Everything You Need to Know Before You Book Your Literary Translation

By Ray S
November 5, 2020

If you’re wondering why or how to translate a book that you’ve written, this is the article you need to read.

Because literary translation is a great way to help your work reach a wider audience. It’s also a fantastic way of increasing the revenue you receive from your literary endeavours.

But book translation isn’t simple. You can’t just copy and paste your lovingly-scribed creation into Google Translate and expect your prospective best-seller to be a hit.

The translation of a text can make or break it. You can’t opt for a rough translation and expect to create the same impact with your new audience. In fact, you’re more likely to find your work harshly critiqued – purely because the translation isn’t even close to what you originally wrote.

Yet for all the unique challenges which translating a book brings, it can also lead to large potential rewards. Let’s see how you can go about making those rewards yours:

Why should I translate my book?

Before you start, it’s a good idea to consider what you want to get out of it. Literary translation takes time and has costs attached. But it will be worthwhile if you want to:

1) Reach a wider audience

Connecting emotionally with a wider audience can be a rewarding endeavour in its own right. Yet it’s also a great way to expand the potential earnings you receive from writing a book in the first place.

That emotional connection shouldn’t be overlooked though. Many authors find that the ideas and questions they touch upon in their works find a more interested reception among readers from a different culture.

2) Increase sales and rankings

Having a wider potential audience means increased revenue is likely on the table too. It is perhaps an obvious one, but this is indeed often the overriding reason why people will choose to translate a book they have written.

Plus, it’s important to remember that most best-seller lists total up sales figures in all languages. And, of course, the more popular a book gets, the more it tends to sell.

3) Generate international loyalty

Some readerships are chronically underserved by international works of literature being translated into their preferred language. This means that any author or publisher who takes the time to do so will quickly garner attention and even loyalty amongst their new fans.

There are uncounted books which faired averagely or even poorly in their domestic markets, only to become big hits in other places.

4) Benefit from cross-reading numbers

Bilingual readers may seek out your original work in English after reading a translation. On the other side of the coin, readers who first come across your book in their second language may later wish to read it more comfortably in their preferred language. This doubles the sales you get from some readers.

5) Enjoy reduced competition

Those other underserved readerships are places where there is less competition for your work to need to overcome. This can often be added to by the “exotic” factor of a reader discovering a book written by someone from a different culture.

Is translating my book worth it?

Attitudes to literary translation have swung wildly in favour of them in recent years. Once upon a time, readers were expected to be educated enough to read books in their original language. These days, the translator of a book can win acclaim approaching that of the original writer if the translation is of a high enough quality.

Consider recent recipients of the Man Booker Prize and other international awards to see how important and worthwhile book translation has become. You might also picture a world where the following authors never had their work translated:

  1. Haruki Murakami – from little-known Japanese author to international star, Murakami’s books have been translated into more than 50 languages. The writer has found a great deal of acclaim in Japan. But he is known around the world for his writing style and subject matter.
  2. Paulo Coelho – the author of The Alchemist writes in Portuguese. But his famous work has now been translated into more than 80 languages, becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
  3. K. Rowling – while Rowling’s globally famous Harry Potter series has a quintessentially English character to it, the translations have won the hearts of children (and adults!) around the globe. Today, it is one of the most translated series of books ever.

How to translate a book

These stories of success shouldn’t blind you to the fact that literary translation takes careful thought and planning. For instance, you should:

1) Choose your target market carefully

Excellent. You’ve decided you want to work out how to translate a book. But who are you translating it for?

Perhaps the biggest decision you will make in literary translation will be before the process starts. Because choosing your target markets is not something you can do at random.

You need hard facts and research to support your choice. The alternative is to end up wasting your money as you target a market where you did not consider:

  • Your competing authors in that market
  • Books with an overlapping theme, title or premise
  • What makes your book different from others already available in that market

You might be surprised which markets could be the best fit for your kind of material. India has been displaying an insatiable appetite for translated books in recent years. So much so that Amazon plans to support it with a £2.3 billion Kindle investment.

Italy also has a large base of potential readers, many of whom are keen to read high-quality translations of books by international authors. So do Indonesia, China, South Korea and Turkey.

But just because these markets are ripe for many translated works of literature, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily the best fit for yours.

2) Do your market research

If you’re working with a Language Service Provider or other local partner (and frankly, you probably should be if you want your book translation to succeed), they can be a great source of information about conditions in the local market.

For example, at Asian Absolute, we always select linguists for your book translation project who are native speakers of your target language and who also have qualifications and/ or experience in literary translation. This means that they – or we – have local publishing contacts or knowledge. You can use this to help you determine whether this market is potentially fertile ground for your book.

