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  • Writer's pictureThe Publishing Post

The Book Translation Process

By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris, Toby Smollet and Kate Williams

Translated books have become more and more common in UK bookshelves in recent years. These books, of course, do not appear out of thin air; they all must go through the process of translation. We have spoken about translation techniques before, however the decision on whether or not to translate must come before translation can begin. The question then is, what is the process of publishing a translation? How is the decision made to translate that specific work over another? In this article, we will look at elucidating the whole process for you in three main sections.


The first step of the translation process is to carry out research into the international book market to determine the value of translating into a particular language. Translation is a long, painstaking process, so publishers want to be confident that their efforts will be worthwhile.

An important factor to consider is whether the book in question will appeal to readers in the target language. For example, a book on how to knit woolly hats could appeal to Russian speakers, who typically live in a country where the temperature is extremely cold in the winter. On the other hand, Portuguese speakers, usually based in Portugal and Brazil, may not find this book so interesting, as the warm climate in these countries means that they might not need to wear this kind of clothing.

As well as considering these cultural factors, publishers may also want to look at sales figures and trends in international marketplaces, to determine the profitability of a particular translation. Factors to consider could include the genres that are popular in the target language, competition from other similar books previously published in that language, and cultural trends in countries where the language is spoken. If, for example, a sci-fi TV series were to become a hit in Germany one year, publishers might want to capitalise on this opportunity by commissioning German translations of their sci-fi books, with the aim of increasing sales.

Selling Translation Rights

After doing market research, the translation rights need to be sold, so that the book can actually be translated. Translation rights can be sold by the copyright holder of the original text, which, in most cases, is the publisher (if the book has been published traditionally). When trying to translate a book, the publisher will reach out to foreign publishers to try and convince them to buy the translation rights. This can also be done via a foreign rights agent that publishers can hire to do the job for them.

Book fairs are a big part of rights negotiations, including translation rights. The three main ones are the Bologna Book Fair in March, the London Book Fair in April, and the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. The fairs will have big halls where negotiations are held. These are all very important opportunities for publishers to try and sell translation rights of their books. They will sit down with foreign publishers and try to negotiate a deal to translate the book.

If a deal is made, the book will then be translated. The foreign publisher will be responsible for the actual translation of the work and the publication of it in their country. All the original publisher does is give the rights to publish the translated work in different formats.

Translation Itself: Selective Approaches

Literary translation at its most basic is a non-literal rendition of the original text. But how translators react to the source text varies depending on the translator and their immersion in that language. It appears to be a common phenomenon that translators feel more comfortable reading source language(s) than conversing in them. Even Ferrante’s translator extraordinaire, Ann Goldstein states that “my spoken Italian is not as good as my reading Italian.” A rich variety of translating approaches can inform the decisional processes a translator makes.

Translators such as Edith Grossman and Melanie Mauthner read the book first, with Mauthner even combining this with reading “other books by the author so that I have the sound and feel of their prose in my head.”

Others, such as George Szirtes take more of a mezze approach and “read the first chapter or so then to get down to it. [...] [They] listen intently for the timbre of the voice and seek a comparable voice in English that might bring to English the experience a native reader might have in Hungarian.”

Some, like superstar translator Charlotte Mandel, translate as they read it for the very first time. As Mandel notes on her translation of Compass: “since I never read a book before I translate it, I didn’t have any preconceived notions about Franz; I met him as the reader meets him, for the first time.”

Then there’s the sleuthing modus operandi of translators like Daniel Hahn, who calibrates every word like a jeweller and reworks numerous drafts.



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