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.”


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21 thoughts on “How much does it cost to translate a book?

  1. Hi, were interested in your book translation if u could email us how much it would cost for 120k words to chinese that would be great id we come upon a agreement then we will gladly send you the book

  2. Hi,
    I’m looking for a student that can translate an English book in European or Chinese languages to expand the sale market. But I can pay with a percentage of sale.
    If interested, email me,

    1. Hello,

      Are you still looking for someone to translate your book ?
      I am a french translator and might be interested.

      Looking forward to hearing from you

      Aziliz Samica

  3. John, this is exactly what I am talking about. If you can’t pay a translator anything upfront based on your English sales, what basis do they have to believe they will make anything more than $0 for percentage of sales?

  4. Hi,
    I recently approached a friend about translating her books. She already works with a publisher. They pay entirely on commisssion. Her books are selling well here in America, and her publisher believes they can do well in Europe. She owns her foreign rights, so has said that if I know people and can find a good publishing company in Europe she’d be open to discussing that possibility. She’s offered 20% to translate, and has said that this is also negotiable. What do you thi about this? Also, this is my first book to translate.
    Thx, Anne

    1. The first step is to find a publisher in Europe. If you have a deal to distribute the book, it’s worth translating. It makes little sense to translate a book and just hope some publisher will want it.

  5. what if I just want to have my 50K self-published novel translated into Greek so my relatives in Greece can read it? What would the going price for that be?

  6. Hello, I would like to know how much is the average cost to translate a book from Portuguese to English. I would like to write a book but my first language is Portuguese,I feel more comfortable in write a book in my native language and after translate to English. I just don’t have idea how to start? Thanks,

    1. You should always have the book published in your native language/country FIRST. Only then is it really possible to get it translated. Otherwise it will cost you thousands of dollars.

  7. Hi:
    I’m looking to translate a historical best selling novel from a Mexican author. The book is in Spanish and it needs to be translated into English. Say 75k words. Do you have any idea how much that would cost?

  8. Hello, I am in the editing phase of my book which just under 17,000 words and wanted to know the following:

    Which languages do you translate?
    What are your fees?
    How long do you estimate a translation of my book size taking?
    What are your credentials?

    Thank you in advance for your response.

    Donette Williamson

    1. Hi Donette,

      Translation is charged per word and can get very pricey for 17,000 words. Keep in mind that your publisher should pay for translation, and not you. If you do not have a publisher, or are self-publishing and have not made any money in your own language, I recommend you wait until your book has proven successful before translating. Hope that helps!

  9. Hi there. i have a 50k word book i need translated from English to Spanish. no rush. how much, roughly, would that cost?

      1. Hello!

        First, thank you for sharing your expertise!

        I am creating an estimate for translating a 65k word book from Enlish into Spanish. It’s genre is pirational/self-empowerment. The book has been published in its original language (EN) and has good sales so far.

        What is your ballpark estimate for cost of translation (including editing) and turn around time?

        Thank you!

  10. Hi! I’m completely new to this. I’m in my last year of high school, how can I begin a book translation career? What first step should I take? I have no idea.
    I read about finding a publishing house first.
    I would like to translate books from english to my mother tongue, spanish. And if required, viceversa too.
    Do you have any advice?
    Thank you in advance

    1. The best thing to do is to begin by translating short stories and submitting them to literary magazines that specifically publish translations. From there you’ll have a record to promote yourself with authors and agencies.

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