Monday, June 4, 2018

Why translation isn’t magical: What you MUST know before you translate your book into English…


The US market needs diverse books, and that includes the voices of those who live elsewhere, speaking other languages, and living different lives. It’s also great that authors are willing to invest money, time, and effort. If you believe that strongly in your book, there’s a chance it can succeed.

But not if you rush into submitting it the second it’s translated into English.

Working as a translator for the last four years, unfortunately, I’ve met many writers who believe that all it takes to break into the U.S. market is to translate their book into English and sit back waiting for offers to roll in.

Unfortunately, translation isn’t a magic bullet that’s going to shoot your story straight into the heart of an agent or publisher.  And even if you self-publish, having your story translated into English is not a guarantee of success.  It’s not a magic wand that you wave to let those big US bucks start rolling in.

So I want to ask you to pause, just for a second, and ask yourself: Is my book ready to translate? Am I giving it the best possible chances of success?

Here are three issues you might want to consider first.

1. Physical expectations

Be absolutely certain that you know what publishers in the U.S. market are expecting. The standard for picture books is 32 pages, and word count ranges between 600 and 800 words (plus or minus). However wonderful your book is, if it doesn’t look and feel like what they’re expecting, agents and editors will be far more likely to say no without giving you a fair chance.*

To be submission-ready, your book should also be in “bare naked” format—a plain font like Arial or Times New Roman, 12 points, double-spaced, with no fancy graphics. Understand the basics of English punctuation, which may be different from what you’re used to. Sure, your translator should know this, but some differences are more subtle. Here in Israel, writers adore exclamation marks. To me, as an English speaker, they make writing look cheap and garish… so I weed most of them out when I can.

Authors who have already been published in their own country sometimes wonder whether they should submit just their manuscript, or also include illustrations (if they’re not the illustrator). The answer varies. I’d suggest having someone familiar with the market evaluate the art to see if it’s in line with what publishers are looking for before you make a decision.

* If you’re curious, here’s a table I’ve been sending around with length and age guidelines to anyone who asks for more specific advice…

How long should a children’s book be???

Board Book — 50 words max, ages 0-4
Early Picture Book — 300 words max, ages 3-5
Picture Book — 700 words max (Seriously. Max.), ages 5-8
Nonfiction Picturebook — 2,000 words max, ages 5-8, maybe a bit older
Early Reader — I’d say 1,500 words is the max., ages 5-7, maybe a bit older
Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level. 15,000 words max., ages 6-7 & 7-8
Middle Grade or MG — 35,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor, 45,000 max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical, ages 8-12, tween 10-14
Young Adult or YA — 70,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 90,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc., 14 and up.

(length information from this site; age information added from this site)

2. Culture clash

Different is good! But occasionally, different cultures have different rules for what makes a winning children’s book. For example, kids’ books here in Israel tend to be more abstract; they’re more likely than American books to be about ideas, rather than events. The plots are more free-form and—this part drives American readers crazy—the endings tend to be more, well, open-ended.

My theory is that Israeli authors feel don’t want to insult readers’ intelligence, both adults and kids, by spelling out every detail of the ending. So often, they’ll end a book with an ellipsis (…), either literal or virtual. There isn’t usually a “happily ever after.”

I’m not saying that endings have to be cut and dried, but I do believe American readers (and therefore, agents and editors) expect to see things more clearly spelled out.

Another example: in some countries, kids are more independent than in the U.S. So a kids’ book might show very young children running around for hours on their own—that’s pretty common here in Israel—and dealing with situations that in America, would definitely require an adult’s presence, such as taking a bus, cooking, or going shopping.

I also believe plot is more structured in American books. Events flow logically, one from another, and this creates a predictable story arc. We see the same thing in most Hollywood movies, in contrast to movies from Europe or Asia that don’t necessarily follow this story pattern. It’s not right or wrong—but it is all about meeting expectations.

3. Challenging concepts

Diversity is great, but if your book deals with challenging concepts such as death, disability, family breakup, or similar situations, be very certain that you’ve read quite a few American children’s books on this topic to help you understand how parents, teachers, and kids handle those types of situations.

That doesn’t mean your book has to be the same as all the others—not at all. There’s always room for more books about life’s challenges. But yours must have a universal feel and resonate with what’s currently out there.

One potential problem is books that are behind the times in terms of attitudes in the U.S., which move very quickly. While in 1989, the book Heather Has Two Mommies broke new ground with the message, “having gay parents is okay,” that kind of heavy-handed message has since been replaced by stories that show having gay parents as no big deal—just another part of life. The same is true for books about disabilities; few publishers today want stories about living with a disability. Instead, they want books with cool, diverse characters (gay, mixed-race, disabilities) living ordinary lives full of fun and, yes, even a touch of silliness.

Finally, after your book is translated, don’t even think about submitting it anywhere without double-checking one more thing that’s just as crucial…

One more: Polished to perfection…

Here’s the part I hate to admit as a professional translator: even if your translator has done a wonderful job, you must have the finished manuscript edited. At the very least (for super-short picture book manuscripts), it should be read through, out loud, by a number of native English speakers. Nobody’s perfect, and I definitely make mistakes when I’m translating.

Double- and triple-checking is also important if you’ve made any changes yourself. Your English may be great, but in a non-native language, you may lack the ability to spot typos. Any time you make changes, be sure to have someone else check the story carefully.

Once you’ve done all that, give yourself a pat on the back. Translating your work isn’t easy, especially if you have to make big changes to adapt it to the English-speaking market. But no matter how your story has changed, I really hope it has held onto the one thing that makes it different from any other books out there, anywhere in the world—your unique voice, and a story only you can tell.

If you’re looking for translation services from Hebrew to English, by a native speaker and fellow children’s writer, please visit my translation page here or get in touch with me at


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