The Ins and Outs of Translating A Book
Considering releasing your book in another language? Learn more about the translation process.
While the United States is the largest English book buying audience, English is spoken by only 20% of the world’s population. That means there is a vast community of readers who can’t read your book simply because it’s not available to them. Book translation, or offering your book in other languages, is a powerful opportunity to reach a broader audience around the world and sell more copies.
If you are fluent in more than one language, translating the basics of your story into a foreign language might not be hard, but there’s more to converting a book from one language to another than just word translation. Some languages or countries have their own unique editing styles that you’ll want to be aware of before hitting the publish button.
Then there are the rest of us, who aren’t bilingual for our target language. For us, literary translation might seem like a daunting task. Do you pay for a book translation service, or hire a freelance translator? How do you confirm the translation is correct if you don’t understand the language?
Whether you’ve just released your first book, or you’re an experienced self-published author who knows the publishing process in-and-out, translation projects bring their own challenges. The good news is it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
What Language to Select?
As stated, the US market is the largest for English-language books, but it is also highly competitive. About 2,700 new books are published every day. Expanding into other languages markets with a book translation has the potential to be worth the expense, because there may be less competition in other parts of the world.
Below are the top two emerging marketplaces. One may be obvious, the other not so much.
With a population of over 1 billion, this marketplace has a customer base three times that of the United States. Technology is on the rise in India, with many residents skipping paper-based and laptop-based reading methods, preferring phones and tablets. The win here is instant access to your book, easy purchasing, and impulse buying.
Trend watchers pay attention to what Jeff Bezos does. Amazon is primed to invest 3 billion dollars into the Indian marketplace, as it is currently their fastest growing market.
That’s right. Home of Cicero, Ovid and Virgil. Storytelling has been a passion in this country since the beginning of the written word. With a population of around 60 million people, Italy might not seem like a fertile ground, but the advantage here is that neither does anyone else. In a field with relatively low competition, translating your book into Italian and targeting this marketplace might get your book more exposure.
Other countries are also friendly to independent authors, including:
In addition, from Asia to the Americas, some form of Spanish is spoken by over 500 million speakers worldwide.
Where to start?
If you’ve already published in English, you know you need to do your market research first. Finding the right international market for your novel is more than targeting the hot new spot on the book publishing landscape.
The first step is to check your existing sales. For example, in Amazon’s KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) reports, you have the ability to break down sales by marketplace. This will give you an idea of how many sales of your English book are from other countries. Of course, there is still the possibility of these purchases being made by Americans living abroad, so study these numbers carefully.
Follow the trends and find out if there are any areas of the world that tend to read your genre. For example, China has a huge non-fiction marketplace. Or perhaps your book, although written in English, might appeal to a certain culture. For example, according to Statista, 57% of fiction readers in the Netherlands read thriller books whereas only 22% read romance and 19% fantasy, the top genres in the United States.
Always look at books in your genre and compare in each marketplace. This will help you gauge the popularity of your book internationally. It may be tempting to cast a wide net, but that can be costly in both money and time.
One way to research if your book is generating interest in different marketplaces is to sign up for a service like Book Linker. This free site allows you to create a universal link for every Amazon or Apple Books version of your book. If anyone clicks on it, the site will track where in the world they are before sending them to the retailer. So even if someone in India checks out your book but doesn’t end up purchasing your story, you will have a record of that when you check the stats. You’ll be able to easily see what parts of the world your book draws interest.
Pro-Tip: Put your universal link in an ad or other book promotion and you’ll have an easy way to track where your potential readers are coming from.
Book Translation – An Overview
Translating into another language takes some care. After all, you spent a lot of time and effort writing, editing, and polishing the English version of your book. A badly translated book will not only cause book sales to tumble, but it can also hurt your brand as well. Bad reviews over grammar mistakes are the worst.
Start with the best
Don’t rush the translation process. Wait until your book is as pristine as possible in the English form before beginning to translate. Version control and fixing mistakes across multiple manuscripts in various languages is tricky and opens the manuscript up to more errors.
Find the right language
Mentioned above, take care to do your research and focus on the languages that meet your target audience.
Pro-Tip: Split your research between paperbacks, hardbacks, and digital. Digital books read on devices like Kindle and phones are easier to produce and less costly. Ensure the target marketplace is digital friendly. For example, Germany is rapidly growing in terms of digital sales. The biggest indicator? Amazon recently opened up its advertising opportunities to the German marketplace.
