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Essential Insights Into Translation For Indie Authors Thinking Of Self-publishing Foreign Language Editions

Essential Insights into Translation for Indie Authors Thinking of Self-publishing Foreign Language Editions

Headshot of Alison Morton

As an indie author and a professional translator, Alison Morton is well qualified to advise on the ins and outs of translating self-published books

Like many indie authors, you might be keen to expand the geographical reach of your self-published books via language translations, but such ventures need to be undertaken with great care to avoid (a) devaluing a book with an inferior version of the original if the translation is not well done (b) incurring more costs than can be recouped by sales (c) being left with a book that you have no means to market effectively because you don't speak the language of your target market.

To help you steer your way through this potential minefield is this post by ALLi author Alison Morton, formerly a financial and insurance translator for the UK government. She also founded her own company with a core of a hundred translators, serving thirty languages, contracted to the European Commission. Alison holds a first degree in French, German and Economics  and the CIOL Postgraduate Diploma in Translation (Business & Legal), and now keeps Latin alive in her Roma Nova alternate history novels.

photo of Latin inscription

Wondering where to begin? Read on…

Found in Translation: Global Reach of Bestselling Authors

We live in a time when Homer’s millennia-old epics are taught in Tokyo and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake can become a bestseller in Shanghai in the local language. English speakers delight in work by contemporary writers Stieg Larsson, Haruki Murakami and Elena Ferrante. Fresh translations are keep appearing of classical writers such as Kafka, Pushkin and Pliny.

And the statistics? Research carried out by Nielsen for the Mann Booker Prize in 2016, looked at physical book sales in the UK between January 2001 and April 2016.

It found that translated fiction sales almost doubled over the last fifteen years, from 1.3m to 2.5m copies, while the market for fiction as a whole fell from 51.6m in 2001 to 49.7m in 2015.

Obviously, this covers only printed books and those sold with ISBNs, but it’s an interesting trend.

But Doesn’t the World Speak (and Read) English?

English is the native mother-tongue of only Britain, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a handful of Caribbean countries. But in 57 countries (largely ex-colonial countries which have integrated English into its chief institutions), English is either its “official language” or a majority of its inhabitants speak it as a first language.

The next most popular official languages are:

  • French (31 countries)
  • Spanish (25)
  • Arabic (25)
  • Portuguese (13)
  • Russian (10)

Although falling short of official status, English is also an important language in at least twenty other countries, including several former British protectorates, such as Bahrain, Brunei, Cyprus, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, the most commonly used unofficial language in Israel and many Europeans, headed by Sweden can converse comfortably in English.

All this means that our books are available in their language of origin to around 240 million primary speakers and 840 million secondary speakers of English.

However, although there are reckoned to be 10 million secondary speakers of English in China, there are another 1,200 million non-English speakers in mainland China alone. Most speak a variety of Simplified or Traditional Chinese (Mandarin) or Cantonese although there are over 200 dialects.

What About Non-English Speaking Markets?

Ethnologue, a language reference published by SIL International puts the top ten spoken languages as:

  • Chinese
  • English
  • Hindustani
  • Spanish
  • Arabic
  • Malay
  • Russian
  • Bengali
  • Portuguese
  • French

The top internet content languages (November 2017) are:

  • English
  • Russian
  • Japanese
  • German
  • Spanish
  • French
  • Portuguese
  • Italian
  • Chinese
  • Polish

with users as at June 2016 as follows (“Number of Internet Users by Language”, Internet World Stats, Miniwatts Marketing Group, 30 June 2016, accessed 15 November 2016):

  • English
  • Chinese
  • Spanish
  • Arabic
  • Portuguese
  • Japanese
  • Malay
  • Russian
  • French
  • German

Literacy rates are a hard one to pinpoint as shown in this Guardian article. ‘World Literacy’ from Central Connecticut State University  uses “literate behaviour characteristics” and puts Finland in first place and Norway in second, and Iceland, Denmark and Sweden rounding out the top five. Switzerland follows in sixth, with the US in seventh, Canada in 11th, France in 12th and the UK in 17th place.

