Your Three Best Options for Efficient Book Translation

OK, so you’ve completed (or are completing) your manuscript. Maybe it’s already (on the way to becoming) a published book. Even though your blood, sweat, and tears are on the pages–visible only to you–you now realize that this is, in fact, only the end of the beginning and far, far from the beginning of the end of your book publishing journey.

Leave aside for the moment the important questions and tasks related to book marketing, social media, and public relations. Let’s focus on another topic which may prove equally important: translation. My company, Tomedes, has been translating books for more than a decade. Yet many authors, surprisingly, don’t even think of having their book translated.

Why, after all, limit your book to the language in which it was written? You can vastly expand your readership by creating multiple language editions.  Think about all the readers who don’t speak your mother tongue. Why deny them the pleasure of your brilliant thoughts and clever content?

Look Before You Leap

But just a second. It was hard enough, and costly enough, just to complete a book in one language. Won’t it just multiply your headaches, and your expenses, to undertake each additional language?

It doesn’t need to be so painful, or expensive, if you plan carefully.

A good place to start, not surprisingly, is reading. There are some excellent, authoritative resources for book authors and translators. These include the Translation Journal and Kindlepreneur (which focuses on ebooks).

But let’s assume you’ve done your homework and are ready to take a deep dive into the work itself. What are the best options out there for authors who want to get their works translated, quickly and efficiently, at a reasonable cost? Let’s look at the possible ways to get the job done cost-effectively, without sacrificing quality and accuracy. We consider a trio of approaches.

Do It Yourself

What was inconceivable just a few years ago is not firmly within the realm of the possible. Do It Yourself translation is within your grasp – if you have the courage, the time, and the nerves to undertake it.  The DIY option is, not surprisingly by far the cheapest option – but the cost in your personal effort and time commitment is greatest. Let’s weigh the pros and cons.

Pros of DIY Translation

There are many languages and translation tools out there, just waiting for you.  Some are free. Others have a nominal cost. Most of us are familiar with Google Translate but this is just the gorilla in the machine translation market. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of alternatives.  Some focus on a handful of translation pairs. For sure, as you will immediately discover, some are (much) better than others.

Thinking of Google Translate? Think Twice

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you choose to use Google Translate. Not a bad choice: one of the biggest companies in the word – Alphabet – has poured millions of dollars/Euros/pounds into making this a truly sophisticated tool for professionals. Anyone who used Translate in its early days will be delighted to discover the algorithm and database improvements that now grace the current product.

Go to translate.google.com then copy and paste your brilliant first chapter into the left-column box. Then select your target language. As if by magic, voila, your chapter is now rendered into a whole new tongue. Ready to pop the cork on that expensive bottle of champagne? Maybe wait a minute.

If the target language is a second or third language to you, then you’re ahead of the game. You may be already able to spot the mistakes or awkward expression in your freshly baked translation. Maybe you know enough to fix them yourself. Maybe not. Google (and most other machine translation providers) helps you out by presenting a list of alternative word choices for the ones it initially selected. If you know a little about your target language, you may be able to use these lists to your advantage to tweak and smooth the translation into something less jarring to a mother-tongue reader of the target language.

Cons of DIY Translation

But let’s assume that you really have no competence in the target language. What then? You are left with three alternatives: friends, freelancers, and professional translation agencies.

Let’s dispense with the first option swiftly. Friends don’t ask friends to translate their writing. It’s more likely than not a recipe for the end of the friendship. Why?  Because translation usually does not fall into the category of a favor that friends do for each other.  True, if you have given up your kidney to your foreign-language friend, or they are hopelessly in love with you, they may feel obliged, or impassioned enough, to give your translation the time and dedication that it so richly deserves.  Otherwise, trust me, you are risking your friendship and probably not doing any great favors to your content.  Friends, even those competent or even expert in a foreign language, are not professional translators. They lack the experience, the tools, and the tricks, to get the job done. So don’t expect them to!

The Freelance Option

If you are a professional writer, chances are that you may have already encountered freelance marketplaces like freelance.com, fiverr.com or upwork.com. Each day there are hundreds if not thousands of job offers on these marketplace sites, many of them for writing, editing, proofreading, and translation services. The offers come from companies and individuals. Some are for a fixed fee while others let you set your own rate or make an offer.  Freelancers compete to be selected for each of these jobs. The marketplace typically takes a commission of 10% to 20% of the freelancer’s earnings. Many writers supplement their earnings with these kinds of freelance gigs.

