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How to Get Your Work Translated Properly

by Jim Pierce

To really break into world markets, you will eventually need to have your work translated. For example, while German speakers make up only about 1.5% of the world's population, 10% to 20% of the material published throughout the world in any given year is in German. That's too large a market for international writers to ignore. Other markets with similar potential also exist.

If a foreign publisher buys subsidiary rights to your work, they will handle translations. However, this requires your work to have first been published in your native language. If you want to pitch unpublished works directly to foreign markets, you will need to have them translated. So what should you look for in a translator?

What to Look For

First and foremost, your translator should be a native speaker of the "target language," the language of the finished translation. If, for instance, your work in English is being translated into Spanish, Spanish is the "target language" and the translator should be a native Spanish speaker. Do not compromise on this. No matter how schooled we may be, none of us can handle the subtleties of a second language the way we can our mother tongue.

Also, make sure your translator has not lost touch with the target language through years of living abroad. This happens. For instance, my father-in-law was a native speaker of Hungarian, as it was spoken around 1935. He was astounded at how much the language had changed over the years when he made a visit to his home village in the early '90's. (Consider, for example, how much English has changed since YOU were a child!)

Merely knowing two languages, however, does not make a translator. Good translators are also good writers. Have prospects translate a small sample of your work as an audition. Then have a native speaker of your target language, not a translator, read the translation and tell you how it scans.

In today's world, it can also be important to hire a translator who is computer-literate. Peer consultation, terminology questions, general reference work -- today's translators do these things through the Internet.

Where to Look

A good place to start looking for a translator is through the web sites of professional translator associations, such as the International Federation of Translators (FIT), The American Translators' Association (ATA), or the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society (NOTIS) (see below for URLs). FIT is an international "association of associations"; ATA is a U.S. organization; and NOTIS is a Pacific Northwest/Canadian organization. Look for the membership lists on these sites. Narrow your search further by focusing on literary translators. "Literary," in this case, means all forms of writing intended for a general audience.

Next, look for individuals who are accredited in the language combination you want, in the direction (original language to target language) that you need. Not all translators are accredited, especially in the U.S., but accreditation provides some assurance of competence.

Look for modesty as well. I become doubtful when I see translators working in a large number of language combinations, especially when they claim to be competent in several target languages.

Setting Fees and Doing Business

Once you've located a translator, then comes the delicate task of haggling a price and developing a contract. The websites listed below provide examples of standard contracts; use them as guidelines. Translators, like freelance writers, are generally paid by the word -- but they can be pretty quiet about how much they are paid per word.

The only study I could find indicates that, on average, translation rates range between 10 and 15 (U.S.) per word. That average includes high-end specialty work, such as corporate, scientific, and technical translation. Literary translators make less, unless they are the best and working for the top writers in the world. All the same, if you are getting 5 a word for your article and you have to pay 8 a word to have it translated, it doesn't take higher mathematics to recognize that this is a losing proposition.

Sometimes you can persuade a translator to work on speculation. The translator gets part of the sale price of the work, especially if it appears that you have good potential for generating future translation work. A 50-50 split is a good arrangement in this case.

Once you have an agreement, you should collaborate with your translator. Good communication between author and publisher can affect the quality of the translation immensely. Oddly, publishing house book translators often don't even have the addresses of their authors. If your book is picked up by a foreign publisher, you and your translator may not be in contact at all. Try not to let that happen.

Then, make sure that your translator knows as much as you do about your work's target audience, its education level, age range, reading level, interests, and so forth. Your translator should also have at least a bibliography of the material used in compiling your work. Be sure, as well, that your translator has enough time to complete the job properly. Rush jobs reduce quality.

Finally, it helps to view your translator as a co-author of your work in the target language. Giving credit in the form of an additional byline is good practice, and if you and your translator work well together, do it again on other projects.

For More Information:

See's links to Dictionaries, Language and Translation Resources:

Copyright © 1999 Jim Pierce
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Jim Pierce is an retired community college instructor of German, science, and mathematics. He has worked as a translator of genealogical material for the last five years, and is currently providing research and translation services for a writer working on a biography of a WWI German general. For more information, visit

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