Economics of translating a book
Thread poster: Jack Becconsall

Jack Becconsall
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:57
German to English
Aug 8, 2006

I get the impression that not many ProZ freelancers are working on a book translation. Is that due to shortage of opportunities or reluctance to take on such jobs? In the past I did several, all within or close to my special science field before retirement. In every case, I'm sure that if I had worked out my effective hourly rate of pay at the end, it would have been obvious that I was working for washers (those metal discs with a hole). Translating the main text is the easy part of the job. There is the other stuff that isn't very obvious in advance, the tedious grinding work on thousands of literature references (which must conform precisely to the publisher's house style), tables of data (not as straightforward to copy as one might think), sometimes even indexes. And inevitably, the author(s) will soon start sending revisions and updates, playing havoc with fig. numbers, list of contents, cross-references, etc. Lastly there is the proofreading. Only one of my book translations gave me satisfaction (which compensated for poor pay), and that was because the author was a friend from professional days, and it became a collaborative effort - over several years it went into three further revised and enlarged editions, and the publishers printed my name on the title page in the same size font as the author's. But since then I took a cool look at the economics of book translating, and have turned down every tempting offer. I would be interested to read others' experiences.

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ICL  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 08:57
English to Spanish
+ ...
My attempt Aug 9, 2006

Hi Jack,

Interesting comment.

I attempted, a few years ago, when I seriously started working as a translator, to get into the book translation area.

At least back then (in the 80's), and in the language pair I work (English to Spanish), it was not profitable enough for me or at least not like regular technical translation, plus you had to have really good contacts to get into this market.

Furthermore, I got in contact with some colleagues who had been in this market for some time (one even in the science book area like yourself) and they all complained about the pay being rather irregular.

So I decided to stick to technical translation per word, as it was more like a "real" salary.

Maybe things have changed after all these years, but reading some of the comments of other colleagues who work in this area ( http://www.proz.com/topic/52762 ), it seems not.

Saludos,

Ivette


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Jack Becconsall
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:57
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Editorial office glad to have you do their donkey work? Aug 9, 2006

Ivette, thanks for your useful comment. The comments in the link that you gave are also interesting, even though they relate to the very different area of literary translation. One translator mentioned that publishers tend to expect one to do more than actually translate the book. Quite so - I found myself doing work that I would have expected to be done by the editorial office. I suppose authors are used to dealing with the drudgery aspects themselves. They put up with it for the academic recognition at the end.
Despite all that, it was a book translation, resulting from a tip-off by a journal editor friend, that got me into translating in the first place, at a time when I needed something to occupy me and earn some money, so that was good.
It's interesting that you got views from colleagues which tended to warn you off books. I'm glad to learn that it turned out to be the right decision for you.
Best regards, Jack

[Edited at 2006-08-09 11:27]


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Orla Ryan  Identity Verified
Ireland
Local time: 07:57
no demand in my market Aug 9, 2006

I attended the Frankfurt Book fair in 2004 to see what the story was with regard to picking up contacts, translation info etc.

The message I took from this business trip was that the pay really isn't that great for the amount of work and time invested in the translation. I remember picking up some BDUe leaflets saying that a translator would probably need some kind of financial support whilst translating a book. That gave me the shivers, I must admit.

Personally, I'm not sure I'd have the patience to chug my way through a book translation anyway (I've translated four children's books into Irish but that only took a couple of days and it was pretty easy!!)

I reckon it is because translators are a bit shy about negotiating terms and conditions with a publisher. They don't know what their rights are, they might not know what questions to ask without coming across as gauche, they might not have the clout to get the terms they want.

It sounds like you know your stuff - would you consider writing a Knowledge Base article about this topic, because people ask about this a lot.


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Daina Jauntirans  Identity Verified
Local time: 01:57
German to English
+ ...
Blocks opportunities for other work Aug 10, 2006

I have only translated one book with a team of colleagues. Usually it's not worth it, because of the low pay, as you mentioned (and I support my family, so that's out). Also, the sheer volume of text involved blocks opportunities for other work. For the most part, I can't just tell my other customers that I am clearing my schedule and will be working on a book for 3 mos. There is no way a book would be lucrative enough to make up for the lost work. It's too bad, really, because I bet some of them are interesting projects.

[Bearbeitet am 2006-08-10 13:36]


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ICL  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 08:57
English to Spanish
+ ...
Thin line Aug 11, 2006

Jack Becconsall wrote:
It's interesting that you got views from colleagues which tended to warn you off books. I'm glad to learn that it turned out to be the right decision for you.


Hi Jack,

I had not seen your reply.

I just wanted to add, about your comment, that I enjoy in general the technical part as much as the linguistic part of my translation work. Like I say in my web page, I enjoy "DIY" stuff, so I have a curiosity to learn about technical stuff, as much as I have a curiosity for words/linguistics in general.

On the other hand, I guess if I had wanted to concentrate on book translation I would have pursued this in spite of whatever my colleagues or anyone else had told me about the reality of book translation, or I could have done it parallel to technical translation.

It might have probably been more "romantic" or prestigious to become a (literature) book translator, but for me the economic aspect of it not being satisfactory enough discouraged me. I guess the pragmatic side of me was stronger than the "romantic" side of me

But I honestly think that many times there is very thin line that separates a (really good) translator from a writer, no matter what you translate.

When you can work with both languages well enough you can turn, for example, a text about marketing into a fun short story that will attract many readers (customers!). And isn't achieving the joy of being read a bit what a writer does, too?

Enjoy the weekend,

Ivette


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Jack Becconsall
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:57
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Yes, a thin line Aug 11, 2006

Ivette, I agree emphatically with your comment that good translation work shares a lot in common with the writing of original stuff. I translate book reviews, and enjoy the challenge of producing translations that reflect the widely varying styles of the reviewers.
As well as your excellent ProZ.com profile, I looked at your web page and followed up the links there, which are very useful and give plenty of food for thought about translating in general. I wasn't aware of these, so thanks!
Best wishes, Jack


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Jack Becconsall
United Kingdom
Local time: 07:57
German to English
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks for comments Aug 14, 2006

Thanks to Ivette, Orla and Daina for all your contributions on this theme. You have generally reinforced my impressions about the drawbacks of book translating, and gave me some additional useful background on the subject. It's unfortunate that book translating is not better paid and more attractive generally. I suppose we have to bear in mind that, from the standpoint of publishers, the economics depend ultimately on book sales and profitability.
Best regards
Jack


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