Aside from your local partners, there are a few things you can do to research potential markets for your book:

  1. See where downloads are coming from – your KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) account should show you where people have been reading your book already. There might not be that much data to go on. But you might be able to see some options.
  2. Consider other domestic and regional markets – remember that many English-speaking regions have sizeable populations who prefer other languages. Good examples might be Polish within the UK or Spanish in the US.
  3. Use Book Linker – Book Linker is a handy little tool that tells you where your book’s Amazon URL has been viewed. So even if you don’t get that all-important sale, you can see where you had some interest.

3) Use professionals

A substandard translation of your book will do more harm to your international image and reputation as a writer than simply choosing not to translate in the first place.

Only a skilled professional literary translator can properly adapt the tone of your book and ensure that nothing of your phrasing and message are lost. They will also be able to localise things like cultural references, accents and more so that the “feel” of your work is preserved.

When choosing a translation agency, always be sure that they have experience in translating books of the kind you’ve written.

You should also check that they will be using native speakers of your target market to translate, edit and proofread your text – linguists who also have experience in the field of book translation. Because translating a work of literature is different from translating a document. It calls for a translator with certain skills.

A professional Language Service Provider will also work with you to act on feedback, discuss linguistic choices with you and offer suggestions for how to get the very best results when translating your book into another language.

4) Don’t skimp on editing and proofreading

You would never have put your book on the market without having it edited and proofread, even if you handled the process yourself. The proofreading and editing process is equally important where translation is concerned.

Again, you should always use editors and proofreaders who are native speakers of the language in question. Don’t opt to only go for one or the other either. As you’ll likely know as an author, the roles of an editor and proofreader are different. In translation:

  • An editor’s role – is to examine the clarity of language used with the goal of improving the clarity, tone and readability of the text.
  • A proofreader’s role – is more concerned with spelling and grammatical errors, punctuation problems and inconsistencies within the text, perhaps relating to how elements have been translated or referred to.

5) Publish

Your translated, edited and proofread book is now ready for publishing. However you’ve chosen to distribute your work, now is the time to do it.

Be sure to remember that elements such as your title, cover art and marketing materials should all be carefully localised too if you want to have maximum appeal to your new target audience.

Once your translated book is out there, you can track and measure sales and performance and see how cost-effective the literary translation process was when set against the legions of readers you’ve gained.

Is Machine Translation suitable for translating a book?

The short answer is no. No Machine Translation engine is at the level where it can safely be used to translate a lengthy – or even a short – work of fiction or prose. Not even the kind of carefully trained custom engines which can make certain other translation projects highly cost-effective.

This is partly because fiction often contains wholly invented words or phrases. Important emotional context is conveyed by everything from description to dialogue. These are the kinds of elements of a text which Machine Translation engines are not yet capable of handling.

The only exception to this rule might be if your book is non-fiction and contains a great deal of factual information and technical content. Even then though, it’s probably not advisable.

At no point should you consider using any of the generic Machine Translation engines you can usually access for free online. For example, using Google Translate for book translation is only a solution worth considering if you are intending to turn whatever work you had before into a nonsensical comedy.

Some guides may suggest using a human translator to “tidy up” the poor quality work of Google Translate and it’s ilk. But this approach is sometimes even more time-consuming than simply using a human in the first place. It also gives the generic machine a chance to introduce all sorts of confusion and poor translations into the mix.

Literary translation – why it’s a challenge

Even for most human translators, book translation is a serious challenge. It’s different from most other forms of translation.

Consider the length of the text. The immense subtleties of meaning. The underlying message, so difficult to localise. Even with hard work and in-depth knowledge – as well as mastery of both languages involved – high-quality literary translation is very difficult.

The most serious dangers involved include:

  • Over-literal translations – can dramatically change what was intended by the original text.
  • Exaggeration – is easy to slip into. The exact equivalent of a word, one which conveys the exact same “level” or intensity of expression, is difficult to find. If there are multiple options, which does the translator pick?
  • Not picking up on cultural differences – some points of culture are intrinsic to a story. Others need to be localised if the meaning the author intended is to be preserved.
  • Changing the tone or feeling – what created or defined the tone or feeling created by a sentence, a passage or a line? Without care, an inexperienced translator – or, worse, a machine – can irreparably harm a work. That’s why a skilled literary professional is a must for this kind of project.

Choosing a literary translator

When selecting a literary translator, you should feel confident that they want to preserve the tone and message of your original work.

Working in partnership with your translator to decide on the translations of certain names and phrases – or at least being offered the opportunity to do so – is a good step and positive sign.

The easiest question to ask is whether your Language Service Provider has experience translating books of the type you have written. If they can point to a history of success, that’s a sign that they could be the one for you.

Do you need to translate a book you’ve written?

Let’s talk. Asian Absolute sources specialist literary translators for more than 120 languages and for books in every genre.