Should You Translate a Book You Self Published?

Updated on October 7, 2017
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Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert, nonfiction book editor, author of 21+ books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.


At a recent networking meeting, a couple of self published authors noted that they were in the process of translating their children's books into Spanish. I applaud their efforts to expand and diversify the audience for their books. However, I had to be the bearer of bad tidings that this effort is much, much more than simply finding someone to translate the book into another language.

Will Your Copyrights Get Lost in Translation?

Most authors are shocked to learn that a translation of their books could have separate copyrights that are owned by the translator. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, a translation may be considered a derivative work. Unless otherwise specified in an agreement with the translator, the translator could claim some ownership to the copyrights and royalties for the translation.

Many translators may do the work on a "work for hire" basis where they don't claim any rights to the translation. However, especially for large or complex translations, translators could invest a lot of time and talent in the project, and may want a share of the royalties. So ask to make sure of what the translator is expecting!

Word to the Wise: Get professional legal help in creating a written agreement for translation work which defines the copyrights of both the author and translator BEFORE the translation work begins.

Why Do You Want to Translate a Book You Self Published?

As the world gets smaller and smaller due to the expansiveness of the Internet, the temptation to translate a self published book into other languages has some validity. As well, authors see having their books translated into other languages as a badge of honor indicating the international popularity of their work.

As with writing a book, you have to ask yourself why you want to translate it into another language. Do you want sales of your other products and services from people who speak this other language? Or are you on a mission of sorts, attempting to reach the hearts and minds of those who speak a language different than your native tongue? And if you are able to connect with them through this translated work, what is it that you hope to accomplish by doing so?

Translation is an investment of both effort and dollars. Know your why!

Do You Speak the Language of the Translation? And Do You Trust Your Translator?

We laugh at sitcom sketches where inaccurate translations cause a host of socially awkward situations. Now imagine that the translation of your self published book causes your readers to laugh at your inability to speak their language. They may even be offended. That's a sitcom you won't want to watch!

I learned my lesson in this area many years ago when I was in the trade show business. I was in marketing and the company I worked for was helping a client start a new trade show to be held in Hong Kong. The U.S.-based show team and I were working on creating a promotional brochure that needed to be developed for the show.

With Hong Kong being a British colony (still at that time), it was likely that many people who would receive the brochure spoke English, though probably UK (British) English. However, the client wanted the marketing brochure to be translated into Chinese. Oh boy! I don't speak or write Chinese. And then there was the question of what Chinese dialect to use. Mandarin was chosen since one of the staff said it's used for business. But who knew if that was right? (I still don't know.)

So a Chinese translator was hired. Of course, what she sent back was unreadable to anyone at our company. The translator followed up with me on the phone about the work, asking if I had proofread what she sent. How could I even do that? I hoped she had done it right and that it would pass review by the client and any overseas contacts working on the event.

Getting a trusted translator, preferably a bilingual native speaker of the translated language, is an absolute must, especially if you don't speak the language yourself. As well, you'll also need some expert beta readers and editors—bilingual native speakers again preferred—to review the translation to see how authentically the message compares with the original. And, yes, this means more cost to you. So your why better be very compelling to justify this kind of investment.

Speaking to the Locals

I've read some books that were from Australia. Of course, the authors are writing in English, but it's primarily UK English, not American English. Plus, there may be some variants between Australian English and UK English, too. So every once in a while during the readings, I'd bump into a term that seemed odd, necessitating a lookup to see what it meant.

As the Mandarin dialect translation for the brochure project and reading these Australian books illustrate, even within a particular language there are variations that may need to be observed for an intended audience. Editing for the locals is called localization.

If you plan to primarily sell your books to an audience that speaks a particular dialect or variant of a language, then investing in a localization edit may be something to also consider.

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


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  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Larry! True, lots to consider when considering translation. If you do it, let us know about your experience. Thanks for stopping by and have a terrific Tuesday!

  • Larry Fish profile image

    Larry W Fish 5 months ago from Raleigh

    I have never considered having one of my books translated into a different language. I see there is a lot to consider that I will keep in mind if I happen to translate to another language.

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hello Sadith! Kudos for taking that first step in the Spanish to English translation. That can be a big project. Thanks for sharing your experience with us and good luck with both the Spanish and English novels!

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    Mary, I think those who actually experience moving from one country or culture appreciate the importance of this most! Thank you for sharing your experience.

    And, absolutely, intent is everything!

    Always appreciate your insight! Have a delightful week ahead!

  • Sadith Lugart profile image

    Sadith Lugart 5 months ago from España

    In my case is very important. I am Spanish and for me is very important to have my book translated into English. I am in the process, the translator has given me 30 days and I am very excited to see the result. Is something very important for me because is my fisrt novel.

  • Blond Logic profile image

    Mary Wickison 5 months ago from Brazil

    I know how different the English language can be as I lived in the UK for many years. Many times I made some shocking errors in my selection of words.

    You have made some interesting points which I had never considered about the translations.

    I have read books by Jo Nesbo and also some articles about the translation into English from Norwegian. It isn't just translating the words but also the intent.

    Another interesting topic for authors to think about.

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    Flourish, you're right. It seems so simple (especially with tools such as Google Translate). But it's so much more than just matching words and phrases. It has to include the nuances of each language to communicate properly. Thanks for sharing your experience in the translation zone! Have a lovely weekend!

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    Hi Peg! Translating an entire novel into Spanish could be quite a project. So I'm glad you found this helpful. Do look at all the costs before leaping into it. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a great weekend!

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

    Who knew that this was such a complicated issue, especially with the translations and derivatives? You point out a lot of good things to consider. I’ve read a number of novels written in British or Australian English vernacular and some of them were so over the top I could not finish them. The authors really don’t understand how distracting it is.

  • PegCole17 profile image

    Peg Cole 5 months ago from Dallas, Texas

    This is timely advice for me as someone recently suggested I translate my first novel into Spanish. I certainly don't speak that language and don't want to lose any of my copyright privileges. Thanks for this information. Good to know.

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 5 months ago from Chicago Area

    Howdy, Bill! I'm not translating anything either unless I really, REALLY want to make sales (of more than just books) outside the U.S.

    It's cooling down a bit here. Finally getting a bit of rain which we desperately need. Chores kind of weekend here, too. Thanks for taking time out to stop by and hope you do some relaxing this weekend, too!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 5 months ago from Olympia, WA

    Not going to happen with this writer, for so many reasons. But it was interesting to read about, and I applaud anyone willing to attempt it despite its drawbacks.

    Fall is rapidly approaching, and outdoor chores are calling me. Have a great weekend!