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Literary Translation from German to English

What I’ve learnt from taking my first steps into this specialist area of German translation


I’ve now got two translated and published books under my belt, and I can certainly say it’s a nice feeling.

As a freelancer translator and solopreneur you don’t have colleagues on hand to clap you on the back and say “well done”, so it's nice to glance at the bookshelf occasionally for a bit of self-affirmation!

The first translation was The Energy Imperative by Hermann Scheer, all about the push for renewable energy. My English translation hit the bookshops in December 2011, so Christmas presents were easy that year!

The second isn’t such a fun read: The Heat Pump Planning Handbook by Jürgen Bonin (2015), but very useful if you’re building a house and want to save on heating costs by installing a heat pump!


Helping solve your Christmas present problems!......

I was very excited to be asked to translate the German original of both these books, for I think it’s fair to say that, in many ways, literary translation from German to English is seen as the pinnacle of the translation profession for any German translator.


What is literary translation?

Hang on, I thought literary translation meant novels?

Well, according to CEATL – the European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations – there are 2 definitions of literary translation.

The majority of European countries, including the UK, Germany and Austria (i.e. our English and German audiences), define a literary translator as someone who translates any work published in book form and protected by copyright. This covers scientific books, text books, non-fiction etc.

Other European countries limit the definition to pure literature, i.e. works of fiction, plays and poetry.

Amazingly, for a small country with a population of only 8 million, Austria has around 280 active (i.e. one publication every 2 to 3 years) literary translators. Germany, as you’d expect, has more, at around 2,000.

The figure for the UK is only 50, with only 3% of annual publications being translations into English. This is an exceptionally low figure, and not particularly promising for anyone wishing to make literary translation a career.


So how did I get these German translation jobs?

Back in 2010 I received an email from UK publishers Routledge, out of the blue, asking if I was available.

They’d found me via this website which clearly shows how import it is for translators to be active online. The two book translations are certainly my biggest one-off jobs, making the time invested in my website more than worthwhile.


Commissioning literary translation

As I was being commissioned by a publishing house which had already published two of the author’s previous books in translation from German to English, they were familiar with the commissioning process and going market rates.

I wasn’t, so I did some research.

A big thank you goes to CEATL for their 2008 survey of the income of literary translators in Europe (which you can download here) .

They outline methods of charging, royalties, rights etc. in each European country.


1.  Fees

Logically, the fees a translator is paid reflect the length of the book. This is calculated either:

  • On a per page basis, where 1 page = 30 x max.60 keystrokes = 1,800 keystrokes (e.g. Austria, Switzerland and Germany)
  • On a keystroke basis (=Zeichen mit Leerzeichen/characters with spaces)
  • On a per word basis (e.g. UK)
  • By folio/printer’s sheet, where a folio is roughly 16 pages x 2,000 keystrokes

The 2008 CEATL survey outlines the minimum, average and maximum rates in each country.

Unsurprisingly, literary translators appear to be lowest paid in Slovakia, Lithuania, Croatia and then Greece, with the highest paid literary translators in Norway, then Switzerland, Belgium and France. The UK was in the middle field.


2.  Contract details

Payment

  • Generally a portion of the translator’s fee (up to 50%) is paid when the contract is agreed, the remaining portion when the completed translation is delivered to the publisher. This was my experience. In a few countries payment is entirely upon final delivery.

Royalties

  • Generally royalties only provide additional income where a book sells over 10,000 copies. Not all countries offer royalties, and rates are low, varying from 0.2% to 2%.

Contracts

  • Normally signed between the translator and the publisher. Some literary associations provide sample contracts to which publishers tend to adhere. Where this is the case, rates are generally higher. Some associations also publish recommendations for fees and royalties.

Free copies

  • The average number of free copies of the translated book that the translator can be expected to be given is 5 to 10. Again, this was my experience.

Time

  • The translator will need to negotiate the length of time they have to submit the finished translation. A period of 6 to 12 months is realistic.

The work involved

  • I made a bit of an error here, so watch out. For the first book I submitted my completed translation, got paid the final instalment, and the next time I heard from the publisher was when 5 lovely hardback copies arrived in the post.  The second time I was asked to check artwork layouts and proofs at each stage of the publishing process etc. I had to politely explain that my negotiated fee was only for the translation and any translation-related matters. These editing activities just eat up time which you don’t get paid for.


Can you make a living from literary translation?

Short answer, I doubt it.

Literary translators’ income comes from three basic sources:

  • The basic fee – calculated by the number of words, pages, or keystrokes
  • Royalties – e.g. shares of the proceeds, or public lending rights (PLR) (although they are often offset against the basic fee and thus only kick in when book sales are significant)
  • Grants and subsidies – Routledge had received an EU grant to have the Hermann Scheer book translated into English, although in many countries these will be almost negligible

So no, the cash isn't sloshing around. Most literary translators will also have other careers, as lecturers, teachers, etc., with literary translation from German to English more of a side-line.

It’s also a form of reputation building for linguists, similar to the way in which academics are expected to publish regularly if they wish to maintain their professional profile.


A few pros & cons of literary translation

PROS:

  • The feel good factor

Having your name in print has to be the ultimate form of recognition for a German to English translator, even if your name is only on the inside cover (the limited profile of the literary translator is another industry sore point). It’s “official proof” of your abilities. So, it feels good.

  • Time planning

You have a set amount of time available for your book translation from German to English and can allocate your working time as you wish. Plus you can use your time more efficiently by continuing to accept other work, thus reducing your overall non-translation “downtime”.

  • Efficient working

Whatever the length of a translation, you must first analyse the style of the German text and research the terminology of the subject area before deciding best how to render this into English.

However, the longer the translation, the relatively shorter this research time is, and increased familiarity with the subject area means that the translation process tends to become quicker the further you get into it.

 

CONS: (or let’s call them hidden benefits!)

  • Income

You don't translate books to get rich. According to CEALT, translator incomes in the UK are around half of average incomes in the manufacturing and services sector. This is unlikely to change, and so you’ll probably need to boost your income with other forms of translation or language-related work (as I do it with this website). Grants are also available for funding literary translation.

  • Cancelling work

You may need to refuse work from some of your usual clients if time schedules clash - although this may be your chance to start your own agency, and contract extra work out. And it is a good way of reminding your clients just how in demand you are!

  • Physical volume of work

A book = generally a lot of text = a lot of typing. This is something I have only recently been forced to consider, after a bout of RSI which made typing painful.

However, speech recognition software is a great solution – I solved the problem by using Dragon Naturally Speaking software which even had the added benefit of speeding up the translation process.


TIP! Thinking about literary translation? Why not judge your own translation skills by practising some translation from German to English? Use some of the free German translation resources available on the web. Choose a German text, have a go at translating, and then compare your translation from German to English with the published one. A great learning source.


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