Writing in the Digital Age: The World is Your Oyster, Literarily

One of the most amazing things about the new digital marketplace is this: Amazon and Apple (and some of the smaller publishers) have reached into places that traditional publishers fear to tread for any but their bestsellers: the international marketplace. Right now, my backlist historical romance novels (in English) are available for sale in Spain, Italy, Germany, and France, all for the 70% royalty rate. They are also available elsewhere in the world, but only for the 35% royalty rate.

This means, were I to decide to tap into the foreign translation market, I actually can reach it without needing two agents and a foreign publishing house. Of course, I’d have to put up the translation costs, as my only other language is French and it is not strong enough to do any kind of competent translation of a hundred thousand word novel. At the moment, the upfront costs are holding me back. I have my daughter’s wedding to pay for, and that comes first.

But my mind lingers on the idea like a tongue prods at a sore tooth. I have had relatively few foreign translations of my work done (one in Polish, though, which is the maternal half of my husband’s heritage). I own foreign rights of all my books, even my traditionally published YA novels that are still in print. Technically, if I had $100,000 to throw around, I could get every one of my books translated into French, or Spanish, or Italian. I could upload those books onto the appropriate sites (heck, I could load them onto every site, from .com to .it).

Here are the worries:

  1. how can you know a translator is good? When the publisher does it, you have some idea they know what they’re doing (though I have heard that isn’t always true). Translation is a delicate art. There are idiomatic phrases that just don’t translate. I remember when I was in England and saw a poster for a Hugh Grant movie that in the U.S. was called Two Weeks Notice. It had a different name in the U.K., because the phrase itself didn’t translate, even in the same language.
  2. How can you know the steep initial investment will pay for itself? (Hint: You can’t.) You need to be clear in your own business plan how much time and effort you will make in promoting your foreign edition, and when you will expect to break even and begin making a profit.
  3. How can you know if your genre/subject will be of interest to people in France, or Italy, or Spain? Do some research into what is doing well on the particular site. Amazon and Apple actually make that easy.
It is true that the world is getting smaller thanks to the digital landscape. The decisions don’t get any easier, though, do they?

Kelly McClymer is an opinionated new member of Book View Cafe, and a cheerleader of writers reaching readers however they can. You can visit her on her desperately-in-need-of-update website; Follow her on Twitter, hang with her onGoogle+, Like her on FaceBook, and share Pinterests with her. Oh, and she’s on Goodreads, too (once a reader, always a reader)

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Writing in the Digital Age: The World is Your Oyster, Literarily — 5 Comments

  1. Don’t forget the German market: Germans like technology, Germans have amazon.de, and they like books. (Disclaimer: this reminder was brought to you by a German translator.)

    For 1. (and have read some shockingly bad professional translations from major houses) I suggest finding someone who is familiar with the genre (translating novels is a specialist skill, but finding the right words for SF is a step further still.)
    I’d recommend asking for a couple of pages of sample translation, and finding a friend or family member who a) is native-level fluent and who b) reads your genre. And if your translator needs to have specialist interests – horses, guns, tall ships, whatever – you’d best make that part of your search because specialist vocabulary and phrases are something that even a native speaker can get really, terribly wrong.

  2. I’ll support the German market idea, even though I’m not a German translator. 🙂 As for knowing when a translator’s good, it’s more difficult. In part, it depends on the already mentioned factors (knowing the genre is very important, and it’s relatively easy to check — look at the potential translator’s past work), but also on finding someone who is already either familiar with your work, or else willing to adapt. Translations get botched not only by being too literal and/or downright wrong, but also, sometimes, by being too uniform; some translators will just make all authors they work on sound the same. So that’s another pitfall, just to make things more complicated.
    (Yes, I am a translator, just not German.)

  3. Echoin what Milena and Green Knight said, you need to make sure that you get a literary translator, because business, tech and legal translators are not necessarily the right people for fiction. Plus, for fiction you need a native speaker of the target language, because native speakers will be best able to deal with translating idiomatic expressions, rendering accents, how to translate something that doesn’t exist in the target language, etc… Finally, the translator should have experience with your genre and any specific vocabulary required, so you won’t get something like the German translator who translated the word “firewall” in a thriller as “Brandmauer”, which is the term used for a wall that stops fires but not for a computer firewall. Or all of those forensic thrillers translated into German where forensic specialists measure the sodium and potassium content, because the translator was completely unaware that those elements have other names in German (this regularly makes me scream at the TV while watching CSI dubbed into German).

    Translators’ associations usually have websites with databases where you can search for parameters such as genre, specialisation, etc… That would be a good place to start.

    Finally, you should also get someone, preferably a native speaker with genre knowledge, to proofread a translation. Doesn’t have to be a translator, though it’s helpful if the proofreader can read and check the original text.

    PS: I’m also a German translator, but do most tech and business translations, though I have proofread fiction translations as well.

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  5. Conversely, I’m also excited about the prospect of more international fiction being translated into English. I’m fascinated by regional scenes but it’s difficult to learn much without knowing the language. I imagine this will be a slow burn for a long time, but who knows–services like Google Translate may become good enough in ten years to help greatly speed the process. At least to get an unofficial sense of a regional scene, if not a perfectly edited manuscript.