Get a sample
It’s always a good idea when working with a new translation agency to test the waters first. Any professional translator, just like any editor, should be able to convert a small sample into the language of your choice and give it back to you. A good translator should ask for a sample of your book to assess the cost in the first place, usually around 500 words. This is an excellent opportunity to judge the quality of their service. (More on how to access the quality of the translation below.)
Find the time
There’s an old saying, you can have it fast, but it won’t be good, or you can have high quality, but it’ll take a while. Just like with food, the time you put into your creation will most likely be a reflection of the quality of the outcome. If the translation service offers to convert your one hundred thousand word story in a week, that’s over fourteen thousand words a day. Highly unlikely a human is doing the translating. While AI and computers have come a long way, they can’t quite replace us yet.
A feasible amount of time is about 500 words per hour. That could mean almost 200 hours of work for your one hundred thousand word book.
Keep the course
To speed things up, you may consider splitting the translation amongst a number of contractors. Terrible idea. Language is not as finite as math, and each person has their own style. This could lead to terminology inconsistencies that will only confuse your readers.
Translating is only the first step. Most likely, in the English version of your book, you went through at least one round of editing or at least proofreading. Be sure to leave time for back and forth with your translator as you work through passages of your book.
Consider the cost
Some translation services have an all-in- one cost, others charge by the word. There are some tips on finding the right service below, but whatever you choose, this will not be a small investment. You wrote the words in your manuscript for free, but the translator will adjust every single one of them. For example, if a translator charges $.05 a word, it will cost you $5,000 to translate your whole book.
Get it in writing
No matter who you use as a translator, a written agreement between both parties is essential. This is to protect your investment, and doesn’t have to be a multi-page contract. It can be as simple as one page, as long as the terms are laid out. Think of it this way: if you sell 50 books and then find out there are serious translation errors, who will pay to correct the situation? This is also a test of the quality of the translator, as an experienced contractor will be familiar with agreements and should have no problem signing a contract. In fact, they should want one to protect their own interests.
Pro-tip: If your translator doesn’t have a written agreement, there are free online services that can help you create one.
Set a schedule
In addition to the basic translation, there are other factors to consider. Set a payment schedule based on the key components of your book. This gives you the opportunity to monitor and complete quality checks on the translation along the way. In addition, these goal posts can relieve you of a colossal task at the end of the translation process when you have 100,000 words to evaluate.
Proofing the work
Since you do not understand the language, having another pair of eyes read the full manuscript is another but essential step in translating your book. It may seem unnecessary, but just like you needed a proof-reader for your English edition, mistakes can and do happen. It’s much better to pay a little extra to have another proof-reader, preferably one who is a native speaker of the language, to review the manuscript.
However, keep in mind, everyone has an opinion. There are probably ways you would reword sentences in this article, or maybe even choose a different word than I did in places. This is where having open lines of communication between you and your translator is important.
There’s more to translate than just the manuscript. A few things that might be additional cost yet need translation to consider are:
Taglines like “Best-Selling Author”
About the Author
Amazon keywords and categories
As you know from launching your book in English, promotion is a large component of selling your book. And the English version of your book selling well doesn’t guarantee another country will find a translated version appealing without additional changes.
There can be differences in how a book is marketed across various countries and regions. Think about the work that went into creating your cover, how you targeted certain readers. Repeat that process here, but with your new readers in mind.
The same goes for your marketing, ads, etc. What worked for an English-speaking audience may not work for the new target marketplace. Research similar titles in the same genre in the new language. Are the trends similar? Different? Maybe animated covers are popular, or bare-chested men (popular on romance covers in the United States) are not favorable in the new area. Keeping these little differences in mind can help your book sell internationally.
The same yet different
Lastly, this is a new version of your book and will therefore require its own ISBN. Plus, it will be categorized differently on Amazon and other book sites and you may need help to navigate those sites as well as they may be in the translated language.
Sell your international rights
If all of this seems daunting or just too much to handle, there is the option to try to sell the rights to your book to a book publishing company, either based in that region or which does business in that region. Most US publishers are not interested in selling books in another marketplace, unless it becomes a blockbuster. It’s simply not profitable for them to go through the steps above. However, a publisher already established or focusing solely on a local audience might be interested in publishing your book in their language.
