How to Get a Book Translated in 6 Simple Steps: the Ultimate Guide
A few years ago, Jean Joachim — a self-published author with 38 English books under her belt — was asked if she would want to partner up with an Italian translator. She accepted. Her first book, which was translated into Italian, was an unexpected triumph: rocketing up to join the Amazon Top 100 in both overall and romance categories, and selling over 2,000 copies in just a month. As of today, Joachim’s conquered the Italian and Spanish markets — and she’s entering the German and French markets right now.
Such self-publishing success stories abroad are not uncommon. Now more than ever, it’s an exciting time to go international. But authors should take great care while going about it to make sure that they don’t publish an inferior translation that devalues the original, or incur more costs than sales. In this post, we’ll show you how to get your book translated, and share several key tips to set you up for international success.
Should you get your book translated?
Serious authorpreneurs of the 21st century can’t really ignore the growing market abroad. According to the 2017 Global Ebook Report, the US and the UK together only make up 34 percent of the global ebook market. The other 66 percent is split up between China, Germany, Japan, France, and the rest of the world — a giant slice of the pie that many writers end up neglecting if they only self-publish in English.
But you also can’t underestimate the amount of time, attention, and money that it takes to get a book translated. Can the risk really be worth it?
Honestly, it depends. If you’re an author who’s just self-published your first book and is still figuring out the ropes of book marketing, this kind of endeavor might not be worth the energy. You’re probably better off building your frontlist and growing your fanbase in your own country at the time being.
If you’re an established author in your genre who wants to find ways to expand your reach, it’s a different story: this is definitely a move that you can consider. By getting your book translated, you’ll be able to:
- Connect with new readers;
- Sell more books;
- Strengthen your oeuvre; and
- Develop your author brand and global footprint
… all without writing a single extra word yourself — the cherry on top!
With all of that said, you want to make sure that the effort (and the money) that you put into translating your books will actually pay off for you. So let’s talk now about translating books, and what you should know going into the process.
How to get your book translated
Before you go on any trip abroad, you’ll want to scope out your destination and get your bearings first. In a similar vein, here’s a guidebook with five important steps to help you make sure your translation journey is a successful one.
1. Know the global market
“Know your audience” is a maxim that you probably already recognize as an author. It’s important when you’re writing and selling a book in your own country, and doubly so when you’re selling a book abroad. Literary translators really don’t come cheap, as you’ll soon see: you should only get your book translated if you think you can recoup the cost in sales.
The key to coming out on the right side of this equation is understanding the global book market — and picking the ideal market to enter.
What are the most popular countries and languages for self-publishers?
Broadly speaking, the most popular foreign markets for independent authors are:
The German market in particular is growing rapidly in terms of digital sales, so much so that Amazon decided to open up Amazon advertising to Germany before any other foreign market besides the UK. (We’ll discuss how to market your translated book more in a bit).
Lots of self-publishers also consider the proven Italian, French, and Spanish markets. And with their enormous reading populations and burgeoning book markets, the much more complex Chinese and Indian markets are nevertheless hard to overlook entirely.
Which foreign market should you enter?
Like any other big decision, you should choose your foreign market based on a ton of independent research. Keep in mind your personal position, and don’t make the mistake that a few unlucky protagonists in romcoms make: just because something is popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good or right fit for you and your book!
Here are a few things to do before deciding to swipe right on an international market:
- Study the general state of the foreign market. Besides making sure it’s viable for your book (the book market in India, for instance, is extremely fragmented with its 22 languages, including English), be sure to confirm its suitability for your specific genre. Fantasy might theoretically be a trendy genre in the Spanish market, but not so much in the Italian one.
- Check out the Amazon international marketplaces. If you’re interested in the German market, for example, check up on the books in your niche on Amazon.de. Same for the other foreign markets. This can help you gauge the popularity of your genre and your potential competition in that market.
- Review your existing international sales. Have you noticed that some of your English-language book sales are starting to come from, say, France? Great! You’ve got a running start. It might be a good idea now to follow the (proverbial) scent, and get your book translated first into French — especially since you’ve already got that built-in French fanbase, which will prove very useful when you’re marketing the French edition of your book.
Though it might be tempting to cast your net wide, a good rule of thumb is to target only one market at a time. Just like big companies that expand internationally step by step, this will give you the opportunity to systematically test your book on new audiences. Until you’ve got at least two to three books out, it’s hard to gain a foothold in any market.
2. Find a freelance translator
Just in case it needs to be said: don’t translate your book yourself. Just don’t do it. Don’t even attempt it. Don’t go to Google Translate, plug your book into the text box, and think about publishing whatever it spits back out. Spoiler alert: your new readers will not be impressed, especially when Google translates “poultry for sale” into their language as “sell the chicken murder.”
