How to Hire a Translator
by Edward Lipsett and Nora Stevens Heath
Publishing is a snap!
The author told you the book is excellent and free of errors, so of course you don’t need to edit it, or check it for veracity. Production is a breeze; just dump the author’s file into Word, using the default font (Times Roman, or was it Palatino?), and set the trim size. All done. Printing? Call up a few companies, tell them how many copies you need, and select the lowest price.
Is that how you publish? If so—and also if you won’t ever need a translator for a book—you can skip this article, because its central message is that translation demands as much consideration and preparation as any other stage of publishing, and unless you are aware of some of the pitfalls in advance, you may be heading for a very exciting—and costly—learning experience.
Local Talent and Quality Control
If you’re still with us, think about the language in one of your books. How was it written? Presumably somebody spent quite a bit of time trimming and smoothing it, shaping it for maximum effect while making sure not to leave those little glitches that break the reader’s train of thought. Especially in fiction, one clumsy word or phrase can drop the reader right out of the story and back into the real world with a loud thump: a thump that translates directly into lower sales.
Suppose you want a book about, oh, horse racing. Would you ask a high-school student to write it because the student lives near a horse-racing track? Of course not. Criteria would include knowledge of horse racing, ability to use appropriate vocabulary and examples, and a style of writing appropriate for the book, to name three key elements.
OK, now suppose you want to publish your horse-racing book, already a proven bestseller in English, in French. How do you select a translator? Is your only criterion the fact that the person speaks French? What about all the other criteria you felt were so important when the book was written?
This is one of the most basic errors in buying translation. Asking a French student studying in the United States to translate your book would certainly save you a lot of money, but unless the book sells, it’s money down the drain. And the things you need to sell in France are the same things you needed to sell in English: knowledge of the field, and ability to leverage the language. The translator will not only have to understand horse racing in the United States (to be able to understand the English correctly), but also horse racing in France (to express it in ways that a French reader will be familiar with). There may be elements that cannot easily be translated, perhaps involving such topics as applicable laws, betting regulations, or types of medicine or feed not available in France.
Even if you’ve managed to find a translator who knows all this, how can you be sure? After all, it’s your name on the spine, not the translator’s. You had the English book edited by a professional editor, possibly vetted by an attorney, but you will have no idea what the French book says. That could be very costly.
As with every other phase of publishing, quality control is crucial. And the only way to assure it is to have the French manuscript checked. You can choose an in-depth translation check, which can be costly and time consuming, or (if you trust the translator not to have made major errors) merely an in-depth edit by a professional French editor who would correct the book without regard for its English origins.
There are vendors on the Web who will translate your book into French—or any language—for pennies a word, but what would you end up with? Remember those Asian VCR or camera manuals you used to laugh at? Is that really the reaction you want to get when a reader in another country picks up your book?
The key criterion is not price. As with editing, layout, cover art, printing, and everything else, it is quality. In fact, the rule that applies to printing also applies to translation: Speed, quality, or price—pick any two.
Find the Person You Need
So how do you go about getting a good translation?
Good translators, like good authors, are generally busy. The very best translators may be queued up for a year or three. You can always find some translators, though, and depending on the specifics of your job (source and output languages, field, type of material, delivery deadline, budget, etc.) you may be able to find people who can give you exactly what you need at an acceptable price.
Many translators belong to professional associations and frequent online communities where they can share information with other people in the field. My own specialty is Japanese, and if I were to hunt for a good translator between Japanese and English, I would check:
For general language inquiries (especially Western European languages), a few good places to start are:
There are also clearinghouses that exist solely to introduce translators and clients, but caveat emptor!
The best-known clearinghouses are probably:
What do you look for? The first step is explaining exactly what you need. Specify the source and output languages and the word count, and tell a little bit about the content. Say you want to talk to interested translators, and ask them to contact you for more information (privately is probably the better choice). Anyone who responds immediately with a price and no questions is probably a poor translator (there are exceptions) because they don’t know enough yet. Anyone serious who contacts you will probably ask about deadline, source (printed book?) and output format (Word file?), and also ask for details on content, like author and title.
Be wary of approaching people who have bilingual skills but are not translators—like the visiting French student mentioned awhile back. Being able to speak, read, and/or write two languages does not necessarily mean being able to translate between them effectively. Translation is a complex skill set overlaid on bilingualism.
When you hear from translators who sound promising, ask them for CVs.
Remember that the output text is crucial to selling the book. If it reads poorly, or seems the work of a non-native writer, it will not earn good reviews, or sales. In almost all cases, the translator should be a native speaker of the output language. Exceptions are few and far between.
With CVs in hand, you can evaluate whether a person sounds like a professional or not. It would probably be appropriate to send a PDF of the book and ask for time and cost estimates from people who seem promising. To make an honest estimate, the translator will have to actually look at the book, quite possibly even read the entire thing, and that will take some time.
The process is similar to buying printing: If you told a printer you wanted a 230-page book, and you got an estimate without any requests for more details, you’d be a bit suspicious. Keep that in mind as you deal with possible translators.
Check the translator’s CV for adequate experience in the field. If your book is about Renaissance paintings and the translator has worked only in the industrial machinery industry, perhaps you should look elsewhere. In addition to being able to write well in the output language and to use the proper jargon, the translator might have to deal with dialect, slang, and so on, so think about requirements of that sort. Would you hire a gangsta author to write an essay on 20th-century poetry?
You and your chosen translator should agree on the project’s scope and details before any work starts. This means discussing who will own copyright of the translation and who will retain it after the book hits the shelves, among other things. Whatever you decide, it should be explicitly spelled out in the contract between you.
Various bits of information may attest to a translator’s accuracy, although they won’t rate the style of the output. Has the translator done any other books? Have those books ever been reviewed anywhere in that language? For example, if the translator has already translated a book on horse racing into French, what are the buyer reviews on Amazon.fr?
Before you ask the translator to begin the job, make sure the manuscript is final. Translators are working for a living too, and trying to translate a manuscript that changes as you work on it is close to impossible. Any manuscript changes will delay delivery and are an excellent way to introduce errors into the translation. If a change is unavoidable, talk to the translator before updating the manuscript, and always keep very accurate records of exactly which text is changed and how. Without effective version control, you are heading for disaster.
You may want to consider asking the translator to do only one chapter, and explain that you want to have that chapter checked by someone else experienced in the field. This takes time and money, but independent verification of the translation accuracy, localization (any changes needed to convert the content so it is easily understandable to a reader of the output language), and usage of language is essential to producing a quality book.
Depending on the results of an evaluation, you may have to make some tough choices, and that means you have to be very sure of the quality of the person you hire to do it. Explain to the evaluator that this assignment is strictly to produce a paid evaluation and that someone else will be translating the book. You want to minimize the chances that the evaluator will rate the output poorly in hopes of getting the translating job. For similar reasons, make sure that the translator and the evaluator do not learn each other’s names, at least until the project is ended.
For more information on choosing translators, read:
For some examples of how translation quality can make a difference, read:
Article on translating Kafka into English:
The Mysteries of Translation:
Two Nations Divided by a Common Language: Differences in the UK and US Versions of Four Harry Potter Books:
Edward Lipsett has managed a translation and production firm in Fukuoka, Japan, for more than 25 years, and he launched a publishing house for books translated from Asian languages several years ago. He can be reached via Kurodahan Press at kurodahan.com.
Nora Stevens Heath is a full-time freelance Japanese translator based in southeast Michigan. She has translated a wide variety of materials, including several short stories. To learn more, visit fumizuki.com.