Saturday, December 17, 2016

First steps as a book translator

My activities as a translator of literature in the broadest sense started a few months ago, out of pure curiosity. I have been in the translation industry since the mid 1990s, first as a freelance translator of technical documentation and, since 2000, as full-time employee in a translation agency. Over the years, I encountered many different types of service and software vendors, but I was intrigued when I read about this company called Babelcube. Their business model is very different from "normal" translation agencies. Instead of selling the services of translation freelancers, they act more as a matchmaker, connecting book authors with translators. And instead of getting paid by immediate customers, they take over some control of the Amazon book publishing process, and everyone involved gets some share of the book proceeds - the authors, the translators, and Babelcube (see here).

I decided to see first-hand how this type of service works, so I signed on as a translator to have a look at what translation projects are available. There are many full-length books by aspiring authors, but I did not want to commit to translating a 100,000 word novel without knowing what the earnings potential would be. Judging from the royalty share, a book would have to be very successful in order for a translator to earn $3000: it would need to generate profits nearing $10,000, which means sales of $15,000 or more. This means a book would need to be a veritable bestseller in order for a translator to earn anything in the vicinity of what technical translators make.

Therefore, I steered clear of lengthy tomes and focused on shorter books. I figured that I could easily translate 250 words per hour, so a 4,000 word book would take me up to 20 hours, including proofreading. Furthermore, I was going to give myself a generous time frame of a month per book, so I would be able to do this comfortably in my spare time at night.

It is not easy to gauge how lucrative a book really is, because Amazon understandably does not publish financial data on their products. It does show sales ranks that indicate how successful it is in comparison to other books in the same category. However, the sales categories are very fragmented and since I do not have experience with selling on Amazon, these numbers do not mean much to me.

So, I decided to zero in on generally popular subjects and looked for a cook book, a language book, and a travel book. I offered my services to one author in each category and expected a lengthy interviewing process. To my surprise, all authors immediately accepted me after I submitted a work sample. I was glad about having suggested a generous timeline in each case, because I was suddenly committed to three projects at once. Alright, I would be somewhat busy, but even three such projects were doable on the side.

As I started working on it, it turned out that the language book was of such poor quality that I really did not want my name associated with it, so I cancelled this project. The cook book and the travel book, on the other hand, were honest pieces of writing, so I gave them my best. I completed them on time, the authors were happy, and the translated books were published on Amazon.

Two months later, I still occasionally look at my royalty statement, and it is still at $0. That's right, I netted zero dollars. Of course, that is not good for anybody, not for me, not for the author, and not for Babelcube. Anyway, lesson learned. I probably spent 30-40 hours, but I went into this knowing that this outcome was a distinct possibility. Book publishing is a very tough business and for every J.K.Rowling there are thousands of authors who do not earn anything. I certainly could have figured that out by reading about the publishing industry, but first-hand experience is priceless. Plus, I do enjoy writing, so the time was not wasted. And I may actually continue doing small projects on the side, just for the fun of translating.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Kafka: Investigations of a Dog

Franz Kafka: Investigations of a Dog

Have you read Kafka before or tried to read Kafka? Did you find his prose difficult? If so, the translation was likely somehow inadequate.

The truth is: Kafka wrote beautifully simple. With depth, yes, but using plain language.

As with other great literature, you can read his stories and enjoy intriguing or funny snippets. Or, if you are so inclined, you can dig as deep as you care to go. Or simply read and reread and see what you discover.

Here I have tried my hand at a funny short story and hope I was able to make the English as readable as the original German. Let me know what you think.

The translated text (English only) 

"Investigations of a Dog" (German: Forschungen eines Hundes) is a short story by Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) written in 1922. It was published posthumously in 1931. Kafka wanted his unfinished manuscripts to be destroyed by his friend Max Brod, who nonetheless published them after Kafka's death, including this one. 

