Thursday 14 June 2012

Is Self-Translation the Future?

Benjamin Stein just reminded me of a speculative piece by Tom Hillenbrand (whose name I have to check every time I type it, sorry) about the future of publishing. Hillenbrand gives us ten bold theses on ebooks (in German), nine of which I won't go into.

However, point 10 is pretty damn fascinating for me, and prompted me to make a facetious comment when the piece was co-opted to a trade mag, which I rather regret now. Hillenbrand's thesis is that German (for the sake of simplicity, let's stick to just German) publishers or writers will start publishing their own English editions in Germany. He says the model in which a British or American publisher buys the English translation rights and then takes care of the translation and marketing will be passé in a fully digitalized market of the future.
The market entry costs are now negligible; no one is stopping the German publisher (or the author himself) from translating a book themselves and marketing it worldwide via iTunes and 
Even for a title that doesn't seem to have great potential for the English-language market, it will still make sense to put a translation onto the market on the off chance. The Anglo-Saxon market is gigantic and nobody really knows anyway why certain books are successful.
A translation only costs a couple of thousand euro, putting the digital book on Amazon is free and then the title is accessible for half a billion readers. It's cheap, it's high-potential and so everyone will do it.
I started discussing the point with Benjamin and soon realized I couldn't do so either in German or via a comments section. So I'd like to go into it in more detail here, with particular reference to my field, which is translating fiction.

To my mind, Hillenbrand has neglected one all-important factor in his calculation: the translator. While we are training up professional literary translators in the UK and the US now via degree courses and other programmes, there are still never going to be enough to meet demand should every author start "self-translating", as I'd like to call it, analogue to self-publishing. Simply because of the fact that English-speakers no longer feel any great need to learn foreign languages. (As a brief aside: read Tim Parks' latest column for the NYRB blog for a look at how favoured English-language fiction is on European markets. I may come back to this later.) Under these conditions, into-English translations would be a sellers' market and the price would presumably rocket up, well above Hillenbrand's already underestimated "couple of thousand euro". The supply side would be very tricky indeed.

Secondly, we have the issue of quality and quality control. It's not a new argument that publishers provide these services, which are not guaranteed in self-publishing. British and American publishers have contacts to translators and are in a position to judge the quality of their work, and to edit it specifically for their market. What does happen already is that German publishers commission occasional translations of non-fiction titles, often on popular historical subjects (i.e. Nazis), which they do market themselves inside Germany, to tourists. However, the translation quality is hit-and-miss and the editing process is difficult, let's say, because the books' original editors aren't in a position to judge the translation quality and have to rely on freelance native-speaker editors whose work they usually don't know either.

Moot point number three is demand. There's already very low demand for translated fiction in English-speaking countries, for whatever reasons. Now I don't pretend that UK/US publishers have unquestionable taste, but at the moment it's them who guess at what might drum up some demand among English-speaking readers. In my modest experience of German publishers' ideas of what might go down well in the UK/US, I'd say they're not always terribly good judges. And if we ask the authors themselves, well. We all have ego issues. With the way things are going, I don't see demand increasing sufficiently for it to be worthwhile investing - let's say - €10,000 (for translating, editing and typesetting a short book) on the off chance.

Benjamin also raised the point of German publishers lacking knowledge of the UK/US market with regard to taste in cover design, marketing, etc. I think that's a very good point, although Hillenbrand seems to be arguing that there won't be much need for those aspects in his publishing u-/dystopia.

So while I suspect self-translation will indeed happen more often in the future as it gets easier to produce books in digital-only form, I don't agree that everybody will jump on the bandwagon. Certainly I wouldn't recommend it, although if the idea were to take off, the quality glitch at least might be ironed out over time. What I find fascinating is the way Hillenbrand's thesis is almost diametrically opposed to Parks' idea of Anglo-American fiction's dominance and its effects on European reading (and writing) habits. At the risk of getting facetious again, under the present circumstances self-translation would be pretty much a vanity project, and an expensive one at that.

Update: As this brief item in German trade mag Buchreport reveals, it turns out that some publishers are already involved in self-translation. More soon.   

Update update: Here's the more.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! I started translating my own short stories, but soon realized that it leads to nowhere. That's why I looked for a translator and found someone. Nonetheless, when the translation is finished I read the whole text 3-4 times carefully, changing sometimes a word or two because of the sound of a sentence.
Self-translation might be an option for simple texts and books, where the content matters and not the (literary) form, but for real literature, we still need and - I guess - will always need a translator. There's a reason why the Germans call(ed) the translation of a poem "Nachdichtung".

Unknown said...

Thanks for that interesting article.
I'm Rory Mulholland and am a lapsed literary translator (from French and German) and am trying to worm my way back into it. Could I be so cheeky as to ask you who is the person at AmazonCrossing who I should get in touch with to offer my services? My mail is

Many thanks

brent said...

Nice post.It might look like an unnecessary cost increase at first glance, but I'd always recommend using language professionals for financial translation,or any translation the risk you run without them is sure to cost you much more in the end.Luckily, I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions.

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