Should you get your books translated?

I’ve pondered over this question back and forth for several years and I’m still not sure what the answer is. I’ve even reached out to translators who haven’t replied.

It’s funny how people say they are looking for translation work and don’t know why they can’t get it, but when you actually contact them they don’t respond.

There are two types of translation. I mean, it’s probably a spectrum but there are two main ones you need to know about. First there’s the type of translation where you get a highly skilled bilingual person to read your work, understand it, and transform it into a work of equal quality in a second language.

Sounds amazing, right?

Then there’s the second type. This is where some idiot takes $5 and pastes your manuscript into Google translate.

I mean, if that’s how you’re going to translate something, at least do it yourself, don’t pay someone else.

Some people reading this will be wondering why that might be a problem.

Basically, languages are a lot more than just “different words for stuff.” They usually have different grammatical structures, and even something as basic as which verbs are regular or irregular varies from one to the next.

Fun fact, at its conception, Esperanto was the only language in the world to have no irregular verbs.

But it’s even more than that. A language is usually based off a shared cultural world view and that is what Google cannot translate.

By which I mean, you would immediately understand “run the tap for a bit to see if there’s any hot water left” to mean, “turn on the tap and allow water to pour out of it for a reasonable duration to discover whether there is any hot water available in the hot water tank.”

Google doesn’t know that. Languages aren’t literal. Most of the way English is constructed is metaphorical. You don’t literally pick up a tap and run down the road with it when you “run the tap”.

Catch my drift?

So when you put something through Google, even if it identified the correct idiom in one language, it isn’t going to find the correct idiom in another language. Because it translates on a word-by-word basis. And the other issue with doing it that way is, misunderstandings.

Let’s use our “run the tap” example again. You mean “run” like “operate” and it thinks you mean “run” as in “jogging”. And you mean “tap” as in “thing that dispenses water” and it thinks you mean “tap” as in “tapping my feet to the music”. Suddenly, your translation is “jog the percussion” instead of “run the tap” and you have no way of knowing, because if you spoke the other language you wouldn’t need Google to translate for you.

Could you imagine for a minute how awful a book would be if you tried to translate it with a machine?

Between the two extremes are most translation services. What you want is the bilingual person. And that’s what most translators advertise themselves as. But the bilingual person (quite rightly) charges a lot of money for their services. And you have a Google Translate budget.

It’s tempting, isn’t it?

But how would you feel as a reader if you opened a book and read “jog the percussion” and the whole book was full of other mistranslations just like that one? It wouldn’t make any sense at all and you wouldn’t be able to follow the story.

Your brand needs a reputation for consistent quality. You can’t maintain a reputation like that by selling crap. I refer to it a lot, but “don’t sell crap” is my favourite Steve Jobs quote and I held onto it while I saw hundreds of beauty blogs which were just faceless fake reviews regurgitating the words on packaging. And they grew faster than my little website. Which is still going 8 years later and theirs aren’t.

And this is why I’ve never had any of my books translated. I’m still on a Google Translate budget. And that’s not good enough. So I’ll wait until I have enough to actually get someone to do a proper job of translation.

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