(previously posted on Writers in the Storm on July 26th, 2020).
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" (Spanish: A Living Language) 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.
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 be 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 translator's 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.
Linda is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles, fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian. She is also the coauthor of the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and Networking for Freelance Editors. Linda is on LinkedIn as The Insightful Editor, and on Instagram, where she likes to review books and posts tips for writers and editors.
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