How to Translate Your Book Into Another Language

(Hint: Don’t ask your teenage neighbor…)

Congratulations on self-publishing your book! This is a huge milestone, maybe one you’ve been dreaming about for years. You may be exhausted from all the work it took to transform your original idea into a book, but you’re beginning to see the impact it’s having on people’s lives.


Then one day, you realize that only English people can read your book . . . 20% or less of the world’s population. Hmmm…. what to do? “I know”, you think to yourself, “I’ll have my book translated!” You decide to start with the second most common language in your country, which is perhaps Spanish.
Your teenage Spanish neighbor is bilingual, so you ask him if he would be willing to translate your book. He eagerly agrees (for an amazing price!) and the process begins. Possibilities begin to roll through your mind.

After Spanish, you could do French, German, Italian, then maybe even some Asian languages. How exciting! Here come the royalties. . .


Time out!


Hold on a minute. . . Remember how conscientious you were with your original book? You agonized over the title and subtitle, gathering feedback and making adjustments. You invested in meticulous editing and proofreading to avoid annoying your readers with typos.
You carefully selected a cover designer and spent hours perfecting your book description, painstakingly choosing categories and keywords. That attention to detail is what helped you establish your reputation as an author, and likely earned you the coveted bestseller banner on Amazon. You may have already begun to launch a business using your book as a calling card.
Don’t throw caution to the wind now! The unfortunate truth is that a poor book translation makes an author appear naive at best, and unprofessional or even careless at worst. I collect translation bloopers as a hobby, and below is one of my favorites from a bagel shop in the city where I live (the word “tongs” got confused with “tongue”).

The translation myth
There is a common belief that anyone who is bilingual is capable of translating, such as the owner of that bagel shop. This reasoning appears logical on the surface, and I used to believe it myself. But a decade of translation studies at university, culminating in a doctoral thesis on translation quality, has changed my perspective.
Let’s explore the idea of bilingualism. People who understand two languages can certainly express ideas orally in both. Even if they can’t match sentences exactly, they can convey the same general information. In conversation, grammar rules are more relaxed, and people are generally patient while someone tries to express what they are thinking.
But it’s just not the same with books! There are standard writing practices to be respected, and readers become impatient with typos and with sentences that are hard to follow. That’s why you spent money on an experienced editor, rather than asking your basketball buddy to proofread it just because he speaks English. You knew that talking about an idea and being able to express it properly in writing are two different things.
And that’s the crux of the translation myth. Just because your best friend speaks two languages does not automatically mean she has good writing skills. Nor does it mean that she is capable of written translation: university translation programs exist for good reason. Translation is an art underpinned by solid “transfer” principles that can only be learned through extensive training or experience.

Obtaining a quality translation
The quality of a translation can make or break your book, so it’s important to proceed carefully. Here are nine steps for obtaining a quality translation of your book.

1 — Polish the English version first

The appropriate time to start on a translation of your book is after the final editing and proofreading (of a printed copy) are complete. Errors that seem to be unnoticeable on a computer screen miraculously show up in print.
While proofreading almost two million words for 50 French translations published by the UPCI French Literature Cooperative, I have found errors that made me cringe. I’m not referring to a misplaced comma overlooked by the translator or editor, but serious errors such as saying in French that the Bible was vindictive, when it should have said self-vindicating. Ouch!
So it is important to have a clean book manuscript to hand to a translator. Otherwise, you will incur much extra time and cost by having to go back-and-forth with the translator because of changes made in the English text after the translation has already begun. Translation is time-consuming enough without adding in this frustration.

2 — Choose the best language

With thousands of languages in the world, how do you choose which one(s) to translate your book into? There are several factors to consider, beyond simply determining the top languages spoken in the world. Especially when self-publishing, you need to find out what languages are popular for digital books. The chart below shows the top ten languages used online as of December 2017.

The first consideration, if you are publishing on Amazon, is to determine if the language you are interested in is supported. Currently, books can be uploaded in over 40 languages, but some are only supported for Kindle versions, not print. Look for countries and language groups:
where Amazon is investing and growing (India is first);
where there is less competition in your category;
where there is a demand for your type of book (ex. China: non-fiction, children and youth books, crime stories and romantic fiction);
where your book content appeals to the culture.

