Book translation - any tips?
Thread poster: GoFox

Czech to English
+ ...
Mar 29, 2016

Longtime reader of posts... now I have a question of my own.

I received an offer to translate the first in a series of four historical fantasy books written by a high-school student/teenager, first book length 192 pages (1800 characters inc. spaces per page), to be published in America. I've been offered a deposit of 3000 CZK for translating the first book. The rest of my payment, yet to be negotiated, could come from book sales, e.g. 10% in the first year after publication.

It’s a bit of a risk but it's also a unique opportunity. This is a young person trying to succeed and people like that need support. It might turn out to be a flop. But what if it turns out to be a success?

Any tips? Any similar experiences?

FYI wages in the Czech Republic can be ridiculously low, e.g. 50-100 CZK per hour ($3-6 AUD). As an English Teacher (native speaker), I earn 300+ CZK per hour ($17+ AUD) and I usually get 200+ CZK ($11+ AUD) per page for translations and 100 CZK ($6 AUD) per page for proofreading. A small beer in the Czech Republic costs about 25-30 CZK. A cooked meal at lunchtime costs 100+ CZK.

Thanks in advance for any info!


United States
Member (2009)
German to English
+ ...
Sounds like a bad deal. Mar 29, 2016

Your normal rate for 200 pages would be 200 x 200 = 40,000 CZK, and they're only offering 3,000 CZK. That's the price of a hundred beers, which I like as a unit of measurement!

You've said the rest of the payment "could" come from royalties. I assume you mean "would", and if so I wouldn't touch it with a bargepole. This person has no track record, and would probably have to sell tens of thousands of copies for it to be worthwhile. Most books sell in small numbers unless they're by J.K. Rowling or James Patterson. I've translated a couple of dozen books, and it's always been for a fixed fee, never royalties.

[Edited at 2016-03-29 20:19 GMT]


Ilan Rubin (X)  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 00:06
Russian to English
Agree with Phil Mar 29, 2016

I translated two books. They client was a friend of a friend and ran his own publishing company so I was confident he would pay as agreed. We agreed a fee for the work and having been the contractor in that situation it would strike me as very unprofessional for the client to offer anything less than a full fee for the work.

So I do believe that the person making this offer to you is unprofessional, which means they may well be untrustworthy and not pay you any royalties anyway. I don't buy the young/student argument either. If they are old enough to write a book that requires translation they are old enough to behave responsibly to a professional translator. Oh, and is it a best seller in the CR? No? Well guess what...

So have confidence in your abilities and tell him/her where to go.


Local time: 23:06
Italian to English
a bit of a risk? ha ha ha Mar 29, 2016

Presumably this author is thinking of self-publishing e-books in which case marketing skills and promotional effort (and budget) are essential but without a mastery of English, how would that work? The usual route for non-self-published fiction as I understand it is that a US publisher selects a foreign book that has already been commercially successful in its home country and then matches the full text with a translator who is paid a regular fee. The US market is also notorious for not being terribly interested in translated content. Google something like "why so few foreign books in US market" and you will see ample discussion of this problem. For example:
in which they point out how unprofitable even a Nobel Prize winner was (before he won, that is.)
Personally, the phrase "fantasy books written by a high-school student" strikes fear into my heart though I love the genre. I can only imagine you are considering this seriously because you have read the books, know the genre yourself, are absolutely convinced these are commercially viable, and furthermore believe the author has a well-thought-through plan for selling them. If not, definitely don't get sucked in. I would still say only get involved for the sheer enjoyment of the material and with no expectation of ever seeing a penny. Maybe suggest the student team up with a student who writes good English and they split the "profits." ha haicon_smile.gif


The Misha
Local time: 17:06
Russian to English
+ ...
And to add insult to injury... Mar 30, 2016

... Americans are not particularly well known for their love of translated books. That applies even to those of us who do bother reading books at all. Nor are most American consumers of commercial fiction keen on historical books, even if they are historical fantasy books (I am assuming it's some kind of urban fantasy stuff staged at a different time in a different country, correct?) Hey, they don't even teach history in American schools. They teach "social studies" - whatever that means.

From what little details you gave, I can guess with a high degree of certainty that this opus is destined for the self-publishing morass of Amazon or a similar platform, because otherwise you'd be dealing with the US publisher that has acquired the rights for translating and selling the book stateside. Apparently, this is not the case, which gives you an indirect indication of how many copies they can expect to sell. And that's assuming you can verify that - which you cannot, for all intents and purposes.

Any way you look at it, this sounds like a nonstarter. Any such deal usually is, and this has actually been discussed quite a few times. Just search the forums.

As a stray observation by someone who has had some experience with the process, having a book published in the US and actually making any money off it (for the author, that is) is an almost impossible undertaking, by far harder than actually writing a decent book. And that's talking about American books written by Americans about things happening in America. The situation with translated books written by foreign authors is much worse. Probability-wise, think of how many actor wannabes in Hollywood or country music singers in Nashville make it to the top of the food chain - that'll give you an idea of what this "unique opportunity" is actually worth. We all know who drives tour buses, waits tables and, erm, walks the streets in LA, don't we?


