Self-publishing—that is, publishing books without the backing of a publishing house—is booming, and it’s a prejudice that self-published books are essentially junk. After all, if they were any good, they would have found a publisher, wouldn’t they? Even Harry Potter was rejected by multiple publishing houses. Tastes vary, including those of publishers and readers. However, there certainly are authors who can earn a good living from their self-published books. And with self-publishing, everyone else can see a dream fulfilled: your own book, available on Amazon and wherever else you want it.
Sooner or later, many self-publishers contemplate expanding the market for their book by having it translated—usually into English, simply because this language represents the largest market. So here are a few tips for authors who are contemplating commissioning a translation of their book:
- When you start looking for a translator, at first you will probably encounter an agency, or perhaps Babelcube or a similar website. My tip: stay away—and not only because German law provides that the translator is the originator of the translation and thus the copyright holder. Now I’ve gotten your attention, I assume! What is that supposed to mean? I’m the author, aren’t I? You are the author of the text in your language, but translators are the authors of the text in their Yes, that’s the way it is. Google it. As the originator, the translator must be named in the book and product websites, etc., and without the acquiescence of the translator, you may not make (essential) changes to the text. This right is undermined by agencies and by Babelcube. For this reason, book translations via agencies or Babelcube are of absolutely no interest to professional literary translators, above and beyond the terrible rates paid by such entities, because naturally, as intermediaries they will take their cut. That’s why you almost certainly will not obtain a good translation via agencies or Babelcube.
- A translation must be edited and proofread—by two different people, an editor and a proofreader. These two roles are fundamentally different: editors focus on style and meaning, even if they do of course correct any typographical errors, should they stumble across any. Both functions can’t be done simultaneously, even if people are constantly claiming otherwise. And that brings us to the next issue, which makes the case against Babelcube: under this model, the author and the translator share the royalties (after deducting a percentage for Babelcube). No editor or proofreader is envisaged. Now, either the translators can pay for the editing and proofreading from their own percentage—but they won’t, because they aren’t earning enough money for that—or the author does it. But the author won’t either, because they, too, simply aren’t making enough money, and besides, they are laboring under the mistaken idea that they will receive a publishable translation. The result will be negative reviews by the critics and poor sales figures because readers simply love finding errors in books and rehashing them in written reviews. Sometimes, just five mistakes or so will be enough, in which case either the author or the translator—take your pick—will be portrayed as completely incompetent. Sales figures will then plummet—and your reputation will suffer.
- A good translation costs money. According to a poll taken by the German Association of Literary Translators (Verband der Literaturübersetzer or VdÜ), the average cost runs €17.90 per standard page (1,800 characters from English to German). Good editing costs between €4 and €7 per standard page, and good proofreading between €2 and €4. All that means that we are at about €28 per page—and don’t forget social security payments to the insurance fund for artists and freelancers (the Künstlersozialkasse). And the cover design. That’s a lot of money! For a 300-page book, you would be out €9,000. At a sales price of €4.99 for an e-book on Kindle, you would have to sell over 3,000 copies to recoup these expenses. That constitutes a risk, and for this reason, authors naturally try spreading that risk and thereby reducing it for themselves—by cutting corners on services or proposing that the translator be paid exclusively by getting a cut of the royalties. That can certainly work, if we are talking about part of a series, for example, and the previously translated parts have sold very well—or if, as an author, you are already so renowned that your books are selling briskly in translation as well. But if that were the case, you would presumably bear the modest risk yourself and rather take your cut of the royalties alone, right? In most cases, a good translator who has worked on your book for weeks, while having to pay rent and other bills during this time, will not agree to be paid solely from royalties.
- You would think that such ought to be self-evident—but unfortunately, it isn’t: translators, especially in the literature field, are supposed to translate only into their native language, never into the foreign one. Don’t toy with the idea of retaining a German to translate your novel into English, even if that translator fancies that he or she has a perfect command of English. Translating a novel is of an entirely different order of magnitude than the translation of technical or non-fiction texts. With novels, aspects such as nuance, connotations, and a feeling for the language are essential. For this purpose, excellent language skills alone are not sufficient. No reputable professional translator would ever translate a book into a foreign language.
- Don’t succumb to the notion of retaining just any translator with the translation of your novel. Technical translations are—oops, I’ve already said it—of an entirely different order of magnitude than literary translations. When I was translating my first novel, I too thought: Hey, I can do this! I like reading novels! I can speak German properly! I studied translation at university! I’ve already been translating for years! And nonetheless, the editor really had a lot of work to do, simply because I lacked a great deal of basic knowledge. Fortunately, I had an excellent editor, from whom I’ve learned a lot. But that will happen only with experience. A translator who has never translated for a publisher and doesn’t know how a book comes into existence—and how important editing and proofreading are—can not do it. It can be learned, but just not with a publisher or a self-publisher.
- Unfortunately, good literary translators who work for self-publishers are hard to find for every language. Most literary translators work exclusively for publishers—which could also be due to the above-mentioned prejudices against self-publishers. And since literary translators work only for publishers, they usually don’t have a website and remain invisible to anyone looking for them. One possibility for someone wanting a translation into English would be the various American associations for literary translators, e.g., www.literarytranslators.org.
- . You could also have a look at the translations of novels similar to yours and Google the translators. All you need to do is to use Amazon’s “Look inside” feature on amazon.com. Another route is to use websites for freelance jobs, the largest of which might be proz.com. Through these, you will receive numerous “applications,” most of which are absolute junk. But sometimes you might be lucky to find people there who really do have experience with translating books. It’s worth a try! But consider this: stick with only experienced translators (in the ideal case, you’ll be able to look at the reviews of previous book translations), and don’t skip the editing and proofreading. Either the translator or you yourself can attend to that. And that’s the way to produce a solid book.
- I highly recommend Selling your novel in Germany, or how to end up with a real Krautpleaser, written by two colleagues of mine, Jeannette Bauroth and Corinna Weja. Available only in English and only as an e-book, this guide is in fact aimed primarily at American authors who would like to have their books translated into German. It does, however, offer German self-publishers a great deal of basic information as well.
How do I work when I’m translating a novel for a self-publisher? I’ll tell you in the next post. This one is already too long!
Ingrid Lezar says
Thanks for this thorough article and the Krautpleaser recommendation — what a supremely helpful book!