Happy to welcome Savannah Cardova from Reedsy who has some good information to share on book translations. As many of you know, we have a foreign rights agent and have sold rights to publishers in different countries. While some books are better suited for translation than others, it’s worthwhile for every author to investigate the possibilities, so read on!
In our current climate, you’ve probably heard that piece of trivia about Shakespeare writing King Lear in quarantine roughly a thousand times. You’ve also probably noticed tons of people taking up new hobbies to stay busy — baking, knitting, or (you knew it was coming) finally getting started on that novel they’ve always wanted to write.
According to anecdotal evidence hitting us from all sides, now is the perfect time to tackle a new creative project. But I’d suggest a slightly different undertaking than writing a whole new book: translating your existing work(s) into a different language.
If you’re already multilingual, this could be just the challenge you need to stay productive (not to mention sane) for the next few months. But if not, researching the book translation process, weighing your options, and hunting down the right translator should still occupy you for a solid week or so! That said, if you’re unsure whether translating your book is a good idea, here are five reasons to consider it — plus some helpful resources for those who decide to take the leap.
1. You’re missing out on the global market
This one might sound obvious: if you’re not publishing in any other languages, you won’t be able to reach every corner of the international market. But what you may not realize is just how sizable that market is! While the US and UK account for 34% of the global ebook trade, the other 66% stems from non-English-speaking countries. And if you can get your book into print translation, you’ll access an even greater proportion of readers in each country, potentially gaining mainstream recognition there (more on that in a bit).
However, you should choose your new language(s) carefully, as each separate translation comprises a new project in which you have to invest. So before you do anything else, check to see how other books in your genre or on your subject perform in any country you want to target. If you can’t find many books similar to yours, there’s probably no market for them. Conversely, if you’re overwhelmed by results, the market may already be over-saturated.
Also keep in mind the demand for ebooks in the specific country you’re targeting. For example, it might seem like a good idea to translate your book into French, Spanish, or Italian, but did you know that China’s ebook market is larger than all those countries’ combined? Lastly, you’ll want to think about the relative popularity of translated works in each country. As foreign rights agent Marleen Seegers points out, literary translations perform much better in some countries (such as Poland!) than others.
An international book tour is probably the last thing on your mind right now, but there’s no time like the present to start contemplating where you might go. And planning that book tour could be particularly relevant if this next reason turns out to be true…
2. Your work might be more popular other countries
Ever heard the expression “big in Japan”? Though it’s taken on ironic connotations in recent years, back in the seventies it was used to describe bands from the US, Sweden, Germany, and other countries that were better-known in Japan than in their homelands. And believe it or not, a similar thing sometimes happens to authors who have their works translated: for whatever reason, their stories are much more interesting to readers in languages other than their own.
In other words (no pun intended), not only can you access foreign markets via translations of your work, but you might become even more celebrated within them than in your own language! This is exactly what happened to Edgar Allan Poe, whose work was deemed unremarkable in America during his lifetime, but who found immense literary acclaim among French audiences — all thanks to his brilliant book translator, Charles Baudelaire.
But while the translator often deserves the lion’s share of credit, this unexpected success can ensue for other reasons as well. Sometimes, without even meaning to, an author taps into some element of style or storytelling that simply works better in another culture. This was the case for Laura Kasischke, who’s a well-known poet in America, but whose novels have become wildly successful in French translation; Kasishke hypothesizes that French readers are more accepting of unlikable characters and obscure endings, both frequent elements in her books.
Of course, you can never completely predict how readers will respond to your work in other languages. But if you suspect that certain elements have been lost on your current audience, it’s worth giving translation a shot (especially if you can find a translator on par with Baudelaire).
3. If you’ve written a series, readers won’t have to wait
Another compelling reason to consider translation is that, if you’ve written or are currently writing a series with multiple installments available, readers in other languages won’t have to wait too long between books. This can go a long way toward maintaining momentum and acquiring new readers, especially in new countries where you’ll have to build your brand from the ground up.
Though it may not have been an intentional strategy, this was likely part of what made the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson such a hit in the United States, despite the fact that it was originally published in Swedish. With three books already written, Reg Keeland and Alfred A. Knopf were able to translate and publish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels in less than two years — enough kindling to stoke an English movie and three additional books.
The Millennium series was published traditionally, but this is still an important lesson for self-publishing authors who control their schedules: the less time you take between titles, the better. And though you can only cut writing time down by so much, translated books can usually be released in fairly quick succession.
You might even hold off until you’ve had all the available books in your series translated to release them in foreign markets, as a bundle. That way, readers won’t have to wait at all between finishing one book and starting the next! Of course, if you do this, you should be 100% sure that your book will sell well enough to justify translating multiple installments (hence why the aforementioned market research is so crucial).
4. It’s an impressive detail to flaunt when marketing
Though you shouldn’t get your book translated for the marketing cred alone, there’s no denying that having “Now translated into X languages” in its blurb makes your book seem pretty damn cool. Even if it’s only because you wanted to translate it, readers will assume there’s enormous demand for your work abroad and that you are a Very Important Author — never a bad identity to cultivate.
And your book description isn’t the only place to drop this impressive info! Once you’ve gotten your book translated, you could write a whole newsletter or blog post about it, detailing your experience and humble-bragging about how awesome it is to have your book available in various languages. You might try using it in ads as a headline — it’ll grab readers’ attention and, again, give them the impression that you’re a culturally significant writer. And of course, the next time you attend a writing conference or any kind of networking event, you can casually say: “Oh, did I mention my work has recently been translated into German?”
Basically, any way you can incorporate your translation(s) into your book marketing plan, you should go for it. For example, an indirect bonus of translating your book is that it gives you the excuse to commission a new cover, which can be an excellent marketing tool in and of itself. If you can afford it, look for a designer who specializes in creating covers in your genre and target language, ensuring the translation appeals to readers the second they see it.
5. Translation services today are better than ever
Finally, you should consider translating your work because book translation services today are more accurate, accessible, and affordable than ever before. There’s a plethora of options, including translation service companies where you pay a fee in exchange for a complete, anonymously translated manuscript, or in-house translation services for those who choose traditional publishing.
That said, if you’re an indie author who’s committed to getting high-quality, individualized translation of your work, your best option may be to hire a literary translator. This allows you to ensure their talents are suitable for your project, and to keep them personally accountable throughout your collaboration. And though you won’t be able to read their previous translations unless you know the target language, it’s easy enough to Google Translate the reviews of those and get a sense of their aptitude. (Needless to say, using Google Translate to translate your own book is a no-go for any author with even a modicum of self-respect.)
Only you can decide whether translating your works into other languages is a viable course of action. But again, there’s no time like the present, especially with all the time you likely have on your hands right now. If you do end up taking the translation route, buena suerte and bonne chance — here’s hoping you’ll be the next Poe, Kasischke, or Larsson of your generation!
Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories (and occasionally terrible novels).