In "Investigations of a Dog", a dog tells of his attempts to make sense of his life and condition in the most rational and scientific manner of which he is capable. The reader knows things that the dog in his limited understanding cannot grasp, which creates dramatic irony. With numerous self-contradictory statements by the dog and hilarious word choices (for example, mentioning scientific pursuits and basest body functions in one breath), the story presents a humorous and timelessly valid reflection on anthropocentrism and scientific hubris. 

Kindle edition: $2.99

Paperback: $7.99

When you take your dog for a walk next time, you may be less impatient when it insists on lots of conscientious inspection in selecting the best place for watering the ground.

The translator's edition (German/English)

Kindle: $4.99

Paperback: $9.99

Here, the original German text is presented side by side with the new translation.

Learners of the language can use it to improve their reading skills, students of literature can read the original and have a translation at hand for reference, and people interested in translation can evaluate strategies and choices.

The foreword discusses the translation process and looks at challenges of literature translation in general as well as the translation of this story in particular.

Layout sample (last page):

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Why a Trump presidency may not be so bad....

For the record, I have always been leaning to the democratic side, and Keith Olbermann's outrage in the last few weeks completely matched mine. I, too, sat in front of the TV in disbelief, with shattered hopes. That said, I think people need to take a chill pill.

To most observers, one characteristic of Donald Trump seems clear: he is mostly interested in making himself look great. He did not enter politics because of a sudden urge to spend the rest of his active life in public service. Running for president is the culmination of a giant ego trip.

Ok, he came, blasted the opposition, and won. What is next? The ultimate ego trip is to have a lasting legacy and to go down in history as the "greatest president" in U.S. history. How would he define "greatest"? Let's see: "most followers", "most likes", "best approval numbers". This is precisely what puts my mind at ease.

In order to become the president with the best approval ratings ever, he cannot continue as the unfiltered mouthpiece of the far right. He will lead with a constant eye on the polls, and he will not be satisfied with making a near-fascist fringe happy. I think we will see an immediate and total shift to the center.

Trump has already shown in recent months that he does not care about traditional sensitivities of the Republican party - at all. He also does not care about sensitivities of democrats, even though he has sympathized with them in the past. I think this may actually make it possible for him to work across the aisle.

Past presidents had to and Hillary would have had to put their party first and then extend a hand to the other. Given the antagonistic climate, such half-hearted offers can only be met with rejection. Trump, however, is not beholden to any given party, and he ruthlessly furthers his own agenda, which is to gain the largest possible support. Once members from both parties see that Trump is equally ready to push aside concerns from the other party, they may be a lot more willing to compromise. By caring only about himself, this president may thus be able to break the stalemate that has crippled Washington for decades.

Given that he will live by the polls, he is very unlikely to act as bad as he talked before the election. I think his most ardent supporters will be disappointed to find out that he does not really care about abortion, guns, vengeance against Hillary, border walls, or mass deportations. Trump just brutally hit those talking points to get into the White House. Now he will perhaps keep up some of the talk, but he will quietly shift gears to broaden his reach.

Certainly, some of the things he aims to do are not so bad. Renegotiating trade deals? Sure. The German minister of economics is currently doing that with China, trying to open up the Chinese market for Europeans and to control potentially hostile Chinese investments in Europe. Rethinking NATO? Of course. NATO is an anachronism and maintaining expensive bases all over the world does not make any sense. Stopping illegal immigration? No problem. Taxing money that is leaving the country? Yes - this could be the best way to encourage workers to seek legal status, because only this qualifies them for income tax refunds.

Trump may not even be particularly interested in reelection. After all, he is not the youngest, and who would want to hit the campaign trail again in his late seventies? This means he is free to do things that are unpopular with Wall Street, large corporations, insurance companies, the NRA, or other large donors and interest groups.

But is one term sufficient to build a lasting Trump legacy? Maybe not. But let's not forget that he is also a proud father. I bet that he is already thinking beyond being the president with the greatest approval ratings. Forget about the misogynist outbursts. He will mend fences with women and whole-heartedly give them what they are yearning for: a female president. Ivanka.