The Ups and Downs of Translating for Self-publishers

Self-publishing is a growing phenomenon, with more authors forgoing traditional publishers and striking out on their own. This has allowed many new authors out into some sort of public print space. Literature-in-translation, which has found it difficult to get the attention of large Anglophone publishers, is also making use of self-publishing options:

digital-self-publishingThe Intralingo blog recently ran a piece from Aleksandra Milcic‘s blog by Rachel Ward that first appeared as “Working Directly with Self-Published Authors.“ Thus far, I haven’t seen a major Arab author try self-publishing in translation. After all, self-publishing directly in a first language requires little investment, whereas self-publishing in translation requires payment to a — hopefully professional — translated.

But Milcic writes that translating for self-publishers does have its upsides:

Agencies or publishers offer an extra degree of security but take their cut, (try to) impose their own terms and conditions and so on. With direct clients, things can be much simpler but there may be a greater degree of risk and you’re thrown much more on your own resources. In the case of a book self-published in this way, you obviously also need to take on all the marketing and so on yourselves as well, so it’s essential to have a good business relationship with the author.

There are potential downsides:

I know that some translator/author relationships have been less straightforward, particularly when the author also speaks or even writes in English and wants to have a say in the translation process, so it was important to me to make it clear right from the start that as the translator I retain copyright over the translation and thus have the final say over what goes into it.

Although certainly, the same can happen with publishers, as was the case with Marilyn Booth’s translation of Raja al-Sanea’s Girls of Riyadh, which came out from Penguin. 

What about negotiations? Milcic suggests that:

…things are different. If a translation is to be published as an e-book, for example, there are aspects of the traditional publishing process that don’t apply, and there are also opportunities to approach payments and royalties in new ways that can be beneficial to both parties. You can arrange your own ratio of advance to royalties and set the threshold at which they kick in and so on, or arrange that royalty payments will be made right from the start.

She also noted that the “advice of the legal people at the Translators’ Association was invaluable.”

All in all, it seems this was a positive experience for Milcic: She liked the book, she enjoyed herself, and (presumably) she got paid.

Certainly, the ideal is to get paid for the project. But there are also Arabic-English translators out there — you know who you are — who have books in their drawers that they’ve translated but haven’t published. Is self-publishing a possible way forward? Why, when, why not?


  1. It’s a frustration that self publishing simply doesn’t warrant the cost of translation. The costs of editing alone are pretty daunting – and although as an English author who’d love to see my work in Arabic I would happily cede a percentage of sales to a translator, the fact I can’t/won’t pay an upfront translation fee speaks to my confidence that the move would be repaid.

    Additionally, the most critical part of self publishing is, IMHO, marketing. And translating into a language you can’t market in maketh little sense!

    1. Unless your translator can help you market. Aleksandra seems to indicate in her piece that, in self-pub gigs, the author & translator can be in for marketing together…

  2. In Iraq there are some self publishers of and about translation(s). We do it to avoid all beaucracies of publishing houses.

    1. Sorry about that, Rachel. Changing now.

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