can be!). So yes, I’m contracted to get a good royalty rate under Babelcube, but I doubt that will ever happen due to low sales.

    Sad as it is, translating business and legal documents is the better way to make a living. I know it’s not ideal for me to translate my own work out of English, but I’m strongly tempted to do it myself (time allowing, ha ha) and then get a native proofreader to check it. Wouldn’t be error-free before proofing, but several years in that country have given me some confidence – and I wouldn’t be tying a poor translator into weeks of work for very little return. Couldn’t do that with a good conscience!

    A successful Babelcube translator would likely have to take on full personal “ownership” of the book and responsibility for its entire marketing effort – just as if it was the author’s own indie-published book, and that is the level it emerges on, fighting for attention alongside the flood of other indie books. Babelcube does not tell translators this, so they do not expect it, as professional translation is normally an “in-and-out-and-bye” job.

    If it works for you, great – but don’t take your translator for granted 🙂

  9. Tangential note, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason translations from English are so much more common than the other way around has nothing to do with marketability (whatever editors say) and everything to do with foreign editors and publishers being comfortable enough in English to enjoy reading English works and find what they want to translate, while most American editors/publishers/authors are simply not fluent in any language other than English. For instance my French doesn’t get me further than Asterix and Obelix, and I’m sure I miss some of that.

  10. As a native French-speaker, I can relate to pretty much everything you state, thanks! Translations are indeed much more common in Europe, and you can buy a lot of translated books here, Americans bestsellers of course but also many many more (British, German, Italian, you name it).

    But translations can be really awful to read. I remember trying to read an Agatha Christie book several years ago, and I just flat hated it because the language sounded like some sort of outdated slang and just wrong. I’ve never tried again since, not even in the original text, so I can’t tell if it is just a matter of personal taste or a bad translation. But I do know that a translation very easily feels wrong, and the same goes for dubbed movies (thank God for subtitles – sometimes they’re awkward but that’s expected since they are shorter, and at least you get to hear the real voices of the actors).

  11. Very good post, Kris.

    “How on Earth am I supposed to know if the translation is good or not?”

    I’m SO GLAD AND GRATEFUL I asked you about the writer who translated my work from French. Of course, I had already paid him €2000, and I did pay $2500 more to have the translation redone by the American author I found because of the appeal on your Facebook page.

    Then, I had the work edited, and as it was the first volume of a trilogy, I realized I had not enough money to have the second and third book translated.

    The project was very important to me, so I took a drastic decision: I decided to stop writing in french, which is tough for me, because I make a living with my writing since 2014 — that means I won’t be able to produce new material in french until I’m done. And I translated the second book by myself, with the help of my English editor.

    It turned out that my editor wasn’t a good fit for me: I had a review of the first book by Awesome Indies that was not so good, and then by an editor who followed me on Goodreads signaling errors.

    The editor on Goodreads, who is also a fan, signaled me many errors as I was about to release the second book. I didn’t fire my editor because she had finished her work on the second book, but I stopped working with her and hired the editor from Goodreads.

    She did a marvelous work, both with the first book and the second. Now I’m working with her on the third book, and it’s my best working relation ever.

    The first book was proofread by an author of the Awesome Indies website, and vetted! It got 35 reviews on Amazon, with an average of 4.2 out of 5 stars.

    However, the American market is a tough nut to crack, so I have decided to put the first book on permafree. That means that the project I’m working on for two years is a prestige one, and brings no money to me (the second book has something like 30 sales).

    But it’s very important for me: a way to pay back the marvelous books I read that were translated from English. And I swear I will finish this project.

    I will say from this experience that it’s definitely an asset to be the translator of your own job, provided you have a little understanding of the language in which you translate the book, which is, I hope, my case. You know exactly the meaning you want to convey.

    When I hesitate about different turns of phrase, I write the different possibilities as commentaries, so as to be sure that she gets the meaning. I think the result will be very close to the original meaning, but not literal.

    Are American people averse to translated work? Definitely no. An author I know, Jacques Vandroux, had his book translated by Amazon Crossing. His thriller was ranked at the third place on the whole Kindle store during the entire month that followed its release.

    It has got 1638 reviews and is currently ranked #10,688.

    Another French author, Alice Quinn, also made it big with her book, Queen of the trailer park, also translated by Amazon Crossing, which gathered 1,911 reviews.

    She’s ranked first bestseller in french literature and #11,685 overall.

    But yeah, even for them, who have Amazon’s support, competition is fierce.

  12. Great article, Kris! Considering the issues with translation cost and quality control, it would make more sense to approach foreign publishers in person. Would you approach them the way you would a US publisher? As for having works translated and publishing it indie, it’s hard. I translate English-Czech-English, and I know there are genres I wouldn’t touch – nor am I interested in translating my own work (it’s rewriting, and I hate having to do that). A volunteer translated an anthology I edited and published into Spanish (it’s a non-profit fundraiser so I took her up on it,) and now I’m formatting a book in Spanish, a language I don’t speak. A friend who is fluent offered to proof-read it. I’d lie if I said I am sure this will ever get launched, sigh.