This is because translating books into a whole new language is hard. You’re not just translating words: you’re translating ideas, and all of the subtle nuances that come package-and-parcel with English. Unless the target language is your mother tongue, we strongly recommend that you get a professional to do it for you. Here’s the good news: you can find professional literary translators right around the corner.
Translation companies vs. freelance literary translators
Sure, translation services are generally on standby to translate any kind of written work. But such services offer faceless translators who are generally not specialized in literary translation for books, which is an incredibly important skillset to find in a translator if you want to be totally confident about the finished product that’s going to be placed back in your hands.
If you’re serious about producing a quality translation of your book, there’s no real replacement for a professional literary translator. Their insight, years of training, and familiarity with the book industry situates them in a uniquely helpful position to work with self-publishers. Lots of independent authors also end up developing long-term partnerships with their book translators, which can prove incredibly fruitful for future projects.
The most straightforward way to find such a translator is to browse a trusted marketplace. You’ll find many professional literary translators here on, for instance, who have worked for the biggest publishing companies in their respective countries, and often on bestselling titles. They know exactly how to produce a faithful translation that sells.
3. Thoroughly research and vet your book translator
A collaboration with a book translator is a serious commitment — which is why you want to make absolutely sure that you’ve picked the translator who’s the best fit for you and your book.
What should you know before committing to a collaboration?
Out of all the publishing professionals out there who work with independent authors, the translator is probably most similar to the ghostwriter in terms of their skillset. You want a translator who can capture your voice, carry over your thoughts, and align your vision in an entirely new language. Even more than that, you want someone who gets your story.
So grab a shovel and be prepared to dig a bit deeper when it comes to each translator that you find. To match with a trusted professional who can carry out a translation that lives up to the original, be sure to know:
- How much input will you be able to give? Will you get to provide feedback?
- Will you get to retain full ownership over the translated work? Who will own the copyright to the translated edition of the work?
- What’s the translator’s track record? What titles have they translated recently?
- Which genre (or genres) does the translator primarily work in?
- Can the translator provide samples of past work?
- What’s the timescale? When can they reasonably finish the translation?
- What’s the literary translator’s fee?
Though rates will differ from professional to professional, you can generally expect to be charged somewhere between $0.08 to $0.12 per word for the main European languages. Sometimes a translator will instead ask for a cut of your royalties as payment — it all depends. It’s up to you to clarify the costs on the table and make sure you’re not going over your budget.
Top tip: If you’re planning on entering a market outside of the popular European ones, prepare to hear a higher quote. Translations into Chinese, Japanese, niche languages, or other languages using a different alphabet will generally be more expensive.
Send a sample of your book
On Reedsy, you can send potential translators a short sample (250 to 500 words) of your book to be translated. This should be long enough for you to get a bit of a feel for the translator’s style and approach towards the translation.
“But I won’t be able to tell if it’s actually decent or not when I get it back because I can’t read the language!” you might say — which is a really good point! Get a friend who is fluent to read the translator’s work and report back to you on its quality. Or if you’ve already got a reader base in France, you may want to see if you can ask them to review your French sample. That will also give them a tantalizing sneak peek of your upcoming French edition and get them excited to share the news with their non-English-speaking friends.
Top tip: Before you enter any collaboration with a book translator, calculate the approximate number of copies that you’ll need to sell in order to break even. Then make sure that that goal is reasonably attainable.
4. Define the scope of the translation work
Once you find the right translator for your book, it’s time to nail down the exact scope of the work. Here are two important questions to ask to make sure that you’re both on the same page going into the collaboration.
Is the translator willing to translate marketing materials?
Let’s fast forward for a moment to the part where you’ve published your translated book and now must market it. To do so effectively, you must have all sorts of marketing materials at hand — blurbs, testimonials, book descriptions, author bios, etc. — in a language that’s entirely foreign to you.
Enter your translator again. Book translators are usually ready to translate all of these materials for you in addition to your manuscript, but be sure to ask to confirm.
Don’t forget about the proofread
Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the fact that a typo will signify the difference between an amateur and a professional on the bookshelf — no matter the country. That’s why editing and proofreading is so important: these steps are meant to perfect the manuscript and guarantee that it’s publishable for the greater public to enjoy. And you can bet that translated works shouldn’t be exempt from them.
When a translator is working with a traditional publisher, they will usually produce an unedited translation as the end product. The publisher’s in-house editors will then take over to check and proof the translator’s work.
Translators understand that independent authors don’t necessarily have entire editorial teams that are ready to spring to work at the snap of a finger, so they are usually open to going the extra mile and providing the proofread for the completed translation. To do this, they will partner up with a fellow translator (a cost that’s already factored into the original quote), who will be in charge of proofing the translated manuscript and making sure that it gets a pair of fresh eyes.
