Translating Books For A Living

People come to translating books and documents for many reasons. The owner of the book or document may want to sell it to, or just have it read by, more people, but the reasons why translators do it are even more varied. There are three main groups: 1] a foreign language student may just want more practice in his or her second language; 2] young professionals in translation agencies may want to add the fact that they have translated a foreign book to their curriculum vitae; and 3]  others may be looking to earn some extra money or even their whole livelihood from translation services. This last group may include freelance stay-at-home parents, the disabled, the retired, the long-term sick, avid readers or just anyone with the skill and too much free time on their hands.

From the professional writer’s perspective, from my perspective to be more accurate, all of these are valid reasons coming into the international market of literary translation. However, while I would accept collaboration from the first two groups, it is the third one that most interests me.

Why? Well, the first two groups tend to feel that they have accomplished their mission when they have finished the job, and I, the author, am then left to promote the book to the public alone. I would much prefer to have my international band of translators as partners, so that we both benefit from each others’ promotional efforts. In fact, the translator invariably receives the lion’s share of the royalties at least for the first few years. For example, at Babelcube this is 55% and at Tektime a whopping 75%!!

Naturally, the work must be of a high standard and carried out by a human. It is not that I am against translation tools, but something pushed through a machine like Google Translate chunk by chunk will not pass the grade, and will not sell. Readers might buy it, and it will probably fool the author who might not speak foreign languages, but the reader will soon realise that he has been duped and will return the publication for a refund. The result will be that the writer is stuck with a book that won’t sell, and the translator has wasted his or her time completely. It has happened to me at least once, and is particularly annoying because the work is done under a legally binding contract, so the author may not have other translations made in that language.

As I said above, the best collaboration comes from those who want to make money from their work, so, why do so few translated novels sell well? In my experience, this stems from a lack of understanding of, and possibly, experience in, marketing, sales, and even the Internet.

I am not including myself here, as I have eight years’ experience selling my now four hundred publications, but many authors and translators do not. They seem to think that their masterpieces will sell themselves, but this is simply not true, as 99% of them soon discover. Most writers will keep on writing regardless, but most translators will give up on translating books as a worthless cause.

It doesn’t have to be like that though. Both parties need to realise that writing is not the business they are in, they have become booksellers in a very small niche market of the author’s name and genre. Of course, the writer is stuck with that, but the literary translator can diversify into many authors and genres in order to spread the risk – in the same way that an investor does with stocks and shares. The comparison is an apt one. The author is the CEO of one company – Himself PLC – while the literary translator is a shareholder in many.

Let’s say that a dedicated, part-time literary translator can translate one book a month, and earns $5 a month from its sale. After twelve months, that makes $60 p/m per book or $720 p/a for all twelve books. Not a lot to shout about, I know, but after five years, that becomes $3, 600 per annum, which is not a bad holiday every year for the rest of your life in exchange for reading and translating books part-time! With good marketing skills, could you make that $10 per book per month? Or $20? That is up to the publishing partnership.
In fact, the literary translator has a very large rôle to play. He or she is actually pivotal to the financial success of the book.

Why? Because the author might have a large following, but it will be in his or her native tongue. For example, I have 100,000+ followers, and 250,000 pages of my blog are read by 30,000 visitors every month, but they are all English-speakers, or 99% of them are. This is not going to help sell, say, a German translation on a foreign market by any significant amount. However, the German translator might only have 5,000 followers, but the vast majority of them will read and write German! With my 1% of 100,000, I might reach a few speakers of German, but the translator can reach thousands upon thousands of them on international markets via a newsletter, a blog or website  and social media!

Podcast: Translating Books For A Living