  13. One thing that I don’t see mentionned in your post is the promotion needed after the book has been translated. If you go Indie and straight to a translator/editor, you’ll still need someone knowing the target country to do the promotion (including but not restricted to the blurb, the cover, Social networking etc.)

    If you’re not fluent, you can’t do that on your own. Perhaps you can ask the translator to take that part of the work, but that would probably mean split royalties there.

  14. In the last few years I’ve gone to panels at cons and listened to American voice actors/producers/writers who work on the English dubs of Japanese anime talk about translating the original Japanese dialog into English which not only matches the flaps (the mouths of the animated characters) but also makes sense to both the story and American idiom. Sometimes the actors have to come up with alternative dialog on the fly because the original translator got the slang wrong, or there’s no way the actor can say the translation and match the flaps. Fascinating and difficult process, which made me think about how hard translations really are and how lucky those of us who write in English are because English is spoken as a second language in so many parts of the world.

  15. The indie hosted podcasts I listen to, translations is a topic coming up again. Several big name indies have done it, including JF Penn, and have found it to not be worth it. It’s an expense they can’t afford to keep floating because sales are negligible. They sell more in English, even in countries where they have translations available.

  16. My son is a free-lance translator in Japan and notes exactly as you did that the translator should be translating INTO his native language and needs to understand the full context being translated for a good translation to be made. There are many “janglish” examples out there of mangled translations from Japanese to English that while amusing fail to accomplish what they set out for. He translates mostly business and technical documents, which as you and your citations note is going to be easier to deal with than fiction or verse of any kind.

    I will bring up Babelcube with him and see what, if anything, he has heard of it.


  17. Very interesting topic. I think this is something that is for established writers who have a large body of work out there and are known for the most part. my choice would be to go with a foreign publisher for a term. Let them do the translation. For now though I will stick to English. And yeah, I’m from Canada, so we spell words different than in the US. I think with the indie movement though, this will develop over time.

  18. This is such an excellent article, absolutely accurate in all respects, comprehensive, actually perfect. Everyone considering having books translated needs to read this!

    I do occasional translating (German to English), but always regret the time I have to spend to get things right. I also do a kind of “first reading” for another translator to check her American idioms. So, at least from my perspective, I can confirm that a bad translation is much worse than no translation at all. An inept translation throws you the reader completely out of the story, leaving you muttering “WTF” as you throw the book in the direction of the wastebasket.

    What I encounter more and more is the sad myth for German writers. They think all they have to do is get their books translated into English, and then they will make millions since the world-wide market for English-language fiction is so much larger than it is for German-language works. Then they translate their books themselves (firmly believing that the English they learned in school must surely be sufficient for the task) or get someone who claims to be fluent in English and will do cheap work to translate it for them. This almost always results in unreadable gibberish, or rather something you can only understand at all if you first translate it word-for-word back into German.

    There are good translators out there, all extremely conscientious artists. The work they do will cost a lot, but the translators themsleves generally end up with a miserable hourly wage because they do spend so much time making sure that they have gotten it right.

  19. An hour away from the keyboard, some other contract stuff hit me.

    It may be wise to include stipulated damage clauses. Once you have breach without cure and a court finds liability, the damage clause determines how much the breach is worth. Which leads to item number two: Currency.

    In what currency will you pay the damages? This needs to be stated in the contract, else the court will award damages in the currency native to the court. (This may be particularly onerous to Americans. For me, it is hard to find a bank office that exchanges currency. In the US, banks that exchange dollars for other currencies are found only in large metropolitan areas and in damned few banks there. Abroad, I have never seen a bank that did not exchange currencies. (Well, some currencies are odd and take a little doing; for example, the South Korean won. Likely the Brazilian real would get the same delay.))

    Cultural differences in contract expectations. Americans view business contracts as transactional. In contrast, Brazilians view business contracts as elements of a larger relationship. I know of a case in which one Brazilian businessman said to another that he lost money on their current contract; the other replied that it was okay, because he would see to it that the other profited on their next contract. (The legal concept of economic breach is incomprehensible in Brazil.) In Brazil — and many other countries — you build the relationship first, then you do business.

    1. Regarding international transactions, it’s now common for a bank to send money in one currency (Czech crowns, for instance) and have it arrive in US dollars. I’ve dealt with these transactions with several target countries, and I deal with a small-town bank that has to go through a corresponding bank in NYC, and it still works. What you might want to stipulate, however, is the exchange rate and allow for exchange rate fluctuations. Consult a lawyer on that, but larger businesses with frequent transactions hedge against fluctuations by using a 15-day exchange rate average. For an indie, I’d rather just take PayPal and call it a day.

  20. The terms of the contract will be important.

    If you are dealing with a native speaker in a foreign country, you will be wise to insert Choice of Law and Choice of Venue clauses in the contract. Otherwise you may find yourself defending a suit in Beijing (in which case you have already lost).

    Under no circumstances up to and including physical duress should you ever choose Indian Law and Indian Courts, even if you live in Mumbai. Remember the Dow Chemical fiasco at Bhopal in 1984? The suits arising from that incident are still on appeal.

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