Last Friday I attended a big event at the British Library to celebrate International Translation Day. It was an inspiring day and I was on the panel of one of the sessions to speak about self-publishing as a translator.
This session was chaired by Stefan Tobler who spoke about starting out more or less as a self-publisher, but then starting his own publishing house with translated literature as a labour of love. He recently published “Southeaster”, a book that was first self-published by the translator and I wrote about this earlier in another blog post.
The other speaker was Rachel Ward, a translator who has worked with self-published authors herself and she mentioned her mostly enjoyable experience. Only a recent experience wasn’t so positive, because the rules how to work together had not been clear enough. And she talked about a problem that is generally not uncommon for those who translate into English: The author had a certain knowledge of English and wanted to interfere a lot to make his or her voice heard.
I personally have never had this problem, because I translate into German and none of the authors I worked with spoke my language. My problem is a different one: the rates for translations into a language other than English are usually low and I live in London, which is an expensive place, therefore I wasn’t able to continue working for German publishing houses when I moved here and I have been looking for new models to make a living.
At some point, I found out that translators have the right to self-publish a book if they hold the translation copyright, and if they do not hold it, they can get it back from the publishing house that published the translation. In addition, they need permission of the original copyright holder. (See another of my articles re. the procedures).
Then I mentioned the platform Babelcube, where self-published authors and translators can find each other to work together. Even though I like the idea, I am not happy about the fact that translators receive fewer royalties when a book becomes more successful. Therefore I would not work with them myself and only recommend the platform for beginners who are desperate to get some experience.
Apart from Amazon, which the majority of self-publishers are using to self-publish a book, there are other platforms like Smashwords which make sure an ebook is published in various other ebook stores. Neither Amazon nor Smashwords require you to pay anything upfront – they simply take a percentage of the royalties.
And someone in the audience asked whether it can hurt a translator and make them look less professional if they do self-published books. To this I replied, not in my experience, I even received an offer from a German publisher who liked my self-published translation, without applying for it and I had to refuse because I cannot affort to work for their rates. My advice is as followos: make sure the result looks professional and it doesn’t matter whether a book is self-published or not. I have even seen quite a few self-published books that looked more professional than certain traditionally published ones!
The way I got into self-publishing myself was through the cooperation with self-published British author and blogger Joanna Penn on a split-royalty basis, because I knew I could learn a lot about the process by doing this and here is a link to an interview she did with me regarding my work.
On the whole, I see a variety of potential ways how translators can earn an income these days:
- Being paid by a publishing house or self-published author, for example per 1,000 words (the traditional model);
- receiving a certain flat fee for a translation plus royalties;
- working on a split-royalty basis;
- using copyrights of out of print books;
- especially for English native speakers: finding books that you think are worthwhile to be translated and help to get more books translated into English, not just by pitching to publishing houses, but also by self-publishing;
- and last but not least: why not write your own books as well and even have them translated by colleagues who translate the other way round or with different language combinations? Whatever your plans and preferences look like: the power of networking can help you in every respect.
I have often heard self-published authors say they needed more than one book to make serious money and I think this can work for translators as well with a mixture of different models, as marketing one book can help to make others visible as well – the more you have out there, the better.
And I would love to see more translators as authors – I am sure, many have books in them – translation is a great preparation for writing after all.
But authors could also be translators, if they have a certain standard of language skills. I am sure some authors would be capable of doing this – provided they have a good edtitor – this would make sure they keep more of their own voice and they do not have to annoy translators by trying to interfere too much.
You can read more about the event on my fellow panelist Rachel’s blog here
And see also my related article: 5 Reasons Why Self-Publishing Could Help To Get More Books Translated Into English
Nathalie Reis says
Hi Tina, a very clear article. Thank you! I was at your session and it is a bit clearer with your post. I have one question: having looked at Babelcube website, I note that you are not actually paid for translating a book. You merely receive royalties. Is that right?
Hi Nathalie, Thank you for your message.
You are right – Babelcube pays only royalties.
Nathalie Reis says
Thank you for your prompt reply! I find this shocking! But it is perhaps because I have little experience. I translate from English into French and have translated 2 art books for which I was paid a flat fee (for the word count) and received no royalties. It was quite a few years ago and I wasn’t aware…I was just too happy to translate in my favourite field.
Now that I would like to translate more art books, I don’t know where to start as the publishing house who gave me the jobs have different people who have their own translators.
Quite tricky. If you can recommend a couple of websites / sources of information for the French market, I’d be very grateful.
I agree with you, this is shocking and I find a number of things shocking in the industry, that’s why I am so passionate about doing what I can to empower translators.
When it comes to art books, I would actually not recommend self-publishing, because self-publishing is still very much about ebooks and I cannot imagine ebooks working well for art books with all the imagines. But as you have some experience, that should help to get more work, don’t you think? I do not really know anything about the French art book market, but you might find books and with books art publishers via Google or Amazon France, if you type in the relevant key words. Amazon can work surprisingly well simply as a search engine.
Good luck with this!
Nathalie Reis says
Thank you, Tina! I will try your suggestion.
Have a lovely evening.