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.

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