3 — Allow enough time for translation

Time and quality are intrinsically connected. If someone offers to translate your 30,000-word book in 3 days, this should be an immediate red flag. Even with the development of technological aids, it is not feasible to expect a translator to produce quality translation of more than 300-500 words per hour; this varies depending on the book content.
This means that a 30,000-word book should take a minimum of 60 hours to translate, and possibly up to 100 hours. You probably spent a similar amount of time writing your book. Translation involves recreating content in another language, and should not be rushed. Also, try to avoid splitting the book between two or more translators to speed things up. This could result in style and terminology inconsistencies that will confuse the reader.
Be sure to leave enough time to obtain and evaluate a translation sample, as will be discussed in Step 7. If you have to do this more than once, it will probably take a week or two for each round.

4 — Don’t Google it!

Can you remember life before Google? I remember when school projects required a trip to the library to consult an encyclopedia. Now we have instant information at our fingertips, including access to Google Translate, which is a machine translation. Implicit in this term is that no human checks the translation for errors. Just for fun, I recently typed traduire à la pige (the French term for “freelance translation”) into Google Translate and received the response below.

I am sure you want more for your book than a stilted machine translation that doesn’t understand the context and is blind to the nuances of human emotions. Machine translation can be useful for large quantities of technical material such as manuals. But a crucial part of the process is “post-editing”, in which a trained translator corrects the mistakes made by the machine.
If you come across a translator offering “unbelievable” rates to translate your book, it is probable that they are using machine translation and then just tweaking it. They may or may not have the skills and experience to produce a final quality translation.

5 — Set a budget

When it comes to translation quality, you really do get what you pay for. A low-priced translator generally means a hasty and possibly inaccurate translation. Your goal should be for people who buy your books in another language to have the same reading experience as your English readers. Translation rates vary widely between countries.
OTTIAQ, with whom I am certified in Quebec, reported average rates of $0.21 per word in 2018, which is higher than many countries in the world.
ProZ.com, an online community of translators, posts average rates of $0.09 to $0.14 per word.
If you were able to engage a quality translator for $0.12 per word, the cost for translating a 30,000-word book would be $3,600. This is a large investment, so make sure you do market research first to determine if your book is likely to produce sales in the language or geographical area you are considering.
It is not advisable to pay a translator by the hour, as some translators work much more slowly than others. Also, if your book is very scholarly or requires extensive terminology work, you may have to pay an above-average rate. Find out if sales taxes are payable on the translation services provided (the sample contract under Step 8 includes taxes in the price).
One final consideration is that when you hire an individual translator, you pay them only for translation services rendered, and they have no right to royalties from the translated book. Some aggregate translation services may offer you a lower price upfront, but expect to share in your royalties. Make sure you know what you are agreeing to.

6 — Find a qualified translator

If your budget allows, the safest option is to hire a certified translator, meaning that a professional order or translation association has verified that the person’s translation skills meet a quality standard. You can usually check credentials online; just be aware that membership does not always equal certification.
For example, everyone accepted into Quebec’s professional order of translators (OTTIAQ) has been certified, but the American Translators Association (ATA) includes translators who simply pay a membership fee to join. ATA does have another level of translators who have earned certification by “passing a challenging three-hour exam to assess their translation skills”.
If you cannot afford to pay a certified translator, the second option is to hire someone with translation experience who can provide customer testimonials as proof of quality work. This should be someone who translates into a mother tongue so that the translation is idiomatic and easy to read. For example, you should have a Spanish person translate your English book into Spanish; this requirement is not as relevant if the translator is certified.
If the main market for your translated book is in another country, choose a translator who is familiar with the culture and customs in that country, to avoid unknowingly offending readers. Your translator should be familiar with the topic of your book (through work experience or personal knowledge), so the translation will be authentic. Usually, you can search a translation-provider website by both language combination and domain specialization, as shown in the OTTIAQ screenshot below.