What to Look for in a Freelance Translator

In this case, though, we’re talking about crossing over to the client-side of the marketplace and seeking out potential translators for your book. Needless to say, the quality of translators varies drastically and you need to separate those who offer the best value for the money. Basically, you will post a job offer and receive after a day or three a list of candidates, each with a rating score, a profile, and many reviews of their past work.

ONLY seek out those who are mother-tongue speakers of the TARGET language.

That’s the thing that matters.  Read the reviews carefully. Select only those with excellent reviews and successful job completions, ideally with a published translation with explicit credit to the translator.

Contracting the Freelance Translator

Once you find a translator that seems the best value for your money, you will make a contract. Be sure to set milestones, especially in the beginning, to make sure you are happy with the translator’s work. In your contract, make sure you are explicit that you are contracting for human translation, not machine translation. There is a temptation to use software tools like Google Translate (or a similar machine translation) to expedite or check the work. While there is no harm in the translator using those tools as part of the process, a professional translator will not see machine translation as a substitute for “the real thing.”

Audit Your Freelance Translator to Weed Out Fakes

As the politicians say: trust but verify. Run your original through Google Translate and compare it to what your translator turns in to you.  If one seems to resemble the other, check additional passages. If the resemblance seems too close, don’t be shy about bringing this to the translator’s attention or, in extreme cases, canceling the contract then and there. Your book is your pride and joy, and you should get what you expect for a professional translator, no less.

Get a Second Opinion on Your Freelance Translation

Let’s say the process goes well and your translator presents you, proudly, with what he or she considers a final translation draft. Are you done? By no means! At that point, you would be well advised to post another job: editing and proofreading your translator’s work. Again, hire a native mother-tongue speaker of the target language. The editor/proofer will serve as a “second opinion” or “double-check” of the veracity and naturalness of the translation. Some will even add a “third opinion” but that becomes a matter of trust, comfort level, and (of course) budget.

Once you are satisfied that the translation is excellent, you will submit it to the publisher (Lulu or other) in the required format and/or according to the specified template. There still is a final round of review (proofing) before your translated work goes to press, and you should include this as a final milestone in your contract with your editor/proofreader.

Professional Agencies

If the process described above seems to you a bit daunting – involving more supervision and back-and-forth than you anticipated – fear not. There is an alternative. Find an agency that specializes in literary translation, including (explicitly) book translation. If they have strong references and reviews (including published works in the desired target language), then you can feel confident entrusting to them many of the intermediate steps described in the previous section. Translation agencies usually are also familiar with localization, which involves familiarity with the cultural and social norms of the target audience, which can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes.

Pay a Premium for Professional Translation Services

Sure, you will pay a premium for this professionalism, and for the accompanying management and supervision of the whole process. Translation pricing will vary from language to language, of course, often as a function of the local economy and the laws of supply and demand. As a rule of thumb, a top professional translation agency will cost 30-50% more in translation cost than the combination of a freelancer and an editor/proofreader. But then again, your time is valuable, and you are likely to get a better product by working with an agency with an excellent track record and years of experience under its metaphorical belt.

Look for a Long Guarantee on Translation Work

If you are a skeptical, untrusting sort – and we strongly recommend that you be one! – it’s not a bad idea to hire an independent editor/proofreader who will review the agency’s work at the “galley” stage to find any errors or typos or formatting issues that may have crept into the process. But the good news about working with translation agencies is that some offer a guarantee about the accuracy of their work. Many agencies offer a month while a few, like Tomedes, offer a full year. If you, or your “hired gun” editor/proofer, find errors, they will take responsibility for fixing them. And, if you are smart enough to include this clause in your contract with the agency, they will even reimburse you for at least some of your expenses for hiring an independent editor/proofer.

How to Stage Multiple Translations

There is one additional point to be considered: additional languages. It’s always a good idea to do one translation before undertaking others. You familiarize yourself with the process and you learn from experience. The big advantage of working with a professional translation agency is that the second, third and subsequent translations are likely to be far more efficient. Most agencies support dozens of target languages and have the resources to ensure that the result is flawless. Truth be told, the process of translation is likely to reveal flaws in your original. Once those are corrected, future translations will go more smoothly and usually will involve “economies of scale” that will save you significantly in future translations.


About Tomedes

Tomedes was founded on the principles of delivering accurate translations at affordable prices to clients around the world. Since our inception in 2007, we have become a key player in the translation sector on multiple continents.

Ofer Tirosh, CEO at Tomedes

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