Translation: Eva Stabenow and Kyle Wohlmut
Do you want to make the most of your book? Are you hoping to conquer new markets?
This guide tells you everything you need to know about having your book translated for the German market.
– how to tell whether your book is right for translation
– what to look for in a translator and how to find the right one for your book
– how the translation process works and what you need to know about the quirks of the German book market
– how to successfully position your book on the German market
– what you can to do win over and wow your new German readers
Interviews with industry insiders round out this useful guide.
The casual observer might be surprised at the increasing numbers of foreign authors publishing their books in German on the German book market. After all, the level of English in Germany is quite high; English is taught from elementary school on, and many Germans are voracious readers of books in English. But when it comes to reading for fun, many in Germany still prefer to read in their own language. The German public is actually quite accustomed to consuming media in translation: movies, TV series, and games in English are always dubbed, translated and localized for the German market.
That means if you want your book to reach a really large audience on the German-speaking market, you need to consider a German translation. Authors with a publishing deal are generally kept out of the loop on the translation because the publisher handles the translation rights. But what’s a self-published author to do? Typically, they face a tremendous hurdle on their first foray into the foreign-language market: because they don’t speak the language themselves, they have a hard time finding good translators, editors and proofreaders, evaluating translation samples, and learning the ins and outs of the foreign book market.
In this guide, we hope to walk you through some of the things you need to think about when getting your book translated into German, and give you some tips to help you find the right partners. To do this, we will not only be drawing on our own expertise but talking to a number of people in the field: media attorney Dirk Poppendieck, German self-publishing expert and book market watcher Matthias Matting, cover designer Frauke Spanuth and marketing assistant Tina Dick. We hope that the information in this guide will help you successfully conquer the German market, and are looking forward to seeing your books appear on it soon.
So who are we, and why did we write this guide?
We are Corinna Wieja and Jeannette Bauroth, both translators who have been translating British and American novels for German publishers for many years, and who are now working successfully with American self-published authors. For more about us and our services, visit our website at www.indie-translations.com.
One of the reasons we decided to write this book was that in our contacts with authors and discussions with people in the field, we discovered that there is a great deal of confusion about what is and is not allowed in Germany. We also found that authors were frustrated because they had no clue how to go about finding a good translator, and many had learned the hard way how things can go wrong. Finally, we discovered a lot of misinformation going around about certain legal aspects, like the copyright to the translation. On all these things and more, we hope that the knowledge we have acquired in our years in the business can help you.
Judging by the sheer number of novels in translation released by German publishers, it is clear that interest in books by English-language authors remains as high as ever. In 2015, translations made up 11.4% of the book market, of which nearly 60% were translated from English (source: summary of survey of the book market in Germany 2016, Der Buchmarkt in Deutschland – Buch und Buchhandel in Zahlen 2016).
A look at Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 Bestsellers list for Germany reveals that German readers love mysteries, thrillers and romance novels. And while the market for historical fiction may not be quite as strong as it has been in recent years, this genre still has plenty of fans hungry for reading fodder. The same can be said for paranormal fiction – even considering the golden age of this genre is probably behind us, its fan base is still growing. Then there are the genres that many publishers have written off, like the military romance novel. While conventional wisdom has it that this type of novel doesn’t sell in Germany, that there’s no market for it, this can also be seen as something of a chicken-and-egg problem: do these books really not sell because there’s no interest in them? Or are sales figures in this genre so low because there just aren’t enough books on the market, so comparative figures aren’t very meaningful (or aren’t available in the first place)?
While you’re considering genre, take a look at other authors who are writing in the same genre as you. Are any of their books already being sold in Germany? Are they selling? Of course, at the same time, you need to think about whether your books are right for translation in terms of content.
It’s important to keep in mind that reading is an emotional experience. That means that predicting whether a book has what it takes to compete on the German market is not an exact science. Your story or series might be just what German readers have been waiting for. Whether you’re trying to break into a highly competitive market like mysteries or romance novels, or crack an untapped subgenre like “sports romance” or “contemporary Western romance”, there is success to be had in any genre, as long as the book is good and the marketing suits the overall concept.
Keep in mind that readers love a series as much as an author does. If there’s not much chance of all the books in the series being translated because they are a niche product for the publisher, many readers will look for something else they can really get into instead. Also, it’s really frustrating to find out that a series will not be continued for whatever reason when you’re in the middle of reading it, so readers will often wait until the complete series is published. If you’re considering translating a book that is part of a series, you may want to make sure the entire series will be translated so you don’t disappoint your readers.
You might be tempted (like many authors are) to start by having your latest book translated, even though it’s in the middle of your series. Have you by any chance heard the stereotype that Germans like to do things in an orderly fashion? Well, it’s true. So by doing this, you will be running the risk of turning off a lot of potential readers – many will feel like they’re missing too much background information from the previous books to come into your series in the middle.
Also consider whether there is a risk that the foreign reader will not really get the rationale behind the characters’ actions. Take novels set in the American South: years ago, there were doubts as to whether the differences in mentality might be too extreme for German readers to identify with these characters. Of course, the monumental success of Gone with the Wind and the Civil War miniseries North and South in Germany suggest that this might not be such a concern after all!
At the same time, consider where a German audience might identify with the wrong characters in your book. Are the Germans in your story the bad guys? If so, this is another potential indication that translating your book for this particular target market might not be the best idea. All things being equal, the reader probably does not want to be forced to identify with the villains. If your story is set in Nazi Germany, be absolutely sure you get your historical facts right – or else be prepared to deal with plenty of harsh reviews from irate German readers.
Ask yourself whether your book takes place in a setting that German readers are going to find interesting enough. For example, take a look at favorite vacation destinations. Sun-drenched beaches dripping with the vacation vibe, megacities like New York and London, or the windswept wilds of the Scottish Highlands – stories set in the USA and the UK are sure to please because of their characteristic atmosphere and the widespread German fascination with the culture and country. But of course, an unusual setting can also be something to grab and captivate readers with. Susan Mallery’s novels set in remote, small-town America, for example, have proven to be staggeringly popular in Germany.
Does your book’s appeal rely on wordplay that is simply going to be difficult to convey in another language? Remember that a lot of humor is based on cultural peculiarities and habits; in these cases, a literal translation or even a translation that manages to get the meaning across will not fit the purpose, because the German-speaking reader will most likely not have the cultural context to understand the reference and get the joke. While a good translator will generally be able to find a solution that works, so the reader will at least get an idea of the effect of the original, this is something of an art form in itself, and requires a very sensitive touch (as well as a lot of time) on behalf of the translator.
And though it may seem obvious, it’s worth noting that you do have to make sure that you hold the translation rights for the book you want to get translated. We will look at this more closely in Chapter 12, Legal aspects.