7 — Ask for a sample first

A translator will probably request a sample of your book in order to give you a fee estimate. It is a good practice to ask for the translation of a 500-word sample. Most translators are willing to invest the time to do a sample of this size in the hope of receiving the whole book contract.
The next step is to ask a native-language speaker with excellent writing skills, who also understands English, to compare the sample translation to the original text and give you an honest evaluation. You might have to pay a small fee for this, but it will save you problems in the long run. If the translation is into Spanish, look for a Spanish writer, editor, teacher, or even another translator, to do the independent evaluation.
You will need feedback on three aspects: fidelity, idiomaticity, and conformity. You can do this by asking three questions:
Does the translation convey the same information as the original text, with no omissions or additions?
Is the translation idiomatic — pleasant to read in that language?
Does the translation conform to standard grammar and punctuation guidelines?
If you receive positive answers to these three questions, you can confidently sign a contract with the translator who did the sample. If not, you should find a different translator.

A translator will probably request a sample of your book in order to give you a fee estimate. It is a good practice to ask for the translation of a 500-word sample. Most translators are willing to invest the time to do a sample of this size in the hope of receiving the whole book contract.
The next step is to ask a native-language speaker with excellent writing skills, who also understands English, to compare the sample translation to the original text and give you an honest evaluation. You might have to pay a small fee for this, but it will save you problems in the long run. If the translation is into Spanish, look for a Spanish writer, editor, teacher, or even another translator, to do the independent evaluation.
You will need feedback on three aspects: fidelity, idiomaticity, and conformity. You can do this by asking three questions:
Does the translation convey the same information as the original text, with no omissions or additions?
Is the translation idiomatic — pleasant to read in that language?
Does the translation conform to standard grammar and punctuation guidelines?
If you receive positive answers to these three questions, you can confidently sign a contract with the translator who did the sample. If not, you should find a different translator.

8 — Obtain a written contract

It is important to have a written agreement with the translator of your book, in order to protect your investment. A simple one-page contract that can be signed, scanned, and returned should be enough. The sample contract below shows important information that should be included.

It is a good idea to insist on receiving the translation file if you make a payment partway through the translation process, both to verify that the work has been done, and to protect you if the translator were to have a computer breakdown. My personal policy is that I do not hand over a translation to an individual (as opposed to a business) until they have paid me. The client is protected by my insurance through OTTIAQ, but I have no such protection against non-payment by individual clients.
In regard to insurance, not every translator has professional liability insurance even if they are certified (for example, it does not appear to be mandatory for ATA certified translators). You will need to decide your comfort and trust levels; will you only use a translator who has insurance? If you printed 100 books and later found out there were serious errors in the translation, who would pay for the reprinting?
The good news is that when you hire an experienced translator who earns their living through translation, they are concerned about their reputation, so that should reduce the risk to you.

9 — Don’t forget the extras

Before you finalize the contract with your translator, think about translation needs beyond the actual book text, and decide on a payment structure for assistance with these items. Some things to consider are:
Feedback on the title and subtitle
Feedback on the cover: Are the image and colors appropriate for the new reading audience? Would a different image have a stronger positive impact?
Translation of the back cover and the book description
Choosing Amazon keywords and categories
Creating ads and marketing materials
If you do not speak the other language, you will likely need assistance in navigating the corresponding Amazon site (ex. www.Amazon.es for Spanish books).
Finally, remember that your translated book is a separate product and will need its own ISBN. Also, be sure to choose the correct book language in the drop-down menu when you set up the book on Amazon.

IN CLOSING…
Whew! That was a lot of information, wasn’t it? But it’s always best to be well informed before plunging into a new endeavor, especially one that involves significant costs. Obtaining a quality translation of your book will not happen overnight, but you can follow the steps above to facilitate the process.

What languages are you considering having your book translated into and why? Comment below to get the conversation started!

Liane Grant

Liane is a certified French-English translator with a PhD in Translation from Université de Montréal. Liane’s experience in fulfilling multiple roles has helped her hone her planning and productivity skills into a highly efficient system for optimal profitability. She is the author of Schedule Your Dream, Schedule Your Life, Give Yourself a Raise, and Help I Have to Work from Home available on Amazon. Through Time Keepers Academy, Liane offers online training to help mission-minded people increase their productivity so they can achieve ambitious goals without burning out. Find out more on her website or on Facebook.

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