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.

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