30 January 2009
Nuts & bolts of translation (1)
I have a query from Marco in Italy about exactly how long a book translation usually takes.
My wife Tiina Nunnally and I work together on every translation. One of us does the rough draft and the other edits the manuscript. The one who does the rough draft gets the credit on the book's title page. Generally we go over a highly literary work 3 to 6 times, polishing it to a high sheen. Most crime fiction doesn't take quite as much effort.
When we first started working together back in the days when we ran Fjord Press, the translator would read the English aloud while the other would follow along in the original language. This was very time-consuming but damn good training. And you'd be surprised how easy it is to drop a line or even a paragraph, especially if there are similar phrases in similar positions on the page. We are proud that our translations at Fjord Press were remarkably error-free, compared to most books today, now that publishers are cutting back on copy editing, or eliminating that step altogether.
As for the time it takes to do a book, we usually allow 3 to 6 months, depending on the length and difficulty. Of course we have several projects going at once, so these deadlines take into account all the "free" work we have to do after the final translation is turned in to the publisher: querying authors on troublesome phrases, looking at proofs (which usually have to be turned around fast and cut into translating time of the current book in progress), even translating, suggesting or correcting cover copy and blurbs.
Since translation is usually piecework, we get paid by the number of words in the final English manuscript. Our initial rate is thus expressed in dollars/pounds/euros per 1000 English words. We ask for 50% in advance to cover living expenses while working on the book, and 50% on delivery and approval of the translation.
We are firm believers in the concept that the translator must share in the success of any book which goes on to bestseller status, or in the case of classics, will sell steadily for many years, so we always require a small royalty. After a book "earns out" (accrues enough royalties to offset the original cost of the translation), we receive semi-annual royalty statements, and payment of the balance (sometimes minus a "reserve for returns" which the publisher holds in case a large number of books come back from bookstores and wholesalers) is due 90 days thereafter. Most books never earn out, however, so getting a fat or even modest royalty check is a rare occurrence, but always a nice surprise.
We each generally try to do 3-6 novels per year, somewhere around 350,000 to 600,000 words. [CENSORED]
While each of the 3 Mankell novels I did was supposed to be due in 3 months, I recall that we cranked out one of them -- I don't recall which -- in about 4 weeks because the "advance" was 2 months late! That's the publishing business for you.