Pretty much all of the translators on Reedsy will include such a proof in their translation process, and will guarantee the delivery of a “ready-to-publish” book for you. If you’re working with a translator elsewhere, make sure that you ask about the proofread, and whether it’s encompassed in the collaboration or not.
5. Kickstart the collaboration to work with your book translator
Now onto the fun part: the collaboration itself!
Like other publishing professionals, such as developmental editors and book designers, translators work pretty closely with authors during their collaborations. The translator’s job is to carry your story and voice over into the translation faithfully, while preserving the original ideas, expressions, and jokes that might not transpose easily into a new language.
To do this, your translator will be in touch with you whenever interpretation questions arise during the translation process. Sometimes it might simply be to clarify your wording. Other times it might be to get your thoughts on a particular passage, or to discuss what you’d want your translated book title to be.
You’ll also find that most book translators are fairly flexible and want to make sure that you’re comfortable throughout the collaboration. You might want regular Skype calls to check in, or you might prefer to keep your communication to an email thread — either way, they can accommodate you.
And when you’ve gotten the finished work back to you? Congrats! Let’s get it published!
Top tip: To fix on the official translation of your book title, work with your translator and be aware that some rules for titling may also be different abroad. In Germany, for instance, book titles are copyrighted, so you shouldn’t use a title that someone’s already picked.
6. Format and publish the translated edition
If you’ve self-published a book in the US or the UK before, you’ve already got a headstart. The process itself is broadly similar — just in a foreign language. Here are some steps that you’ll probably want to take:
1. Research the big retailers in your new country — or pick an aggregator to distribute your book. Nowadays, quite a few aggregators such as Draft2Digital, PublishDrive, StreetLib, and XinXii actually boast strong international presences and can offer authors distribution through a number of foreign distribution channels. Learn more about the best self-publishing companies and aggregators in this guide.
2. Publish your book on your country’s Amazon directly via KDP. Otherwise, you don't get access to Amazon ads — and you also get less royalties on Amazon sales. And take extra care picking your categories and keywords, as other countries might not offer categories that are a 1:1 match with Amazon.com’s. Learn more about Amazon self-publishing here.
3. Set up an Amazon Author Central page on your target Amazon marketplace (amazon.de, amazon.es, etc). You’ll probably still want to publish your book on Amazon for most countries, so make sure that you create another Amazon Author Central page for yourself and put your awesome translated author bio front-and-center. Learn more about optimizing your Amazon Author Central Page in this post.
What about your book cover art?
Nobody judges a book by its cover nowadays, right? And, okay, even if they do, nobody will really notice that the title on your book is maybe kinda sorta still in English, right?
Wrong! Everyone still judges a book by its cover, which is why it’s important to change your book cover accordingly. If you worked with a book cover designer for your original book, ask if they’d be willing to get you a design featuring the translated title.
Top tip: Note that genre conventions can vary in other countries — and that includes book cover designs. So it’s worth checking out your competition in your genre and jotting down the popular styles.
Check your rights, prices, and taxes
Don’t forget to read all of the fine print for anything that you sign, whether it’s with a publisher, self-publishing service provider, or translator. Just check and see what international rights you still own.
Perhaps most importantly, you want to make sure that you’re setting the right prices for a global audience. If you want to up your international game, we’ve got a free in-depth course on ways to optimize your international pricing. Check it out over here.
Effectively market your translation in your target country
You don’t need to buy a ticket to Germany and grimly prepare to start knocking on the doors of brick-and-mortar bookshops. But you should definitely put up the translated edition on your author website, and announce it to your mailing list. A translated book won’t do you much good if it doesn’t sell!
Speaking of mailing lists, check to see if you’ve got any existing subscribers in your target countries. If you do, the next step would be to reach out and ask if they’d want a free ARC to read. You might be able to get a couple of reviews for your translated book this way. (To get more reviews, consider searching for book blogs or reputable book promotion sites native to that country — though that might take a bit of tracking down.)
Ads are also always going to be one of most reliable ways to get eyeballs on your book. And the good news is that Amazon is (slowly) opening up its ads in countries abroad. Amazon ads recently expanded to amazon.co.uk, amazon.de — along with amazon.fr, amazon.it, and amazon.es.
As with any good trip abroad, you’re probably going to encounter some bumps on your path to a great book translation. But if you keep your eyes on the prize, you’ll end up with something that’s more than worth your while: a beautiful book in the hands of readers everywhere.
Have you gotten a book translated before? What's your experience been abroad? Drop us a message in the comments below.