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About Translating Literature

Have you written a book and would like to have it translated? Are you looking to translate a book?  Here is what you should know.

What are translation rights?

A translation of a book is a "derivative work," and therefore, the right to market such a translation is controlled by the same copyright law which protects the original text.

Translation is an afterthought

Few authors think of translation at the time of launching their book. Instead, they focus on selling to the market they already know. When their publishers ask for translation rights at signing (which they always do), authors assume translation "will be taken care of."

But it isn't.


Some publishers have the marketing power to sell their books abroad (e.g., English language novels at international airports), but few publishers make any meaningful effort to market translation rights.


Because of the way the translation royalties are usually shared (with the bulk of the revenues going to the foreign publisher and the bulk of royalties going to the translator rather than the author) unless the book is a blockbuster, publishers will make ZERO effort to market the translation rights.

Special case: block busters

When President Obama writes a book, people assume it will have huge sales and international appeal. Publishers then sell foreign translation rights to foreign publishers for enormous advances, and the foreign publisher then hires a translator and pays him for the job, per page or per word. 

Everybody else


However, if you are not President Obama, your book will languish untranslated and unpublished unless someone takes it up: perhaps they love your book, or maybe they think they can sell it. The onus of publishing and promoting the translation will be on the foreign translator (and his publisher), and they will want to make money doing it. You will have to give up most of those profits, or there will be no deal.

Why translate your work then?

Say your domestic royalties are 35%; your royalties on the translation of your book will perhaps be only 1/10 of that: 3.5%. 


Is it worth it?

It may be worth it if these additional royalties cost you nothing to generate.


Say you are a Polish author, read widely in a nation of 36 million Polish readers, and manage to publish an English translation of your book. You are now selling your book into as market of 400 million readers. Your "small" (.3.5%) English royalties may suddenly become a significant part of your income.

In addition to generating passive revenue, book translations also look fantastic on your PR materials ("my work has been published in thirteen languages!").

And translations help to establish your name worldwide. 


Consider this: when in 1986 the Nobel Committee decided that they should give the prize to an Arabic writer and began looking for a candidate, they very quickly focused on just one name: Naguib Mahfuz. Why? Mahfuz was only one among several great Arab writers of his time! But he was by far the most translated of them all. Therefore, he was the best known outside of the Arab world, and his books were the most accessible to committee members. 



Obstacles to selling translation rights

Obstacle Number 1:
“It’s different over there”


"Because there is no genre in the American publishing marketplace called "modern middle-class Egyptian family saga"; therefore, no novel about an Egyptian middle-class family will sell in America." Following this thinking, Naguib Mahfuz (Nobel Prize for literature, 1988) should never have been published in English. Or Orhan Pamuk (2006). Or Olga Tokarczuk (2018).


Yet, each of those authors sold millions of copies of their books in English even before winning the Nobel prize. Great books sell, they know no boundaries or time limits. If a book is successful in one country, it stands an excellent chance of becoming a success elsewhere, no matter how odd and unusual it is.  


But, for each Naguib Mafhuz and Orhan Pamuk, there are scores of excellent writers who have not been translated and published abroad because someone somewhere said, "it's different over there, it will not sell."


Obstacle Number 2:
Can’t sell it unless its translated, can't translate until it’s sold


If your book is not by President Obama (or equivalent), then it has to be translated before it can be sold (or even shown) to a foreign publisher. And no one will translate it without a guarantee of rights: the chicken and the egg story.


Therefore, the author must either:


a) pay the translator a flat fee to translate his book (so that it can be shown to publishers); and then market the book the publishers himself; or


b) guarantee the translator exclusive translation rights (i.e., publication rights to what is his work) and let the translator go out and sell it.


Most authors assume that because they have signed the translation rights over to their home publisher, they are powerless. But, in fact, publisher contracts generally state that the author retains the right to approve any translation. Authors can use this power to direct the translation rights to the translator of their choice.  If you do find a translator for your book, your publisher will almost certainly be happy to go along with the arrangement -- because he is doing nothing about it himself.

Two case studies of success


At least two modern Polish authors have achieved fame and significant sales in English without winning the Nobel Prize: Stanislaw Lem (the author of Solaris and Tales of Pirx The Pilot) and Ryszard Kapuscinski (the author of The Emperor and The Shadow of The Sun). 


Both achieved this by working with foreign translators directly rather than through their publishers. Their business model worked like this:

  1. they agreed to cede a significant portion of the royalty stream to the translator, thus giving the translator a solid motivation to publish and promote the book in their market. (In fact, both authors gave away the translation rights of their first book for free to break into the English language market ("loss leader")

  2. both worked closely with the translator to prepare the translation and then to launch it in the foreign market;

  3. both worked with their domestic publisher to permit the arrangement

In this way, they have built a kind of international franchise with each of their translators being their national franchisee.


Look up these authors' books on Amazon. They have both been dead for years, and yet the royalties on their English translations continue to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for their estates and dwarf all revenues from Polish sources.

They have achieved this by proactively working with their English translators and letting these translators run with the business.

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