FAQ about the Translation Process

In this post, I’m answering the most important questions about translations that authors may have.

Where can I find translators?

You could go to the usual freelance websites like upwork.com where freelancers of all trades offer their services. E-ditio, Translatorsbase, and translatorscafe.com are web portals that specialize on translation and editing services. Finally, Babelcube is a platform for authors and translators interested in royalty share agreements. You could ask another author (in your genre) who’s had a translation for their recommendation. I’ve also listed some translators who work with indie authors on my Resources page.

The German association of literary translators (VdÜ) has a directory of professional German translators as well. You can search for “englisch” in their search field in the side bar to find the list.

How should I choose a translator?

Translation doesn’t just mean transferring words from one language to another. If you’ve ever used Google Translate, you know what I mean. Especially when it comes to literary translations, getting across the content alone is not sufficient. The translator must also be able to capture the style of the author, the nuances of meaning, the mood, the voices of characters, etc. Translating fiction is just as much an art as writing fiction and just as individual (some translators might be good for one genre, but not so fitting for another, just like writers).

With that in mind, I would almost say that experience in translating fiction is more important than a degree, as many translators are entering this field from a different background at some point. However, a degree will assure you of their professionalism and can definitely be a plus. If you can’t be sure of their references (e.g. if it’s someone just starting out), ask them if they’re willing to give you a short sample translation that another native speaker can look at to evaluate their work. That’s probably the only way to make sure the translation is any good, unless you speak the language yourself. You could find an editor or proofreader on a freelance website and pay them for an evaluation of the sample text. And the rest, of course, depends on your budget.

What’s the translation process like?

In general, the translation process is similar to the writing process. The translation will go through several drafts and a second pair of eyes should be involved in at least one of these stages.

My own translation process looks like this, and it’s probably similar to many other translators: The first draft is the rough translation where I jot down the first words that come to mind. After distancing myself from the original a little bit, I’ll go through the first round of editing, where I pay attention to sentence structure and word choice to create something that sounds as if it had been written in German, and doesn’t read like a translation anymore. In the second pass of editing, I will check for grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors, as well as echoes (repetitive words in too close proximity) and the like. Then it can go off to the editor or proofreader for that extra pair of eyes.

Are machine translations good enough? Even for blurbs and simple things like titles?

I would say, definitely not. Title and book description should be chosen with just the same care as your cover as they are two of the major selling points of your book. Writing good book descriptions is an art in and of itself and you wouldn’t want to entrust it to a machine (at least not yet). And a title can carry so many meanings beside the obvious that a literal translation might not be the best choice in some cases. In addition, keep in mind that titles are copyright-protected in Germany.

Do I need editors and/or proofreaders in German after the translation?

Yes, the same as you need editors and proofreaders for your own manuscript. I’ll admit some people are better at spotting their own mistakes than others, but I recommend at least one more pair of eyes. Your translator is only human and will make mistakes as we all do.

So, what kind of editor do you need? That’s probably depends on your budget and the translator’s experience. You definitely won’t need a developmental or content editor because the story, or, in case of nonfiction, the concept, should already be developed. A copy editor or line editor who looks for style and language issues and overall readability would be great. But at the very least you’d want to have someone check for spelling and grammar errors. Sure, it adds to the costs, but that’s always the price for a professional product.

How about beta readers?

Usually, beta readers look at the story from a reader’s point-of-view and tell you what they enjoyed and didn’t like about it. In the translation, the story itself is not at question, but beta readers might be able to spot parts where the translation is unclear or even some spelling and grammar errors. After translating A Stone’s Throw by Alida Winternheimer, we had four beta readers read the finished manuscript. They came back to us with about 12 minor mistakes that we (Christina and I) had missed. That was helpful, but not absolutely critical.

It can be useful if you really don’t have the budget to pay a proofreader, but finding beta readers is not that easy, unless you or your translators already have connections. Perhaps you could ask your English readers – who knows, you might have some German fans on your list already.

How much does a translation cost? How much does proofreading and editing cost?

That’s hard to say on a general basis. You can find everything from people just starting out with very low prices, maybe as low as $0.02/word, to established professionals who will charge much more. Professional German translations can be expensive with around $0.1/word. You could ask your translator for flexible payment plans such as a mixture between upfront payment and royalty share. The same variability goes for editing and proofreading, but those are generally much less expensive than translations. German prices are usually calculated by normalized page (around 1800 characters per page). In that system, proofreading can cost anything from 2 Euro per page, and copy editing from 4 Euro per page and up.

What about royalty splits? Are they a good idea?

They are a good idea if you can get a translator to work with you on that basis. For example, you may find translators willing to do a royalty share if they are just starting out with fiction or are doing it on the side for love. But most established translators who live on their translation business, probably won’t be able or willing to work for the insecure prospect of royalties. That said, you can find translators willing to do royalty shares on Babelcube where you don’t even have to worry about the distribution and publishing of the book (see here for my experiences with the platform).

In addition, some professional German translators, may want a small share of the royalties in addition to their payment. Carolin Veiland has explained in her interview why that is so.

Does the translator have the copyright of the translation?

According to German law, the translator does hold the copyright of the translated work as an inalienable right. However, this won’t have any practical implications because the translator can contractually agree to transfer all of the exploitation rights to the author. This will have the same effect as transferring the copyright itself. The author will be able to do anything they please with the translation, as long as the translator’s name is stated (in the imprint, for instance).

Do the word counts end up about the same when translated into German, or are they longer or shorter?

In my experience, that depends on the text and on the style of the author and translator. Generally, we do have a lot of compound words in German which you’d think should reduce the overall word count. On the other hand, English texts tend to have many participle phrases, which can’t be transferred to German without some workarounds. This often entails inserting at least one other word, and that adds up.

For the children’s books I translated, my German translations usually end up to be a bit shorter in word count (but longer in pages because German words are longer), while most of my other translations will have a higher word count than the original. If you consider creating print books for your translations, expect that you’ll need to change the cover image to adjust for more pages.

Are there people like you who can help with marketing in the German-speaking world?

You could search on freelance websites for a German virtual assistant who ideally should have some background in marketing or publishing. There is another website called Authorbuddies, where authors from different countries with translations can help each other out. But I don’t know how well-used it is. I have also created an online course for authors that will help you tackle much of your German marketing by yourself even if you don’t speak German.

I hope that was helpful. If you have any question that I’ve missed, please leave a comment.

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