Crossing The Language Barrier – Is It Worth Translating Your Books To Gain A Bigger Audience 2

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Crossing The Language Barrier – Is It Worth Translating Your Books To Gain A Bigger Audience

To translate or not to translate is the question image by Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos

To translate or not to translate is the question
image by Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos

I enjoy reading books by authors whose first language is not English. Just like foreign movies, they have a different voice, a different way of telling the story. I love the writing of Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, Venezuelan Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Portugal’s Jose Saramago. While each of those writers can or could speak English, they wrote in their own native languages. This means I have read their work ‘in translation’ and that often leaves one wondering if the translator captured the true essence and nuance instilled in the original text.


Translation is not a simple process of substituting the foreign word for the English one. It’s not as easy as using Google Translate. In some languages they use one word for what takes us ten, or ten to say what we can say with one. There is translation that is literal and then there is translation that is interpretive. Next time you watch a movie with sub-titles, spare a moment to think that they have to accurately translate the dialogue and show it within the time allowed before the shot changes to the other speaker. I know, with the little German I do speak, that very often the sub-titles don’t translate the literal words spoken but more the meaning, especially when it comes to idiomatic speech or slang.


Those of us who are native speakers (and thus readers and writers) of English tend to forget that, even within our own borders, there are very large audiences of readers and writers whose first language is one other than our own. English as a Second Language, or ESL, readers and writers live among us in countries with large migrant populations such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.


According to the US Census Bureau, in 2007, out of a total population of 316 million, only 298 million were English speakers. Of these, 255 million claimed English as their first language (L1) with 43 million saying it was an ‘additional language’ (L2). That means there are 18 million people in the USA who officially don’t speak any English at all!


Translating your English manuscripts into one of the world’s ‘majority’ languages, could make all the difference between commercial success or failure and is well worth considering. These days getting text translated is neither difficult nor all that expensive, relatively speaking. I have had work translated into Spanish, German and Hindi and published print editions of my titles in all three. There are of course traps for young players and we need to run some numbers to see if the exercise is viable but for me, just acknowledging that there are people who read and write in languages other than my own is one way I can contribute to the acceptance of diversity in our community and of course, on the planet.


If we look at English and the other top ten languages spoken in the world by number of speakers, they are in order:


Language Native Speakers (millions) % of World Population
Mandarin 935 14.1
Spanish 387 5.85
English 365 5.52
Hindi 295 4.46
Arabic 280 4.23
Portuguese 204 3.08
Bengali 202 3.05
Russian 160 2.42
Japanese 127 1.92
Punjabi 98 1.44
German 92 1.39

Source: SIL Ethnologue


While more than 365 million people speak English, as far as L1 or native speaker status is concerned, the Mandarin and Spanish native speakers are far more numerous.


When I was researching the foreign language translation market I looked at these numbers and decided that, other than English, I had to have books translated into the top four or five other languages. Of course other factors such as the disposable income (for books) of say the average Bengali speaker had to be taken into account but, even though some of these languages are spoken by millions of the poorest people on the planet, many can afford books and do buy them. is now selling out of India and while there are an estimated 125 million English speakers in India (out of a total population of 1.2 billion), Hindi is spoken and read by many more.


Most educated estimates place the number of people who can speak English at around the half a billion mark. That is a huge audience but it pales when compared to how many people speak Mandarin alone; nearly double that figure. Add in the Spanish, Hindi and Arabic speakers and your audience is hitting the 2 billion mark and rising all the time. The wonderful thing about selling eBooks is that the conduit to get the book from writer to reader exists. The World Wide Web’s penetration is growing every year and, when we include mobile devices, there are few people and fewer places on the planet where a person can’t access the web, download your book and then enjoy reading it.


PerryGamby2My first translation effort was in Spanish. The reason for this was because I believe the size of the market justified the cost and effort involved and they use the same Latin script as we do. I crowdsourced a translator through and made it clear I had a very limited budget. Basically, despite agreeing to do the whole book she translated only as much of the manuscript as she felt my budget covered according to her scale of fees. I thought she had delivered the entire manuscript and so I released payment and then she told me if I wanted the thing completed, I could pay more! A lesson learned.


The next translator did a great job and was keen to do more for a share in sales revenue and also would look after marketing in Latin America. As we began the production work on the translated text her life took a new direction and she asked me to release her from her contract. I did this but I now had a Spanish language edition that I had to format and publish. Fortunately I had arranged for the translator to match each page of text in Spanish with the English page and so I could format and layout the manuscript fairly easily. On the page, some paragraphs will be longer than others and so after a chapter or two the page numbers will no longer match. If there has been a glitch or two when copy/pasting, you might end up with missing words, sentences or whole paragraphs. Suffice to say, it is not a simple process and there are many ways it can all go pear shaped.


