July 27th, 2020

6 Tips To Translate Your Work Effectively

by Linda Ruggeri

A few months ago, my editor and translator colleague Luis Pelayo asked me, “Why aren’t more US authors publishing in Spanish?” He shared a 2019 report titled El Español: Una Lengua Viva from the respected Instituto Cervantes, a non-profit organization devoted to the study and teaching of Spanish language and culture. The study states that Spanish is a first language for 483 million people around the world and that in the US, Spanish is the second most learned language at every academic level. What’s more, because of demographical reasons, the percentage of Spanish speaking persons continues to increase.

That’s a lot of potential readers who need some good books in Spanish.

My Experience

I grew up in Córdoba, Argentina, in a bilingual household, with a father who was an avid reader. By fourteen, I had read Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Victor Hugo, all in Spanish. Getting books in English was near impossible, and the ones that made it into local bookstores were textbooks for learning English as a second language. I would have loved to have an e-reader to download Spanish versions of Nancy Drew, Judy Blume, or even Sweet Valley High. Or anything else targeted at teens.

Instead, my only options were the classics: Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Rosamunde Pilcher, and Jules Verne. Like most of my friends, I read all of them, voraciously, in Spanish. Those books let me travel to foreign made-up lands and cultures. Now more than ever, people need to travel and space out.

6 Tips to Translate Your Book Effectively

Think about all the readers around the world who are waiting to find a book like yours to take them away. Right now, you have a captive audience. If your book is doing well in your native language market, it will probably do well with a similar audience elsewhere. For this blog post, I’m focusing solely on literary translations. Here are my six tips on how to do it effectively and efficiently.

1. Hire a human being to translate your work.

Don’t attempt to translate the book yourself. If you’re not a native speaker of the language you’re trying to publish in, don’t even attempt it. Google Translate or Deepl is not for that. Nor is any other translation software. You need a human being to interpret your work and ideas and put them on the page in the way it would be said in their language.

A literary translator understands tone, voice, style, and can interpret meaning. What’s more, they know of the target language (TL) culture—therefore making sure you don’t offend anyone either. Remember, your time is probably better spent being creative and writing your next piece.

2. Calculate a budget and set aside funds.

A professional translator is going to cost money, whether you go through an agency or hire a freelancer. The agency advantage is that they can translate your work into many languages at the same time. However, freelance translators are often more accommodating, have flexible schedules, and are available for direct consultations.

Literary translators are professionals who study, are continually educating themselves, take tests, get certifications, are qualified, and excel at translating literary works. Search a reputable online directory of translators like Proz.com or The American Translators Association, or ask fellow writers or editors for recommendations.

Most translators can translate between 300-400 words per hour, with rates starting at $50 per hour. Some translators may bill by project depending on the topic or difficulty of the text. Calculate how many hours it should take to translate your work and budget accordingly (if it’s a book, count the cover, front matter, and back matter too.) Don’t skimp on translation. A bad translation may earn you negative reviews, decrease your sales, and damage your reputation.

3. Vet your translator, then book them.

Hire a professional translator whose native language is the TL you want your work translated into. They should have good reviews and samples of work you can check out. You could even ask them to translate half a page of your work, and then have their work reviewed by someone who speaks the TL.

Once you’ve chosen a translator you like, book a spot in their calendar. Good and reliable translators are booked in advance (they might not live in your country or time zone.)

A client of mine recently asked her American-raised German colleague to translate her memoir. My client thought it would be fun to involve her friend. Her friend thought she was doing my client a favor. When I hired a native German speaker to proofread the book, the feedback I received was, “It reads like a book that’s been translated into German. Not written in German.”

Don’t distract your reader from your text because of incorrect word choice, awkward vocabulary, or inaccurate TL sentence structure. You want the reader to enjoy the story without being taken out of it because something doesn’t sound right. Your translated book should read like it was written in the TL. If you want to involve your friends, use them as beta readers instead.

4. Have a Contract, be flexible, and available when needed.

A professional translator should offer you a contract that states word count, “start-by” and “deliver by” dates, how many rounds of revisions they’re willing to do, and the approximate cost for the whole project or each work hour. You’ll need to be available if the translator has questions about interpreting parts of your work. Don’t be surprised if they make a re-write suggestion because “in their culture, they don’t say things that way.” Ask if they’ll proofread your work after it’s laid out, what that will cost, and if they’ll correct any errors found later at no cost (some will do this for a year).