If the report had only ranked nations on their reading assessment results, the final tables would have been very different: Singapore comes in top, with South Korea, Japan and China in second, fourth and fifth places respectively. Finland is the only non-Pacific Rim country to make the top five, in joint second place. The UK is 26th.

These are mere pointers to the complexity of selecting the markets into which you may wish to sell foreign language translations. You will need to do a lot of research…

Routes to non-English markets

  1. You may commission a literary agent to sell your rights for you. This is almost like the standard mainstream approach so you will need to first find an agent willing to take on purely foreign rights.
  2. You may sell your rights direct to a publisher you have identified in the market of your choice – they will organise the translation, publishing and distribution (and hopefully market it). ALLi has contacts…
  3. You may commission your own translator and project manage the publication and marketing yourself.

Who Should You Use to Translate?

Use a professional!

Let’s get automated translation out of the way. Google Translate has come a long way since its laughable beginnings, but it ain’t there yet. Tourists use hand-helds or apps to make their trips a great deal more enjoyable, but it’s not proper translation.-

The next step up, machine translation, is a human translator’s tool; there are commercial applications like Deja Vu, and universities often have their own enormous corpi in house at the disposal of its students and alumni.

But these are aids, saving professional translators an enormous amount of donkey work by using glossaries and similar examples from previous projects; they are not definitive originators of good translation. Such tools cannot work out connotation or context, for instance. Any document run through a translator’s machine translation workbench tool needs strong editing and polishing.

Human Translators

What does it take to become a human translator? After a first language-based degree (often a four year sandwich course involving overseas placement), comes an MA in translating, interpreting or related skills, or the Diploma in Translating/Public Service Interpreting. Together they take about five or six years of training.

Then the on-the-job training starts, usually with some mundane glossary compilation and weeding work – the equivalent of sweeping up hair in a hairdresser.

After a while they are let loose on real work under supervision of a senior translator or project manager. All translations are edited and proofread by a supervisor or senior colleague, whatever level the translator works at. After a year or two at this stage, they may seek permanent staff positions or branch out on their own as freelancers.

Most translators will specialise. This enhances their earning capacity which as a general translator is low. More training follows (here's an example0). And to come back to the book world, literary translation is a speciality.

The Specialism of Literary Translation

Many of these literary translation specialists are creative writers with their own published work, be it poetry, prose, or screenplays.

A literary translation is a creative work striving to transmit the original author’s message into a different cultural context. In order to stay true to the authenticity of that author’s work it often strays from the word-for-word model required for technical translation.

The other point to note is that a professional translator only works from the foreign language into their mother-tongue. However proficient the translator’s skills, context, tone, style and voice are difficult to use in a different mentality. I’ve spoken French since I was five, been a student and worker in France and lived here permanently since 2010. And I’m a fully qualified translator. But although my written French is proficient, I would never work from English into French at a professional level.

Why? Mentality and cultural connotation. A tiny illustration… For foreign language speakers or bilinguals wishing to translate into English, this used to be my acid test: ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier.’ Mother-tongue British English speakers brought up on the UK recognise it immediately as a well-known catch-phrase from a British children's television programme that has passed in modern popular culture.; others may not.

Where to Find a Professional Translator

The two UK translation institutes which regulate translators and offer professional training are the Chartered Institute of Linguists  and the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. In the US, it’s the American Translators’ Association. Other countries’ organisations can be found here.

What to Ask a Potential Translator

  • What is your country of origin and what is your mother-tongue?
    (this can differ, eg Portuguese /Portugal and Brazil)
  • When and where did you qualify?
  • What qualifications do you hold?
  • What translators’ organisations do you belong to?
  • Can you please supply two references?
  • What is your rate?
    (usually per thousand words, sometimes per single line page; never by the hour for translation)

Then ask for a sample translation of 200 words. Supply the same text to each translator you are considering.

