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Translation Rights

Would a bilingual writer be permitted to do his/her own translation? If so, how would this change the royalties or publishing process for foreign publication?

I can’t answer definitively whether or not you’d be able to do a translation yourself because that would depend entirely on the publisher. Certainly, if we are selling foreign rights, it’s something we could present to the publisher, but many have translators they work with already and might find it easier to continue with the same people.

As for how it would effect royalties or the publishing process, it’s hard to say. Certainly, not hiring a translator should mean the publisher could pay, as part of the advance, what they might traditionally include as the translator’s fee. In other words, it could give us more bargaining power for more money up front. It probably wouldn’t change your royalties much though.

As for the publishing process, one thought did cross my mind while answering this and that’s that it might be better to have the publisher do the translation as they traditionally would so you can be working on your next book. A translation is going to be a time-intensive project and presumably you are already going to be under contract and writing your next title when that opportunity comes up. I know that I, for one, would rather have my client moving forward to build a list rather than continuing to focus on the previous book.


Category: Blog



  1. I agree that even though there possibly might be some practical advantages to it, there are some reasons why authors shouldn't necessarily translate their own work. No matter how bilangual one migth be, translating – even your own work – isn't all that easy. Whenever I try to do that, I find that I change too much, something I would strive not to do if it was someone else's work. To me it's a lot harder to respect my own original text, since "it's still me writing it," only in a different language. Translating is a skill and a profession that actually takes a lot more work than just changing the words from one language into another.

  2. "…it might be better to have the publisher do the translation as they traditionally would so you can be working on your next book."

    Yay, Jessica! I love that you 'get' that the author's job is to write, and that's where their time is best spent. Thank you!!

    Now, if I could just get you to agree with me about that darn query letter….. 🙂

  3. I think that in some cases, I might actually recommend that an author do his or her own translation if capable of such an enormous task. The reason I say this is that some words/phrases/contexts are almost impossible to translate depending on the languages involved. All too often, the translation does not perfectly reflect the original passage. To my way of thinking, a bilingual author who does his or her own translating would have an advantage in being familiar with the underlying sense of a passage or phrase, and therefore able to translate it to reflect original intent.

    (And yes, I am a stickler for original intent. I find it interesting to take multiple translations of a work and compare them, just to see who came closest. There are times when I think an author must be rolling over in the grave. 😉

  4. I'm awed by the work of some translators, and I wonder how many have begun asking for royalties, as PEN recommends.

    Jessica, I was reminded today that it's high time I acknowledged the bloggers whose transparency boosts my morale. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

  5. This a great post. Thank you. As a bilingual writer, I've had similar thoughts. Though, not about the royalties, but what the agentpublisher preference would be.
    So again, Thanks!

  6. I've tried translating my own stories. They end up as "a version" instead of the same story in a different language. So I'd say unless it's a literary experiment of a sort then the author shouldn't translate (but her input in the story would be very valuable).

  7. I think it might depend a great deal on exactly HOW bilingual one is. If you grew up speaking two languages in your home, I can understand why a writer might prefer to write the story in both of those languages. Otherwise, might be best to leave it to the professionals.

  8. I'm bilingual by birth (Finnish and Swedish) and have also almost-native-level command of English. However, I wouldn't dream of translating my stories! I've tried it couple of times, and every time I end up re-writing the story resulting in quite different version.

    Professional book translators try to get into contact with authors to discuss meanings, language, contexts etc. There are even some established authors (nobelist Jose Saramago comes to mind) who arrange a seminarium for his translators after the original work is published.

  9. I agree with those who've said the translated work comes out as a "version" of the original, not a translation (I think I'd be tempted to change it a little too much, since, as Cruella said, "It's still ME writing it!")

    However, if the author is multilingual, she should make sure to get final approval on the translation (have someone else do the work, while the author works on her next novel, but once it's done, she can proof it and make any changes she feels are necessary).

  10. I hold a degree in translation so I would definitely demand to do the translation myself. A bad French translation might damage my personal life because many people I know only understand French and not English (I write in English). Even GRR Martin, a bestseller, got a translator so stupid he translated 'dire wolf' by the French word for 'werewolf'.

  11. I make my living as a translator, but I wouldn't want to translate my own work even if I had oodles of time and could do my day job, translate my book, write the next book, promote another, plan a third, etc. I write in English and translate into English and I would want a translator who works regularly into the target language. Just being bilingual isn't enough, IMO. There are few people who are truly bilingual, anyway, in the sense that they can write equally well, with the same sense of style and fluency, in more than one language. Usually one language dominates, and the dominant language can change depending on where the person lives, the language of education, how much they read in each language.

    My work has been translated, and only once was I given the chance to check the translation. Usually there wasn't time before publication.

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