Many books are translated from English into other languages, but not vice versa. A certain rumour is wrong, though: There is no “stigma” attached to translations in the English-speaking world… they can be just as popular as original English books.
The last London Book Fair was an eye opener for me: A bookseller told us, that is a group of literary translators, readers did not care at all whether they were reading a translation or not, they read all books like originals. Nonetheless not many foreign books make it into English and I am going to tell you why I believe, self-publishing could be a game-changer.
1. Self-published authors don‘t depend on publishing houses where nobody speaks their language
Learning foreign languages is not high on the agenda in most English speaking countries as English is the lingua franca of the world and therefore it doesn’t come as a surprise that the staff in publishing houses are often not able to read foreign books to find out whether they would be worth translating. This is even more relevant for books from so-called “smaller languages”. Let‘s say you have written a great book in Bulgarian: It is still less likely to be accepted by an English publisher than a book in a “bigger” language like Spanish or German. But authors can successfully self-publish in translation, regardless of their native language.
2. Online bookshops provide plenty of space for everyone
I hear this reason all the time: Too many books are published in English and there simply isn‘t enough space left for books in translation. This is only true for physical bookshops, though. Self-published books are usually sold via online shops with lots of space, even for translations.
3. English social media may support books worldwide
Authors are nowadays expected to do a lot of their own marketing, even if they are with a publishing house. Most of them have their own website, blog or social media, sometimes all of it – but in their own language. I suspect this could be another reason why most English language publishers prefer to just stick with the large number of English language authors instead of foreign authors who require them to do more work.
Self-published authors are usually dealing with all of their marketing on their own anyway and could benefit from doing some marketing in English as well, even if this isn’t their first language. They could start with a platform that they feel most comfortable with and doesn’t require too much work – e.g. some authors like Twitter best. English marketing might also be an advantage if your book has been translated into more languages. Readers from all over the world could get in touch with you, because English is so widely spoken as a second language. I see this happening with music videos on Youtube: fans communicate in English, no matter where they are from. And don’t believe you need to be perfect – I am certainly not perfect myself and if you point out mistakes to me, I will even be grateful 🙂
4. Self-published authors can work with translators who are on their wavelength
In case an author does have an English translation contract with a publishing house, their publishers are usually the ones who choose the translator. But what if the author doesn‘t like the translator‘s voice? In most cases he or she will only find out when it is too late. A director of a London publishing house told me they stopped doing translations, because their foreign authors often spoke English reasonably well and were not always happy with the results.
Self-published authors, on the other hand, can look for their own translators who they feel comfortable with. When looking for someone, it is a good idea to find out which genres translators specialize in and read parts of their past translations to get a feel for their voice. Not only could this lead to a far more satisfying experience, you may also build a long-term working relationship which would make subsequent book translations easier.
A book should ideally be translated by someone into their native language, but provided your English is very good or your native language is a rare one, you might even consider translating the book yourself and working with a good editor. I recommend editors in any case, even if there is a translator involved. In addition, I would always do sample translations and specify from the start how you want to work with each other – especially who has the final say – to avoid misunderstandings.
5. Translators could play a far more pro-active role
Roles are a lot more flexible in self-publishing than in the traditional publishing world. Not only can authors be publishers now – translators could be publishers, too. And don’t underestimate your potential power if you are a translator and your native language is English – most foreign authors would love to be translated into English. Not only does this global language promise a large audience, but once the book is in English, it can also be more easily translated into other languages.
As a translator, you could look out for books that you like and get in touch with the author. If a translator really likes the book, the work is more fun and the translation is usually much better as well.
After the work is finished, translators could even promote the books on their own or in cooperation with the author. This would be quite different from their usual invisible role (see my article “Translation is like housework…)
As someone who translates into English, you might also like to look out for books of foreign publishing houses – even the vast majority of them are not picked up by an English language publisher, so why not offer your services via self-publishing if it is done in a professional way including editing, proofreading and marketing? I wouldn’t be surprised if you had some success with this.
And then there are the translator-authors who may promote translated books alongside their own…
I believe there are much more opportunities these days if everyone is prepared to think outside the box!