Every author throughout history could likely recall a time they stared hopelessly at a blinking cursor or a pen hovering just above the page. And just as you know the importance of choosing the right words, you probably also know the struggle of finding them. Yet many times, only you, the author, seem to be able to identify the exact word you’ve been looking for.
So how do you trust someone to find that word for you when you aren’t a native speaker of that language?
It’s one of the many questions authors must answer for themselves when deciding to sell foreign translations of their work. Most major distributors support a variety of foreign languages—Barnes & Noble supports e-books in at least nineteen languages, and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) supports more than forty. And despite the grip traditional publishers have held on foreign markets in the past, translations are a growing revenue option for independent authors.
It’s easy to understand why. Translations require little effort from the author to create. If done well, they make books accessible to a wider audience and create a secondary income from titles already on the shelf. But maximizing that income requires finding the right languages—and the right people who speak them.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well, you know, we’re writing because we enjoy it.’ I go, ‘True, but you’re publishing because you want to earn money,’” says author L.G. Castillo, who started publishing translations of her books in 2018. “I wanted to see: How can I increase my small part-time business? And one way was to do translations.”
Speak Your Readers’ Language
As a Latina author, Castillo had already incorporated several characters who shared her culture into her books when she began pursuing translations, and she wanted to be able to share them with Spanish-speaking readers. Yet she was also willing to experiment, so when the first freelancer to connect with her offered an Italian translation instead, she jumped at the chance. She found a Spanish translator a short time later, and other opportunities in other languages have cropped up since then. As of the start of this year, Castillo had published translations of eleven of her books in at least one of four languages: Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese.
Author Bronwen Evans took a different route. When she first decided to explore the foreign translation market last year, she already knew the book she wanted to translate had sold well in Germany—as had books by many other authors from New Zealand, where Evans lives. “The Germans tend to like the New Zealand authors for some reason,” she says with a laugh. “I think they must like how we write.”
But rather than using a translation platform, she reached out to a translator directly. “I didn’t want my royalties, my copyright, owned by anybody else. And I didn’t want to do split royalty,” Evans says. “So I looked around, and that’s where I found translators who would just do it for an upfront fee.” The decision worked in her favor—although she had to wait around eighteen months for an opening in her translator’s schedule, her first book made back her initial investment in a little over a month. Since then, she’s published another German translation, and she’s started work on a Spanish translation after finding an affordable translator through other authors in her genre.
Ultimately, when it comes to choosing which languages to pursue for translations, Castillo and Evans recommend researching the countries where your books or similar books in your genre have sold well. Speak to other authors about where they’ve had success or to your readers about their interest in certain language translations. Still, both authors say they’ve also made many decisions simply based on the opportunities they’ve found.
“Once you get the ball rolling, other opportunities can come your way. And that’s why I’ve got to be a big advocate to take a dip in it [translations] as cheaply as possible,” Castillo says. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, you know? Just try it.”
Do Some Digging into Your Platform and Your People
Of course, there’s also the question of how to find the translators themselves. Castillo chose to upload her first books to Babelcube, a platform that connects independent authors with freelance translators, then marked them open for translation. The process was straightforward when it came to finding a translator, but after experiencing a months-long delay in publishing through the site and poor customer communication, she eventually transitioned to a similar platform, Tektime, by an Italian company, which she says was more responsive.
But Babelcube and Tektime have their limitations. Both distribute payments for authors and translators through a tiered royalty share—translators receive a larger percentage of a book’s royalties to start, and that percentage slowly shifts in the author’s favor as the book crosses specific revenue thresholds. Both platforms also retain exclusive distribution rights for translated works for the first five years, which means you won’t get to decide where your book is sold until that time is up.
|€ 0,00||€ 999,99||15%||75%||10%|
|€ 1.000||€ 1.999,99||30%||60%||10%|
|€ 2.000||€ 3.999,99||60%||30%||10%|
|€ 4.000||€ 7.999,99||70%||20%||10%|
|€ 8.000||€ …||80%||10%||10%|
For some authors, including Castillo, it’s a fair trade-off, especially when paying a translator up front isn’t feasible. Independent translators charge ten cents per word on average for a translation from English, which means thousands of dollars invested at once.
But for Evans, the royalty share and distribution limits were part of the reason—though not the only ones—she opted to go a different route. She wanted to maintain complete control of her work, including the ability to distribute through Kindle Unlimited instead of a wide market. She also wanted to find a translator she trusted, which, for her, meant finding translators other authors in her genre had trusted in the past. “I’ve heard lots of horror stories, but I think it’s because people haven’t done their research,” she says. “So for me, I always use someone who’s been recommended or someone I know.”
Castillo has faced similar dilemmas. But beyond wanting to ensure her translators would be accurate, she also wanted them to be able to fix “cultural components,” she says, such as American expressions that wouldn’t translate directly into another language. “I was fine with tweaking the story a little bit here and there to fit a different culture and their understanding of the essence of the story itself.”
Her solution? Interview each potential translator and review their portfolios before deciding whether to hire them. Evans recommends a similar approach, and she also suggests reaching out to other authors about the translators they’ve used and how satisfied they were. And once you’ve received your chosen translator’s work, find others who can review their finished translation. Evans opted to share her German translation with a family member who understands the language, and Castillo shared a few chapters of the translation with her readers who knew the language and had agreed to beta read the work.
As with almost every aspect of publishing, no single method is correct for creating and selling a translation. Whether you opt for a translation platform or independent translator, Kindle Unlimited or wide distribution, a language you’d planned for or just whichever opportunity you stumble across first, the strongest advice Castillo and Evans have is to do your research, figure out your goals for the translation, and have patience. “The big thing for me is don’t rush it,” Evans says. “To me, that’s a lifetime investment that’s going to be out there for a long time. So I didn’t need for it to be paid off in five or six weeks. I would have been really happy if that had paid me back in a year.”
“It’s that mentality,” Castillo says. “You know that saying, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint.’ When we’re talking ‘marathon,’ we’re not talking months. We’re talking years. I was in a years-long marathon, but I learned a lot.”