Gabriele Demuth  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:06
Member (2014)
English to German
How is the book doing now? Mar 30, 2016

To be realistic, if the book is selling well in the authors country then he may be able to afford a translation, if it is not then he won't be able to afford a decent translation, neither is the book likely to be successful in America or elsewhere and make him lots of money, as this might be his theory ...

Is he trying to talk you into a good deed for his own potential financial gain ... not a good idea.

I have fallen for a low budget author who wanted his book translated and I thought it was great, just to find out that he had illusions of grandeur and not a penny to pay me.

[Edited at 2016-03-30 07:51 GMT]


Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:06
Member (2007)
+ ...
I wouldn't be as scathing as some Mar 30, 2016

I think it's unfair to presume that the author is in some way dishonest or even deluded. People enter into this type of contract all the time nowadays so they can't be blamed for thinking it's acceptable. Nor would it be unusual for a teenager to be capable of writing a book yet totally clueless about the value of an hour's work.

Although you need to push for royalties to be included in the contract - and try to monitor and enforce this later on - it would be wise to accept that your remuneration will very likely be limited to the upfront payment. Now, I'm sure that isn't an economic proposition for you. You can't live on a couple of beers a day! So my advice: don't give up the day job! Negotiate a deadline that will enable you to work on this in your free time, as a "hobby". But only if you really want to spend your free time doing it, otherwise you'll soon turn resentful.

One last thought: do make sure this teenager is legally able to sign a contract; or get it made out in a parent's name. If you decide to go ahead.


Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:06
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Read first, decide later Mar 30, 2016

GoFox wrote:

I received an offer to translate the first in a series of four historical fantasy books written by a high-school student/teenager

Read the book first. Unless the author's name is Mary Shelley (she was 19 when she wrote her historical fantasy "Frankenstein") chances are it will be no good and a real pig to translate. It's always difficult translating bad prose into equally bad prose in another language.

[Edited at 2016-03-30 08:48 GMT]


DLyons  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:06
Spanish to English
+ ...
If the author's name is Mary Shelley Mar 30, 2016

Tom in London wrote:

Unless the author's name is Mary Shelley (she was 19 when she wrote her historical fantasy "Frankenstein") chances are it will be no good and a real pig to translate.

I'd steer well clear of it - it may even worse than a pig.


Phil Hand  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:06
Chinese to English
It's not business, it's personal Mar 31, 2016

It sounds like you're quite keen on doing these books, in which case, go for it - as a hobby. The calculations you gave us show that you're very clear about the economics of the situation: this isn't a serious business proposal. As such I think you should feel free to take it on in a spirit of experimentation. Being fully clear with the young author, of course. I see from your profile page that you've done a lot of academic work. If you fancy trying fiction, this is a great opportunity, but go into it knowing that 1) it's not going to sell, and 2) you're probably not a good enough fiction translator *yet* to help it sell. But maybe after a couple of volumes, you will be. (But maybe never for the American market - they write different over there, and you can't necessarily fake it.)


Czech to English
+ ...
Thanks everyone for your advice Mar 31, 2016

Thank you all very much for your input.

It is a bad deal. It is unprofessional. The person has no track record I’m aware of. It’s not a best seller in the Czech Republic. And yes, I would normally receive almost 40,000 CZK (the equivalent to over one thousand small beers!) for 192 pages.

I really did mean to use the word "could" rather than "would" to express possibility/tentativeness rather than definiteness with regards to how the remaining money would be paid out.

I hear what you’re saying, and it makes sense.

On the other hand, I am considering negotiating a deadline that would enable me to work on this in my free time, as a "hobby". Why? A few years ago, I met up with a new client to discuss a teaching job which I had to decline because I already had too many students. During the meeting, some pages slipped out of his folder. They were pages of a book he was writing... to be used in an undergraduate university course. There were some typos so I expressed interest in proofreading the book. He said the book had already been proofread by three native speakers of English. Seems like the previous proofreaders had let themselves be paid for work they had not done. He said he could not give me any money for proofreading. I like proofreading so I offered to proofread the materials in my free time, as a "hobby", with no set deadline. He agreed. I proofread the first three pages. He showed them to his supervisor. They then applied for grant money and I ended up getting paid well for every page I proofread over a period of almost two years... It turned out to be a profitable venture. Additionally, it led to the formation of long-term professional relationships.

However, I am aware that translating fiction is a whole other ball game which will test my skills to the max.

[Edited at 2016-03-31 16:09 GMT]

[Edited at 2016-03-31 16:10 GMT]


Robert Rietvelt  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:06
Member (2006)
Spanish to Dutch
+ ...
Why.... Mar 31, 2016

....don't you tell him your price, and ask the half up front?

I never translated a book, but that is how I would do it, unique opportunity or not.

[Edited at 2016-03-31 21:13 GMT]

[Edited at 2016-03-31 21:17 GMT]


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