What it takes to translate: the hidden art form of foreign-language editions

By   Hannah Bickerton 8 min read

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To one day translate a successful book into various languages is an ambitious dream for many writers. The opportunity to gain visibility in foreign markets and generate more book sales on an international scale are often key motivators for authors wishing to translate their literary work. Publishing in multiple languages provides them with the chance to globalise their book and market it to a wider audience, helping to improve their rankings as well as the revenue margin. Translation allows authors to share the message of their work with people all over the world, enriching and impacting the lives of those beyond their own language and culture.

However, producing a foreign-language edition of a book involves a lot more than a quick copy-and-paste into Google Translate; translation is an extremely complex, intricate and creative process that takes an incredible amount of talent and skill to perfect. Experienced editors are also essential in making the necessary changes and corrections to the translated text, while a fresh title and new cover design will be needed to appeal to different markets.

The Art of Translation

Takane no hana (高嶺の花) can be directly translated from Japanese as ‘flower on a high peak’; in essence it means ‘something that is is beyond one’s reach’ or ‘something beautiful to look at that you realistically will never be able to attain’. This is just one of endless examples that illustrate how one language can never be an exact imprint of another. Untranslatable words, clever wordplay, different grammatical structures and syntactic possibilities, as well as the impact of cultural and historical contexts on specific words and phrases, will always pose challenges for translators. It is expected that a translation will possess the same virtues as the original text, and inspire a similar response from readers. Cultural differences must also be reflected, yet still draw parallels that make it accessible, and ensure a fine balance is achieved between the literal and the suggestive.

The process behind how a translation comes to life will vary depending on the working style and preferences of the translator. Most often they will start with the obvious: reading the original book. And then reading it again, and again, and again, until they have firmly grasped the style and voice of the author and the messages and ideas they wish to convey to readers. Once the translator feels that they truly know the book inside and out, they may move on to reading more of the author’s published work to ensure they fully understand their literary style. Conducting research on relevant topics or cultural references referred to in the book and discussing unclear elements with native speakers will also form important parts of the process. Once they have completed their translation, the translator will self-review their work as many times as they feel necessary, until they are satisfied with what has been created.

In an article for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Deborah Smith discussed her translation of South Korean author Han Kang’s acclaimed novel The Vegetarian. In the article she states, ‘Since there is no such thing as a truly literal translation — no two languages’ grammars match, their vocabularies diverge, even punctuation has a different weight — there can be no such thing as a translation that is not “creative.” And while most of us translators think of ourselves as “faithful,” definitions of faithfulness can differ.’ Translation is undoubtedly one person’s subjective reading of the source text, and in many ways an art form. Words have different resonances and connotations for every individual, so as a translator writes their translation, they will be subconsciously including expressions, interpretations, vocabulary and insight from their own unique language and experience. In an interview with the New Yorker, one of Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s translators, Jay Rubin, said, ‘Murakami wrote the names and locations, but the English words are mine.’ Although some may argue against this, translated work can often be perceived as, in a sense, an entirely new entity.

foreign-language editions Murakami

The Importance of Editorial

An editorial team will be responsible for finding a translator who not only matches the original style of the book, but also has the capacity to delve into the words and clearly comprehend the author’s fundamental ideas. The translator will often need a deep understanding of the culture from which the book derives and in which it is set, alongside the required level of intellect to translate thoughts, ideas and complex theories. The tone of the book will also influence the choice in translator – a humorous narrative will need someone with wit, whereas a book written for teenagers that incorporates more slang terms will require a translator who can sympathise with and relate to that age group. It can be a difficult task to find the right fit for a project, because even the best translator may not be suitable for every book that comes along. It is important that the translator matched with a project is able to feel an affinity and connection with the work in order to truly capture the author’s original intentions.

After the translator has completed and reviewed their translation, a structural editor will usually edit the book as though it were the original. In some circumstances, editors may be hesitant to make changes to a translation on the basis that it has already been edited in another language. Although wide-scale changes most likely won’t be needed, editorial standards will differ between countries and anomalies and inconsistencies can still be present. A copyeditor will then adjust unobtrusively to create the best version of the book that both the author and translator are happy with. They will help to change and adapt (or improve) sentence structure, wording, language-use mistakes, inconsistencies, and incorrect terminology. Once typeset, a proofreader will then ensure that there are no lingering errors in the final translation. They will focus on spelling, punctuation, grammatical mistakes, typographical errors, the consistency in the language, and overall format of the final pages. The expertise of an editor, whatever their specific role may be, is fundamental to the success of a translated book and must not go unrecognised.

The Imagining of New Titles & Covers

Literal translations of book titles don’t always work, and in most cases they will fail to grab the attention of the prospective audience. In most cases,  a complete revamp of a book’s title and cover will be necessary to appeal to those in different countries and cultures, since tastes and outlooks will often vary drastically. For example, Rita Rait-Kovaleva’s Russian translation of the iconic novel Catcher in the Rye changed the title to Over the Abyss in Rye, which doesn’t make much sense in English but proved hugely successful in the Soviet Union at the time. Even same-language speaking countries like the US and UK have been known to alter their titles, changing Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights to The Golden Compass and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone, ‘philosopher’ apparently sounding far too archaic for American readers.

whitefox’s upcoming French edition of  The Happy Dog Cookbook by Sean McCormack of Tails.com has had the title reworked to Babines en cuisine, which essentially translates as ‘Chops in the Kitchen’, the term ‘babines’ referring to a dog’s mouth or lips. This catchy new title rolls satisfyingly off the tongue and is a great example of the creativity that goes into producing a foreign-language edition that will truly appeal to the French market. A new cover design has also been created, playing with a similar concept of the bone-shaped biscuits image and bold title font, but replacing the colour scheme with muted shades and taking a slightly different typographical approach. Although one should never judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes, in publishing, the cover design really can make or break the success of a book.

foreign-language editions Happy Dog

The Right Market

Every country will differ in their preferences for certain genres and subject areas. For instance, YA children’s books are very popular in Italy, and the Spanish market has a fondness for historical novels. Self-help and lifestyle books are particularly popular in France and China. This will often change, so it’s essential to conduct some market research to determine which foreign market will offer a specific book the best chances of success. Some genres can be much harder to translate than others – for instance, children’s books often include rhymes, meter, wordplay and illustrations. Rhyme will never be directly translatable between two languages, resulting in the need for a new storyline that matches the existing illustrations, or the commissioning of completely new illustrations. This can be expensive and time-consuming for an indie author and publisher, but it can be beneficial and even crucial to the success of the book in a particular market.

Foreign rights sales also need to be considered as an option. This essentially involves licensing the rights to a foreign publisher to translate, distribute, and sell a translated edition of the book on behalf of the author. Traditionally published authors often don’t own foreign-language rights to their book, whereas most indie authors will retain these rights, granting them the unique opportunity to sell their work for production and distribution in other territories. For example, India, China, Indonesia and South Korea are all plausible options that are particularly eager to import translated titles. In Indonesia, for example, fifty per cent of published books are translations from other languages, while more than forty per cent of South Korea’s bestsellers in the last few years have been foreign-language originated books.

Ultimately, the creation of foreign-language editions can be a tricky and complicated process to navigate, involving more work and creativity than many at first may assume. There are often some big risks to take into account, especially for an indie author. However, the incredible achievement of making a book accessible (and available) to different audiences around the world makes it all worthwhile. In a chaotic world filled with so much misunderstanding and uncertainty, such efforts to share knowledge, experiences, literature and important messages across the world should be admired and celebrated.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.