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Lost in Translation: How to Get a Book Translated from English into a Foreign Language

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compiled by Lynn Rosen, IBPA Independent reporter —

The IBPA office received the following question. We took the opportunity to compile answers from several experts and are happy to share all below!

QUESTION: I’ve always wondered how to get a book translated from English into a foreign language and how to distribute that translated book into the appropriate countries. I have a book I’d love to have translated into Spanish and distributed in Mexico but have no idea how to go about doing that. — Lee E. Cart

Erin Edmison Co-owner, Edmison/Harper Literary Scouting

Great question! I’m assuming your book has already been published in the US. If it hasn’t, this becomes much more complicated. Assuming that’s the case, look at the contract you have with your publisher: Does the publisher have “world rights” to your book—the right to sell your work to other publishers around the world? Or do they have “North American” or “World English” rights, which means that any rights to translation stay with you?

If your publisher has world rights, then their foreign rights department will work to sell the book around the world; any income will be split with you according to the percentages you negotiated in your contract. If you have kept the translation rights (i.e., the publisher only has rights to the book in its original English), then your agent—acting as your representative—will work to sell the rights to your book around the world.

That’s where I come in. Scouts are hired by foreign publishers to help them find books that they want to translate and publish in their countries. For example, we work for the Spanish publisher Anagrama. If they wanted to publish your book, they would negotiate with your American publisher or agent, settle on a price, hire a translator, and then publish and distribute your book in both Spain and Latin America. There are independent publishers in Mexico (and elsewhere) who publish and distribute locally, but most books in Latin America are distributed by publishers in Spain.

Cindy Riggins President, Riggins International Rights Services

In today’s publishing climate, independent publishing is a great way for authors to have their work published. However, some services, such as foreign or other subsidiary rights that an author’s publisher normally handles, now have to be managed by the author. If an author has a global platform, at least in a few markets, it can be an opening to find partners to translate, publish, and distribute the work(s) in another language. Other times there are no resources.

It is important that you do not just find someone to translate your work. I’ve seen many authors grant rights to individuals to then be disappointed in the quality of the translation and distribution. It is rare that an individual or small organization will have the proper distribution channels to then have the translated book reach enough consumers. Typically, they do not understand the need to track sales properly and submit royalty statements and payments on sales. There are a few markets that translators scout for titles of interest, which can be helpful—but then be sure to license to a publisher they recommend instead of to the translator.

So, how do you discover the partner to grant your rights for a target language? First, look for publisher’s associations and book fairs in that country. This can provide a core base to target with information on your work. You can also display your books through organizations that have cooperatives at key book rights events. Many authors find an agent to assist them. With agents, not all of them have the contacts and expertise in foreign rights, so be sure to make sure they are active in that area. Agents who are located in your target country are also an option. Keep in mind that usually you will be working with potential foreign publisher’s acquisitions editors, so just as if you were submitting a proposal to a US potential publisher, you have to properly market your work and sell yourself as an author.

You can also target organizations that may benefit from your type of work (e.g., business groups, fiction clubs, parenting organizations, culinary groups, religious organizations). While the concerns are similar to selling rights to individuals, many times they may have a publisher recommendation in their market.

Once you identify a potential publishing partner, these are the next steps to take:

  • Vet the partner. This can be a challenge, but in the internet age, it is much easier. Ask for trade references and check them. Determine if they have adequate distribution to the target market for your category of work.
  • Ask for their publishing plans for your book. This should include their estimated print run, first year’s sales estimate, sales price (net and retail), and estimated publication date (time needed to translate, edit, and print the book—this can be 12-18 months). Find out if they pay royalty fees on the net or retail price. You can ask them to submit a proposed royalty rate and advance payment on royalties.
  • Determine royalty. Many foreign language rights are at a lower royalty percentage than English rights, since the publisher has translation expenses. You also have to consider the target country’s economic status and capability. Utilize the information from the publishing plans to calculate anticipated royalties you would receive for their first year’s sales and first print run. An advance payment of a portion (or the full amount in some instances) of anticipated royalties is due to you at time the license is signed.
  • Properly document. Do not send them an e-mail or letter granting them rights—you have to protect yourself and make sure the legal areas are covered. You need to have a license that grants them specific rights (language, territory, format), covers translation quality, copyright issues, royalty rates and reporting requirements, ensures that term rights are granted, provides reasons the license can be terminated, and so on.
  • Manage the license. Licensing sales do not stop once the license is signed and the advance paid. The licensed publisher should send you copies of the work once published and send annual royalty statements and payments.

There can be a lot of work involved in selling foreign rights to your work, but the reward can be great. Sometimes it is just the joy of seeing your work in another language and knowing it will have readers around the globe; other times, it is a financial reward. Like any business area in your life, be prudent.

Marilyn Gordon Director, Rights and Contracts, Baker Publishing Group

Contracting with an international publisher may be the best means of providing your book to readers in other countries. A literary agent can be helpful in securing a publisher, as they will represent your book to many publishers and hopefully locate one interested in licensing your book. The book publisher will then handle the translation, editing, printing, marketing, and distribution of your book.

If you are unable to find a publisher, you can handle the translation, printing, and distribution yourself, or you can find a company that will provide those services for a fee. If you handle the process yourself, make sure to use a qualified translator and have the translated materials edited by an experienced editor. You will need to hire someone to design the book interior and also make changes to the cover. An ISBN may need to be secured from that particular country in order to sell your books. And you will need to engage a book distributor to sell the books. I would caution that without a marketing and distribution plan, these books may sit in your garage.

In response to your particular interest in Spanish, the translator should be familiar with Latin American Spanish or Mexican Spanish. A translator from Spain may not translate the book in a way that is acceptable for Mexican readers. This international publishing process is a more complicated journey than many authors expect.

Erzsi Deak Literary Agent, Consultant, Hen&ink Literary Studio

Getting a book translated is easy enough if you have the capital. This page from the Frankfurt Book Fair site might prove helpful (especially the partnerships).

Getting the books distributed is a whole other story, and that would mean hitting the pavement with distributors or actually visiting the bookstores in different countries. Again, Frankfurt would be a good place to start. Otherwise, the usual way is to sell the rights to a foreign publisher and have them translate and distribute the book. All in all, I’d say a visit to a major international book fair is step one. Visit this site, and if you decide to attend the book fair (Frankfurt was Oct. 19–23 this year), set up meetings to discuss selling rights, translating, and distributing your book. Remember that if you sell it to a traditional foreign publisher, they normally pay for the translation and take care of distribution (thus, the beauty of selling rights). Do note that selling rights can mean big advances, and it can mean a gift from a publisher in exchange for the right to sell your book.

Huge book fairs can be overwhelming, so you’ll want to do your homework and make sure your meetings are set up well in advance. Another tactic is to attend the equivalent of BEA in the country you want to sell your book in.

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