Ask the Translator: The 7 Most Common Questions and Answers About the Translation Process

So, you’ve heard so much about the wonderful German book market – the Germans are said to read a lot, be crazy about romance novels and mysteries, and don’t mind paying a decent price for their books. But you’ve also heard so much confusing information about legal requirements for translations and you know fellow authors whose translation attempts have ended in disaster. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As a professional English-German translator, I get asked the same questions all the time. So here’s an overview of the seven questions we get asked most frequently.

1. Can I publish my book in English?

Of course you can. Plenty of readers in Germany actually do read in English. If you want to make your books available to a wider audience, though, you should have them translated.

2. I’ve heard that German translators refuse to give up the copyright. Why?

The short answer is: because they can’t. Under German law “copyright” is an inalienable right that is inextricably linked to the author of a protected work. The translator is the author of the German text, and will therefore always hold the copyright.

What does that this mean for you as the author? The translator can contractually grant you the exploitation rights to the translation, which replicates the desired effect of “transferring copyright”. So even though the peculiarities of the different legal systems mean that there are different ways of achieving the same result, the fact that “copyright” can’t be transferred doesn’t prevent you from publishing the translation.

3. I’d like to have my books translated. What will it cost me?

It depends. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a wide range of agreements. According to German law, the translator must be given “reasonable compensation.” I get numerous requests for translation for royalties only, and I have to decline every single one of them. Think about it – unless the book is shaping up to be the next Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey (or the equivalent in your genre) with large royalties anticipated, it’s a very unpredictable payment situation for the translator.

Usually it means about three months of unpaid work until the first royalties roll in – or not. Who’s able to work with that kind of financial insecurity? Either someone who’s trying to break into the literary market and wants to use your book as a stepping stone, or somebody who doesn’t need to rely on a steady income. While I do understand that not every author has a lot of money to spend, be prepared to pay good money for good work. Your translator‘s experience is well worth the price.

4. My translator wants to work with an editor and a proofreader. But why?

My book has already been edited and proofread… It has, but in English. The German editor’s job is not to make copy edits to your book but to advise the translator regarding wording, style and register. Translators also need a sounding board for their ideas when it comes to puns, wordplay, and cultural references that are not easily adapted. And the proofreader is there to check the final translation. Six eyes are better than two, right?

5. If a translator wants to work with an editor, is that a sign of inexperience?

No, it’s a sign that the translator is a true professional. You wouldn’t release a book without having it edited, would you? And you’re not inexperienced, either. You just want to deliver the best book possible. So does your translator. After all, their name is on the first page, too.

6. How do I find a good translator?

This is the million-dollar question. The easiest way is to ask fellow authors for recommendations. Or you can look at the translated works of authors who write in the same genre and contact their translator. Or check social media and make contacts at conventions and workshops. There are a number of “marketplaces” that offer book translations as well, but beware – you never know what you’ll get.

I still recommend finding your own “personal” translator; somebody who gets your books and your voice. He or she will be your German voice for years to come, if you write a successful series, for example. This translator needs to be a perfect fit. A bad translation can ruin your book or damage your reputation forever. Partner with someone who is pleasant and easy to work with, asks smart questions, and knows the German book market and the ropes of indie publishing. And most importantly – your translator needs to love your writing. Trust me, it will show in every single word.

7. It’s probably easier to work with a translator who lives state-side, right?

In the time and age of the internet, I don’t necessarily think so. Most communication takes place via email these days, so it doesn’t matter whether your translator lives in Germany or the US. And international payments are easy and can be done by almost any bank and through a number of online services as well.

It *is* however a major advantage to have your translator live in the market that the translation is intended for. Such translators are in touch with the latest developments and their language is fresh and up-to-date – just as you want your translation to be.

About Jeannette Bauroth

Jeannette Bauroth is a professional English-German translator with a decade of experience and a love of books—especially humorous and romantic mysteries. She enjoys working with authors and specializes in indie publications. Together with her colleague Corinna Wieja she founded “Indie Translations” (http://www.indie-translations.com/) to help independent authors bring their stories to German readers.

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