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.


  1. Thanks.
    Very interesting post.
    I guess working together is a huge advantage, because the one who edits can look at the text with new eyes and probably has a easier time ironing out the parts that don't sound too good or are translated too literally than the author of the draft would have.
    Roughly, how much time does it take translating the draft and how much polishing/editing it? 2 months to 1 ?
    Mammoth effort on the Millenium Trilogy.


  2. Hi Reg,

    The power of technology! I pick up a book you have translated, in Mumbai, post a blog on the worldwide web and you get to know of it and can reply! I guess you have some way of tracking every new mention of the book?
    I do several weekly shows on CNBC TV18(India)including STORYBOARD a show on advertising & marketing that can also be seen in the US on CNBC World. I do an interview series called Beautiful People and Slumdog Millionaire's Danny Boyle was my guest last week. I think there are some clips on youtube if you search for danny boyle+cnbc tv18.
    I am looking forward to the weekend so that I can start the book and read it uninterrupted. Thanks for getting in touch.
    All the best, Anuradha

  3. Hej Reg.
    Jeg har en god lille opgave her til den dygtige oversætter. Den siger meget om, hvordan man IKKE skal oversætte. Jeg læste en krimi om samer i Lapland for et par år siden (99% sikker på det var Nemesis af Henning Böetius). Her kunne måbende danskere lære, hvordan moderne samer holdt styr på deres store renflokke: de brugte lappetoppe!
    Hundrede sider senere viste det sig dog, at de også havde ganske almindelige bærbare computere. Hehehe.

  4. Hej Dorte, that's one of those untranslatable ones, I'm afraid. Tiina loved it.

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  6. Thanks for noting that cutbacks in copy-editing mean increases in errors.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  7. I've said that with English, German and a little Dutch after a while I was able to read the papers in Danish during my Interrail trip 10 years ago.
    So let's see how I fare with this now.

    I have a nice little (aufgabe) task here for the (able?) translator. Because this surely (shows?) how one shouldn't translate.I did read a crime novel over Samis and Lappland a couple of years ago (I'm 99% sure it was Nemesis from Henning Boetius).
    Here the Danes could maybe learn how modern the Samis were considered by their (?) folk:they used laptops!
    A hundred pages later yet it displayed that they also all had portable computers.

    The last two sentences are a bit shaky-there are some missing elements and I may have misunderstood the meaning, but without a dictionary and not knowing the grammar, not a bad effort no?

    I understood at first reading that there's a misunderstanding based on lappetoppe which are not laptops (portable computers) but probably some kind of traditional Lapp/Sami garment.

    Off the mark by much?


  8. Ok, I realize now that renflokke is probably reindeer,and the third phrase means something like

    Here can maybe the Danes learn,how modern sami hold count of their herds of reindeers. Should have thought about it a little more.
    So the wordplay involves baerbare (bearbare/portable) and barbaric?

  9. Thanks for this peek into the world of translating.