Get three quotes and compare the samples of translated text. Ask another translator in the target language to assess the standard of the samples the translators provided.

A Note about Costs and Timing

Commissioning a professional translation is not a cheap business – expect $14-16/£10-12 per 100 words as a minimum for quality work.

Build in time. The translator’s quip is that clients can have two out of the three of good, cheap and fast, not all three.

A Word about Marketing

Cover of Carina

Alison's alternate history series takes place in Roma Nova, where Latin still holds sway in the 21st century!

Translation is but one step. Marketing also needs to be in the same language and adjusted to cultural and marketing norms, be it a simple description on a retailer product page, writing blogs, Facebook pages, replying to fans, running campaigns.  You either need to be proficient in that language and know the market culturally or employ a local assistant.

My aim is not to put you off translating your beautiful book, but to point out the realities, including costs.

Bonne chance! Viel Glück! 路平安を祈る

OVER TO YOU If you have any questions, Alison will be happy to answer them via the comments. Feel free to add your top tip, case study or cautionary tale from your own experience of self-publishing translations of your books.

#Authors - thinking of getting your #selfpub book translated? Don't do it until you've read this fab advice from the insightful & experienced @alison_morton Click To Tweet

Author: Alison Morton

Author of INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA, INSURRECTIO and RETALIO Roma Nova alternate history thrillers - all B.R.A.G. Medallion® honorees. CARINA – a novella – out now.Find out more about Alison, Roma Nova and alternate history on her website, www.alison-morton.com.


This Post Has 7 Comments
  1. Thank you for addressing this topic of indie authors and translations. I found this article when I googled “indie author translation contract” as I have written and self published a book via amazon kdp. I was contacted by someone in Germany who was moved by the book and asked permission to translate it so that friends and clients of hers who are German speakers could read it. We agreed that she will translate it and my daughter in law and her mother, who are German, will copy edit/proofread it. I will retain the “exploitation rights” and sell the German version of the book on amazon, same as the English one, but for sale in amazon’s German speaking markets, and the translator’s compensation will be a royalty split for the German version, electronically transferred to her annually, along with a copy of the amazon sales report. I want to put this into a contract, using the correct legal terms, and am trying to find a sample or template of a contract that I could use. Can you direct me where I might find one? Thank you so much.

  2. All very good points that many people ignore completely, especially: that you can only translate into your mother tongue; and to translate literature, knowing how to translate sugar beet production information films is not a qualification. Oh, and of course, that you have to actually pay a decent hourly rate for a reasonable number of hours!

  3. I would love to get my books into the Chinese market, but I always thought it would be ‘too hard’. Still hard but at least I’ve gained a better understanding of the issues involved. Thank you. 🙂

  4. Excellent portrayal of our profession as translators! As you rightfully point out, PROFESSIONAL translators are usually members of professional associations and they work and act according to ethic. As LITERARY translators we do our research, we develop new voices, we edit, proof-read and basically do many things writers do. It is part of our craft to ensure that our version reproduces the verve, feel, pace of dialogue and style of the original.

    1. Thank you, Athina. Whilst I was a business and legal translator and my business operated in public service and commerce sectors, I think the same rigour and skill are needed for every sort of translation including the specialist area of literary. Professional organisations are invaluable for refining and guiding these.

  5. This past week, I had an agent from an (apparently) leading Korean agency reach out to me, said they had a publisher interested in 3 of my nonfiction pet books. This came as a complete surprise, but I recognized one of the books they listed–and the author confirmed they are a reputable foreign rights sub-agent for translation his agent had previously used. This is all new to me, so not sure of the process. They asked for PDFs to send to the interested party, after which an offer (or decline) would be made. Who knew?!

    1. If they have a publisher interested, then it sounds like a traditional style deal where the publisher would handle the translation. Your relationship would be with the agency.
      I’m pretty sure you need to talk to somebody in ALLi who has sold foreign rights to check the process.
      Good luck!

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