Tag Archives: book

Pen and paper

How much does it cost to translate a book?

Pen and paper

"It's a handwritten 100,000-word book you say? How long you say? No money for my work right now you say"

I like to answer the phone for my translation business, and that leads to some repetitive question and answers, but also excellent insight into the people who use my services. 99% of clients who call me are great — and grateful — for honest and straightforward answers. I give them a fair price and an accurate time estimate in which I can guarantee delivery on time (often it arrives earlier, but I like to under-promise and over-deliver).

Then, there are the outliers—the calls every translator dreads to receive. For instance:

“Hi, I need my book translated.”

Surprising, at least to me, are the number of calls I receive asking me to translate a book. I would love to begin a book translation, especially if it is an author I love, or a children’s book. Inevitably, however, a few more details emerge:

  1. Shockingly, the caller wrote the book himself or herself.
  2. It’s unfathomably long — at least 100,000 words if not 300,000.
  3. There is no publishing deal in place — for any language.
  4. The total budget is smaller than my monthly utility bill.
  5. The person needs it ASAP — no, wait a sec’ — make that next Monday.

I’m a bit of a writer myself, so I understand the temptation to publish and the lure of the pen (or laptop). For the same reason, I also know how long it takes to come up with, and subsequently type out, 100,000 or more words. It boggles my mind that the calls I’ve received often expect the translation to take less time than it might to simply retype the book, and that, when I make the calculation for budget/time, it comes out to something like $0.85/hour. That’s 1/10 the minimum wage in San Francisco.

“Hi again, I’ll pay you with proceeds from my book sales.”

This followup call is my least favorite. The unrealistic budget and time allotment has failed to hook any translator in the sea. After a brief pause following the crushing reality of time and space required to do work, the author has entered again into a mind distortion field. He (or she, publishingitis affect both genders equally) has reemerged with a, seemingly, brilliant solution: pay with hypothetical future proceeds on the publication of a translation of a book that has never been published and may never be.

At this point, I still try to be polite and graciously decline. That doesn’t work. I’m quoted an outrageously high figure which supposedly corresponds to my potential virtually-guaranteed-not-to-be-missed-for-anything royalty figure in the not-to-distant future. It’s not that the offer isn’t flattering, I say, it’s just that I have so many other obligations.

And then another client calls on the other line—thank you! thank you! thank you!—I regretfully end the call with the budding author and talk to another potential client who restores my faith in all that is true and good.

“Hi, I need to get something notarized.”

“Well, it’s not exactly what I do, but thank you for the call. You really saved me.”