Business Musings: Translations
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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.