Be kind to your translator. It’s important to establish a good and professional relationship with them for future work you may have. Who knows, they might even refer work to you too.

5. Organize your work and send.

A week before you send in your work, check in with your translator and confirm that they’re ready. Make sure to prepare all your files and keep them in the same “Translation” folder. PDFs work better because errors can’t be introduced.

If you’re having a book translated, include the following:

  • The book cover
  • the interior files (TOC, chapters, artwork, graphics, front and back matter)
  • your book blurb
  • Your author bio.

Those last two may come in handy when uploading your book to an online seller or any marketing you choose to do later.

6. Review the work, make final changes, and have it proofread.

It’s wise to have the translators work reviewed by someone who speaks and reads in the TL. If you need to fix anything, compile a detailed list, and notify your translator so they can make those changes all at once. Once your work has been laid out (remember to include the translator’s name on your project), have it proofread in the TL (preferably, also by the translator).

Having your work translated can initially seem overwhelming. But remember, once you’ve done it the first time, and established a good relationship with your translator, you have all the tools you need to do it again successfully.

Have you ever considered translating your book? What questions do you have for Linda? Please share them down in the comments!

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About Linda

Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles, fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian. She co-authored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and can be found online at The Insightful Editor and on Instagram where she reviews books and posts tips for writers.

Linda also volunteers as the Welcome Program director for the Editorial Freelancers Association, and is co-coordinator of their Los Angeles chapter.

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

21 responses to “6 Tips To Translate Your Work Effectively”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I have always wondered how translations of our books work.

  2. Agreed - with everything you say. But it is going to be a huge task to translate 167,000 words. Using your numbers, 400 words per hour at $50, it would cost about $21,000. My complete trilogy would work out to around $65,000. The books are going to have to do VERY well in English to risk making that investment.

    I have the advantage of having grown up in Mexico, and having four younger sisters and much family who live there, so at least would have to ability to vet a translator in general, but I can also see the project taking a LOT of time. (None of us would DO the translation - that's a given.)

    Sounds like something that might benefit from a Kickstarter - to first check whether there is an audience. There's a reason why so many of the translations are for classics - the audience is assumed to be there, and the stories have already proven themselves.

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Alicia, yes, all great and true points. Unfortunately yes, it could get costly for a series. But, that might also be your point of strength, to request a translation per "project" instead of an "hourly rate." It's important to do your research, if other books like yours are selling well abroad, start with one book and then if there's a good response, go for the next ones, A kickstarter campaign that offers a few free chapters/sneak peaks per participation level might be a great way to engage your target audience too.

      • You have to have a fan base before you will make any progress with the crowd-funding sites - they are not in the business of finding you new fans. Getting those first several thousand fans is always the hard part.

        I have so little energy, I have to focus on the writing first. Fortunately, after the publication of the first book in my mainstream trilogy, I've been able to accumulate almost 50 reviews, some of them stunningly detailed.

        I'll get there - if I have any say. But I'm desperately slow - and that is one of the reasons I write what and how I do. I'll take the results, am unhappy with the speed.

        • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

          Yes, these are also psychologically exhausting times. My mantra is having the WIN attitude: "What's Important Now" - we do what we can, and we do it well, and the rest will come when we are ready. 50 positive reviews? That's excellent!
          Keep up that commitment to writing and completing your series. The translations can definitely come later! 🙂

          • WIN is writing while I have the time. During the pandemic and other crises.

            The stress doesn't help, but I do block it as quickly as possible every day with a little program called Freedom.

            I have the standard problem: it's hard getting started, so I try not to leave my work in a finished condition, but go ahead and start the next bit so when I come back it's easier to pick up.

          • And thanks for the encouragement - some days a kind word makes a huge difference.

  3. ecellenb says:

    I have considered translating the Charlie Chameleon books to Spanish. Once I have a wider audience, read that done more marketing, I'll consider it again. Last I heard translation services were going for 6 cents per word. One quote was from a translator living in Spain, the other from someone living in the US and born in Mexico.

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Yes, rates vary widely depending on the experience of the translator. Definitely hire a translator who specializes in the Spanish market you want to get into. Mexican Spanish will read differently than Spain Spanish, Central American Spanish, South American Spanish, etc. Just pick the one where your largest audience is and hopefully other readers can adapt and understand with minor questions if any.