Emboldened by my success in Spanish, I arranged for a German version of the same book to be translated. Interestingly, the budget I had offered for Spanish translators attracted well over a dozen bidders. The same budget for German translators attracted several emails calling me all sorts of nasty things based on my cheap offer and lack of respect for the translator’s skills and feelings. Seriously, some were extremely rude about how insulting it was that I would actually offer so little. I intended to politely remind each one that nobody was forced to bid for the job, that I had already apologised for the low budget and explained that it was all I had to work with and there was no need to abuse me via email. I intended to but then I figured what was the point? I had better things to do with my time.


I did find a willing candidate, albeit not a professional translator but a native German speaker who had lived in Australia for many years. She did a good job but her computer was ancient and her word processing program older and so I had a lot of difficulty formatting the manuscript for publication. So much so it is still back with her for fixing, two years down the track. I guess you get what you pay for.


I have since had numerous other titles translated very efficiently by a different translator for a profit share arrangement and the first of those is selling well on and elsewhere.


PerryGamby3Next came Hindi. A writer I sub-contract work to offered to translate the same title I now had in English and Spanish into Hindi. Finding a font that worked on her PC and my MacBook was the first hurdle. Once translated and visible to me in script rather than squares, I had to trust the copy/paste and formatting worked because while I can muddle through with German and even Spanish, Hindi is a different kettle of curried fish altogether! Valuable lessons were learned that will be applied when I translate into other non-Latin scripts such as Arabic, Mandarin and Russian. I have had the Hindi edition test-read and it is readable, although there are some issues but those are not the fault of the translator, they are mine, the publisher!


So far the free downloads of ‘Hilda Hopkins, Murder She Knit’ in Spanish have indicated there is a market for these books (now 9 in the series) in Spain, Central and South America. The Hindi version has not been formatted for eBook (.epub or .mobi) simply because I know it would be rejected and a waste of my time to even try doing it myself. My original idea was to have the English text on the left page and the other language text on the right as an aid to those learning to read either language. This proved too tricky for me to achieve but it is not impossible to make happen, providing you have the budget.


I spent $250 on each translation and of course, you get what you pay for.


I think you can have a book of 50,000 words professionally translated and formatted for publication for around $1,000 by leveraging the crowdsourcing sites like Elance and oDesk. There is a market to be tapped but if you are selling eBooks for a dollar or so, then you will need to sell a lot before you recoup your translation costs let alone any of your other expenses.


Translating the manuscript is only the first step. You need to translate the author bio, back cover blurb and any other promotional text. Your newly translated title can be as easy to get lost and never be found on or as it is on Writing, and by extension translating, is the easy bit. Promoting and marketing the translation is just as challenging and requires just as much hard work and perhaps even more. Having said that, though, it is a buzz to have your work read by people who can’t understand a word of your native tongue yet still love what you have to say.




Perry-ANZAC2Perry Gamsby, D.Lit., MA(Writing), Dip.Business is a Sydney, Australia based writer and indie-publisher. His work is available for purchase online through and elsewhere in both print and electronic editions. Perry also helps other writers become published authors and lectures at various community colleges on the topic of Online Writing. You can read more about him and eWriting at


© Perry Gamsby 2014

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2 thoughts on “Crossing The Language Barrier – Is It Worth Translating Your Books To Gain A Bigger Audience

  • Riley Banks

    Great article Perry. One question you didn’t answer in the article – was it worth it for you? Did you actually make a return on your investment, or is that still coming? How about volume? Did you sell (giveaway) a large number or was it just a trickle?

    • Perry Gamsby

      Fair comment, Rebecca. It is a rhetorical question, really (hence no question mark). The featured translated book is a free download and so no direct return. What it has done is prove the concept. Hundreds of downloads and no complaints or returns… but no reviews either. If I had the second book ready to go as I had planned I am sure it would have sold. I will revisit the translation project this year, probably after April.

      I think you will gain a bigger audience and if that is the objective then it should be worth the time, trouble and expense. If the objective is to increase sales then it should, in time but like anything, having lots of titles to choose from and marketing them, building the fan base and so on are must-do’s.

      If any Writer’s Shack members wish they can always contact me by leaving comments in the first instance and if I can offer any insight, I’ll certainly do my best to help.