Choosing a translator
Unless you or a friend are a native speaker, you will need to use a translation company to translate your book. When searching for the right fit for your book, keep in mind:
Reviews: Read them to see if the service has experience translating books similar to yours.
Price: Ensure you know what the total price of the entire project will be. Ensure there are no extra fees, so you can accurately determine how the cost fits into your book marketing budget.
Profit and Loss: Weigh your projections on how many copies of the foreign book you predict might sell against the cost of the translation.
Control: Outline your role in the process. How will your feedback or rejections be reviewed and accepted? Is there a limit on changes made?
Rights: Make sure you have full rights to your translation. Read all the fine print.
Contact: Get clarity on who your point of contact will be. Are you working directly with the translator or is there a third party in-between?
Timing: The service should provide a scope for how long the translation process will take
There are more and more choices when it comes to translation services. Your first decision is whether to go with a traditional translation service or a freelance option.
With clearly outlined contracts, pricing and most likely advanced booking options, a tried-and-true translation service might be the way to go. Choosing the right option is based on the level of involvement you want, your book publishing needs and how you want to cover the costs of the translation. Here are a few options in alphabetical order:
Auerbach International: With 30 years of experience translating 2 billion words and across 120 languages, this company has proven its value.
BabelCube: With no upfront costs, this service takes a flat 15% of royalties.
Espresso Translations: Having worked with Amazon, Ernst & Young, Universal, and many more, all their translators have over 5 years of experience in the translation industry.
First Edition Translations: A UK-based service focusing on translating non-fiction books.
Mincor Book Translation: Their site asks: Did you know that dialogues in books are punctuated differently in different languages? For example, English conversation begins with "quotes" and Spanish conversation begins with a "―". Enough said.
Today Translations: According to their website, Microsoft and London Metropolitan University use their services. Professional, but there might be hefty costs.
Ulatus: Offers an end-to-end solution—from translation to book production.
Another viable option is to hire a freelancer who speaks the language you want your book translated into. This option is most likely to require a more hands-on approach to the process, and may not come with some of the guarantees and securities of traditional translation services. It’s essential to be clear about your needs, timeline, and communication preferences. Below are some online sites where you can connect with individuals offering these types of services.
Upwork: With an abundance of translators willing to take on your book on this site, finding talent to translate in the language of your choice here is straightforward. You create a job and contractors bid on them, offering terms and pricing. Once agreed upon, you pay Upwork and they hold the money until the job is complete, after taking a small percentage. However, remember that anyone can sign up as a freelancer on this site. For example, I am. Checking references and reviews is essential.
Fiver: Similar to Upwork, this is a networking site, but instead of creating a job, you search for possible freelancers based on terms like “translation service,” and contact the individuals you find that meet your needs. You can converse with translators to discuss your project and negotiate the terms ahead of time. At the end of the job, Fivver pays the contractor, taking a portion for themselves. Again, it is essential to read the reviews of each potential translator carefully and select an option that fits your work. Talking or, more likely, texting with the translator will give you an idea of what working with them will be like.
Reedsy: On the road to publishing, you’ve most likely come across Reedsy at some point. Their tag line, “Where beautiful books are made,” says it all. This site is a collection of professionals who focus on editing, designing and marketing books. Since books are their business, this site attracts a plethora of experienced book translators. Still, research is required to help create a smooth translation practice and prices may be higher here.
Assessing a translation
If, as suggested above, you’ve requested a sample of your work to be translated, ask yourself the following questions when reviewing the translators’ work:
Does the translation convey the same information as the original text? Are there any additions or omissions?
Is the translation smooth and easy to read in the new language? Or is it choppy?
Is the grammar and punctuation correct?
Your best option would be to find someone who is a native speaker of the language you are having the book translated into, who also speaks English. Have them read the passage, then provide their English translation of what they just read. This can help confirm the translated works are still holding true to your original intent. If you can’t find a friend of a friend, it might be worth paying another translator or finding someone on Upwork or Fivver and paying a small fee to do the job. Don’t buy foreign language dictionaries to attempt to confirm quality on your own!
Putting it all together
Translating a book is by no means as easy as running your manuscript through Google Translate. It is a time-consuming process that requires attention to detail. However, that work can have an enormous impact if you select the right language for an underserved or burgeoning marketplace.
A quality translation won’t happen overnight, but in the end, your book may be read by a wider audience, increasing your sales and expanding your brand.