  4. Thank you so much for putting this out there so succinctly. It helps to hear both the practical side and the costs. It looks like there is such a large audience out there potentially. Even here in America, it is hard to find translations of fun, mainstream fiction to read when learning an foreign language. But I agree with Alicia's math (above)- the cost is quite a barrier!

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      Thank you for the kind comments! Yes, there are many factors to consider, and it can get costly if you don't plan for it properly. I think starting small and doing a thorough market research is the key to doing it right so you can make back what is spent. But, that first book is going to be the most important one to get your name out there to future fans of your work. I've also seen cases where an author will use a translating software for the initial draft and then hire a Spanish speaking literary editor to correct it. That process can get costly too, depending on the quality of the translation, and it can take a long time to complete too.

      • Interesting. I know my kids could never use translation software for school (one in French,
        one in Spanish) for the reasons you had mentioned before - it just doesn’t come out right or real. So I imagine doing that and also paying to massage it into real-speak would be added layers of cost. I like the start small and grow idea!

  5. John Peragine says:

    If you ever want to look at a niche that sells and is under-served- go into a bookstore at Barnes and Nobel and look at the Spanish Language section. Huge potential. One of my favorite clients wrote a memoir-ish book about rising up through the ranks at Mayo Clinic. It did well in the US and then Chinese publisher was interested- and they bought the rights and translated it into Mandarin- she toured for months in China with the book and sold four times the number of books there than she did in the US. You could also pay similar to the way voice artists do for audiobooks- give them a percentage of your book and they get paid on the back-end instead of the investment up front. It is also worth asking and working something out.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I love that story, John! And it is super intriguing to think that perhaps translators would work like audio book narrators.

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      What a great success story about the book being bought and translated into Mandarin!

      That's true John! Every time I've gone to my local B&N to look for books in Spanish to buy for myself, my father or family members I'm disappointed at the limited collection there is. Mostly you find the classics or already established famous authors (Marquez, Cisneros, Allende), religious themes, or self help. (That is a whole other topic of who in the US reads in other languages and actually buys books - but that's not the market you and I are referring to above.) I have noticed that the kids selection is expanding a lot though - you can even find Diary of a Wimpy Kid in Spanish now in many B&N (it's called "Diario de Greg").

  6. dholcomb1 says:

    Wonderful idea. When I was fluent, I read books in Spanish.

    denise

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      That's great Denise! It does open ones mind, right? I bet you could still do it and pick it up quickly again. There are some great titles out there if you ever want a referral of something good/fun to read in Spanish.

  7. Kris Maze says:

    Hi Linda,
    Your post is fascinating! As a language teacher immersed in Spanish books for most of my life, I can agree that the titles have been traditionally focused on classical literature. Language learning studies confirm that if you give learners books they WANT to read, i.e. popular literature, magazines, high interest nonfiction, that they will engage and become more fluent in L2.

    I work with a small publisher that provides readers for classroom use and I see the importance of having a heritage language reader work on the manuscript. Online translators quickly lose your audience and read horribly. My students figure this out by year 2 when they start to trust their own language sense. They laugh at the weird stuff Google comes up with!

    It would make sense for me to pursue an option like this will my current English YA sci-fi novel, as I understand the need for diverse stories in the classroom that encourage reading. It would also provide L1 support for our growing population of bi-lingual students who need to grow in 2 languages.

    My question for you is what is your opinion on having a near native language person translate the work and vet it with a TL translator/editor after? *asking for a friend*

    🙂
    Kris

    • Linda Ruggeri Editor says:

      I love that you notice this issue in school reading materials too! Lisa Lucas (National Book Foundation) always says, it doesn't matter what books you read, the important thing is that you are reading and developing a love for reading, so you can discover new things.

      In terms of hiring a "near native" I would first make sure they LIKE translating, and that they can commit to doing a whole book. Then, vet their skills by seeing a sample of their work (with a page of your book), and ask how long it will take them complete the work.

      You could also offer this opportunity to a beginning translator who may be looking to establish themselves, and might be more affordable. But you always want to look at their work and have a native speaker vouch for the translation to make sure it's legible.

      So yes, going with a *near native* and having a SP editor look at it when it's done is a good strategy. Just go into knowing that it probably won't be perfect, and that it might need some work. And all that is normal and just part of the process.
      Good luck!

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