Readers Ask
Every now and then I present questions that readers of Intralingo have asked regarding different aspects of literary translation, along with my answers.

Dear Lisa,

I need some advice on how to price a book translation for a short travel and faith narrative of just under 27,000 words. The author of the published German book has given his friend, my potential client, the rights to the publication of any EN translation (though I only have a verbal statement to this effect and am not sure if I need to see a release signed by the author or publisher). My potential client (an attorney) has asked me to do the translation. He is a fellow alumni of my university and has asked for an “alumni rate”. He also would like to be the editing partner, but he does not speak German. I want to give him a few options – i.e. just translation by me with him as the editing partner and an option with me as the translator and another translator as my editing partner – he could then edit as well, but I just think it’s a good idea to have 2 pairs of professional translators working on the text. I don’t usually do book translations so don’t know what the going rates are. I don’t want to price too high and miss out on the job, but also don’t want to sell myself short. I have seen the model contract on the PEN website and would probably use that as a basis, especially since it deals with royalties, advance payment, mentioned credit for the translator, etc.

I know you are very knowledgeable in this area and would appreciate any advice you can spare.

Best regards,



Hi Sarah,

Sounds like an interesting project!

Every book translation is different, but here are a few thoughts I can share:

* I would definitely ask to see written confirmation that your potential client has permission for English publication. This will be essential if the book is to be published, so you don’t want to go to all the trouble of doing the work only to find that your client doesn’t actually have the rights.

* Check also where the rights are for. Sometimes worldwide English rights will be granted, sometimes only for a particular country. If, in this case, the rights are for a UK English publication, say, then you will need to make sure the translation conforms to British writing style, etc. (Indeed, I wouldn’t recommend that a US translator undertake a work for publication in the UK. There are too many differences.)

* What you charge is entirely up to you. There are no set or standard rates for literary translation (in the United States at least). Is your client American or German? I ask because some countries, including Germany, do have suggested and/or legislated guidelines for fees and/or rates. I remember that a couple of years ago German translators won a court case mandating royalty rates, so you could use this as a guideline. I’m sorry I can’t find the exact info, but if you search the German literary translators association you will likely find it.

See also this blog post I wrote with some general info about rates.

* Rates can also vary depending on how you’re getting paid. For example, you might accept a small(ish) up-front fee, but ask for a higher percentage of royalties. Or no up-front fee and a split in royalties. This all depends on you, your own personal circumstances, and that of the person paying you. There are no absolute rights or wrongs.

“Payment” may also consist of having a published work. That might be worth a lot to you if you are just starting out and want to pursue more publication opportunities.

* Rates vary, too, depending on who is paying you. Is the agent/rightsholder going to pay you and self-publish the book? It sounds like it, if he’s asking for an alumni rate. This indicates he’s probably not willing to pay a lot.

Alternatively, is he going to use your work to find an English publisher? Will you be involved in that search? If a publisher is found, the publisher would pay you for your work, so all you’d need to provide at this point would be a sample (a few chapters) to interest them.

* Rates tend to be on a per-project basis, which are loosely calculated on the per word rate. Remember, though, that literary translation will take much more time than other types of translation, and not all of this is compensated for. It’s simply a more labor-intensive endeavour.

If you normally do, say, 2000 words per day, you can easily cut that in half for literary, so keep that in mind when you’re quoting on time.

* I would definitely use the PEN model contract. The American Literary Translators Association also has a model contract and some very good guides to translation and publishing  (all of which are free).

* Giving the client options is definitely a good way to go, in terms of how the work will be done and also payment options. People who have never been involved in translation before, particularly literary, will be taken aback by how long it takes, what it costs, what’s involved, so education through options often helps.

* If you’re going to have another translator/editor involved, consider what those costs might be, too. Will that person want a share of royalties? Up-front payment?

It’s definitely a good idea to have a partner/editor, particularly if your client is considering self-publication. As an attorney, I’m sure he writes well, but perhaps not the way the book will need to be written/edited for publication. If your name is going to be on it and it’s not going to a professional publisher who does all of that, you’ll want to make sure the final product is excellent.

Sorry there isn’t a more clear-cut answer to any of your points, but I do hope some of this has helped.

Wishing you the best of luck!

Readers: Any points I missed or you want to expand on? Please share in a comment.