Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 31, 2023

Should I use Google to translate my novel?

by Annette Spratte

Of course! If you would like to collect a lot of bad reviews, you should definitely do that.

Seriously, though. The quality of machine-made translations has improved considerably over the past years, which is why many authors get the idea they could save money on the expensive services of a professional translator.

What does a translator do where the machine fails utterly?

The Style

A machine does not have any feel for lingual beauty, building up tension or any other skill writers have a right to be proud of. While this doesn’t matter when setting up a contract, it matters a lot in fiction. A sentence structure which is perfectly fine in English might sound like the work of a third grader in German. The translator needs to do a lot of switching around of words to make sentences and paragraphs sound smooth in the new language. The machine only processes what it gets, minutely and hopefully accurately. Speaking of which…


Are you aware of how many words have double meanings? The machine doesn’t always know which one to use. Let me give you an example that had me snorting with laughter:

She finished her delivery tour sooner than expected.

Are you thinking of groceries? Good. My machine did not. It warbled something about babies arriving pre-term. Possibly in a truck. Now imagine this was your novel. You do NOT want that sort of thing to happen.
Being bilingual, I have used the DeepL translation service to translate my own books to save typing time. It is a horrendous amount of editing work to iron out all the inaccuracies and make the translation flow. I’m still wondering if it isn’t faster for me to translate from scratch after all. I would never use a machine to translate for a client.


Many proverbs have been around long enough to have made their way into the translation engines, such as ‘the last straw broke the camel’s back’. In Germany, we say ‘it was the last drop that made the barrel overflow’. Others, however, will be translated literally and thus not make much sense to the reader in the other language. My favorite one in the latter category is ‘the room was so small you couldn’t swing a cat by the tail.’ Of course a German reader would get the message, but they would be severely irritated as such a behavior is unheard of in Germany. A translator should know that. A machine couldn’t care less.


Translations require research. Things exist in one country, but not in another or they are known in a completely different context. Let’s take military ranks for example. Gosh, the research I have invested to find the correct equivalents! Sergeant, in German, can mean any of these colorful terms: Feldwebel, Unteroffizier, or Wachtmeister. Two of them are army terms, one police. If the story is not set in Germany, I will take the easy way out and leave the English term. This is a wide-spread practice. But if the story is set in Germany, I will have to decide which word to use.

And now imagine all of this with a historical novel. Or science fiction. A machine would most definitely mess up. Did you know, that Tolkien spoke German and made sure that the word “Elves” was translated into “Elben”, thus creating a new word in German, rather than using the literal translation “Elfen”? I can only guess that he was aware the word “Elfen” would create the wrong image in the German reader’s mind.

Form of Address

While it shouldn’t pose any problems in translations from German to English, the form of address is a huge challenge from English to German. Germans have two forms of address – a familiar one (du) and a formal one (sie). The same goes for most European languages. They come with completely different grammatical rules. The translator not only needs to know which is which, they also need to know in which context to apply which. Are the people talking to each other friends? Then they use ‘du’. Are they strangers? Then they use ‘sie’. Are they colleagues on a first name basis? They will probably use ‘du’, but I have also come across mixed forms, i.e. colleagues addressing each other by their first names and yet using the formal ‘sie’. Or addressing each other by their last names, yet using ‘du’.
Translation engines top even that and switch the form of address several times within one paragraph. They can’t make any sense of it at all.


A good translator is worth their cost, and you won’t do yourself a favor by saving money in this area. Most readers aren’t interested which language the book was originally written in. All they want is a great reading experience. A good translator will take care that the text won’t sound translated, but will follow the natural flow of language. To verify that, you should get a trial translation from the person you wish to hire and have a native speaker vet it for you.

Since every translator has their own style, it would be wise for authors to hire the same translator for all books of a series. Please note that translations take time. I estimate two to three months for an 80 k novel.

By now, there are a number of translators like me who will work with Indie authors at affordable prices. A few of them can be found on the IndiesGoGerman website, where you will find lots of valuable information about entering the German book market.

Do you have experience with writing in a language that is not your own? Have you used a translating service or app?

* * * * * *

About Annette

Annette Spratte is an award-winning bilingual author and translator living in Germany. With nine books traditionally published in German so far, she has translated and self-published her most successful historical novels The Silent Maid and The Potbaker’s Niece into English (more to come). Her trademarks are life-like characters and a vivid writing style that glues readers to the pages.

Her translation schedule is tight, so if you wish to make use of her skills, you need to plan well ahead.

Learn more about Annette on her website http://annettespratte.org

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

13 comments on “Should I use Google to translate my novel?”

  1. I often laugh at French subtitles that miss the mark on translating what was actually being said. Translation is definitely an art.

  2. I found transaltions via Fiberead were very good and they even sell the books across awide platform. The translators take a percentage of the profits but it isn't much an you do gain from the choice of different languages available for tgranslation and they always contact you if they're not sure of context.
    Example of sales platforms for a Chinese translation
    Sale Platform


    Amazon Kindle(China)




    Amazon Kindle(USA)


    1. When I started out as a translator, I took the risk of a royalty-based payment. I'm very hesitant about that now. But from an author's point of view, it's a great chance to enter new markets.

  3. Hi Annette!

    I tried playing with Google translate for a bit. The problem for me came with idioms. Well, that wasn't the only problem but was the one most glaring.

    Working with someone who knows the language well makes all the difference.

    Great post! You bring up many good points.

  4. I actually work as a translator, and I completely agree with you. I mostly translate from English to Danish or vice versa, but also from German to Danish.

  5. Hi Annette,

    I love your first line in this post! IT can be done. But with consequences, right?

    As a Spanish teacher, I have been rewriting my YA novels from English to Spanish. My specific purpose is to use them in a classroom, so there are even more considerations as far as the number of unique words used and complexity of sentence structure.

    The books I'm writing should have reading levels very carefully in the for-front, something that an online translation is just not going to do.

    And even though I have the background to accomplish this task, I plan to have the books edited by a publisher in Mexico City who has a focus on educational materials.

    The finesse of a human translation just can't be replicated. At least not right now. 🙂

    Thank you for your insightful post,

    1. That's a challenge, I'm sure. Fun fact: The first book I read in English should have been a pupil's edition of a novel by Agatha Christie. Problem was I didn't listen properly in class and got the real thing. I liked it a lot better than what my classmates had, although I had to look up more words. Been reading English books ever since.

  6. just try looking at directions included with products and you'll see the incorrect translations.

    After studying a foreign language for eight years, I would never use an automated system for translations.

    1. That's one of my favorite pasttimes. So funny! I once received a business letter that had been translated with a machine. The person hadn't thought that VAT is an abbreviation, thus the machine translated it as vat and I almost died laughing.

  7. Love this, Annette! Many years go, I was a tour guide and I had a set of phrases in different languages that I could use for some of our key features. I was almost fluent in Spanish, but wow... it was a stretch just discussing a few items. I can't imagine translating a novel. That's definitely one of the things I'd want a skilled human to do!!!

    1. For a very long time I couldn't imagine translating novels, either. Not because I thought it was too hard, but because I thought I would go nuts if I had to force beautiful English phrases into the harsh German structure. When an author friend asked me to translate his book, I grudgingly gave it a try. Then I realized: Hey, this isn't as bad as I thought. It's fun, actually. I can do this.

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