Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Babelcube: How About Them Apples?

Emma, this one's for you. I started responding to your comment on the last post, but it spiraled into much grander (and longer) territory.

I've heard quite a bit of chatter about Babelcube, a service that lets authors hire translators directly, over the past several months, so it's high time that I went to check it all out for myself. My findings are as follows.

Babelcube is like a worm-eaten apple: glistening, healthy skin on the outside, with one little hole that leads to a rotten core.

Problem #1: Authors pay nothing for the translation of their book. That's great for the authors, but pretty bad for the rest of the world, considering translation is a service that demands appropriate payment.

This means that there is no upfront payment for translators. In fact, no payment is guaranteed at all. The entire work is done on spec. I have a colleague who explained to me his opinion that spec work should always be done for works from classic, well-known authors. As he says, "At least one of you should have a recognizable name."

Problem #2: Translators don't even get to read the whole book before bidding for it. They just get a sample, on the basis of which they might get selected and sign a contract. That's slightly terrifying.

Problem #3: Payment is based on royalties. Now, on the surface, this is actually a fine idea: why not let translators be held somewhat accountable for the sales of their book, similar to the way authors are? Now, this only works, of course, if the translator gets paid a fair wage for their work in advance, but let's set that aside for the moment.

The division of royalties is actually pretty okay -- at least at the beginning. It starts at a lovely 55% for the translator for the first $2,000 of net sales revenue, but then drops pretty sharply from there. So total, for the first $8,000 of net sales, the translator gets $2,900 (Babelcube has this figure right on their revenue share page). And while that's a fine number, let's assume that the book was a pretty slim novel at 50,000 words. That's a whopping 5.8 cents per word. Ouch. And after that, it gets even harder for translators to earn any money -- only 10% of net sales after the first $8K.

I don't want to completely rag on Babelcube, because they are ostensibly doing the world a service by getting more literature out there in more languages. And honestly, this type of setup is extremely attractive for self-published authors. The author has to be the rights holder, which usually only happens for self-published works. (Tangential hilarity: there's a clause in the contract which states that the rights holder must affirm that "the Book is currently sold by Amazon." Hahahahahaha.) But if we are in the realm of self-publishing, then the book is probably going to be priced much lower than traditionally published books: $4.99, $1.99, or even 99 cents. How many copies would have to sell for translators to even dream of that first $2,900 in payment?

BUT! But but but. Here's the biggest Problem of them all: a lack of accountability, a lack of ability to really know what's going on with your work. Now, authors are rarely able to read their own book in translation. One Greek author recently marveled to me how she wasn't even able to recognize her own name on the cover of a Russian translation, which is a fair point (and also highly amusing). But there's usually a more-or-less official set of checks and balances built into the translation process. Specifically, for example, when an English book gets picked up for translation into German, there's a German publisher at the other end who engages the translator and edits the translation. They make sure that the work is polished and presentable in German, even though the original English author speaks not a lick of German. At Babelcube, though, the authors themselves are asked to sign off on the first ten pages of the translation, and then again to accept the final finished copy. How in all the nine hells are they supposed to do that with any sort of reliability? Babelcube actually suggests the following to authors: "if you don't speak the destination language, you may have a friend who can help." Gee, thanks.

And for translators, the guidelines for the authors to accept the translation are a bit murky, as well. Babelcube offers themselves as an arbitrator if necessary, but it would still be pretty easy for the author to give the translator the runaround. Even if the translation was forced to be accepted, the author could "decline" to promote the new translation at all. If no one can find it, no one can buy it, and the translator doesn't get paid. (Not to mention that the translator could screw the author over in a very similar way. The difference is that the author doesn't have any money or unpaid time at stake.) Besides, this is one of those awful "work-for-hire" situations. Sure, you're paid royalties on this one, but that doesn't outweigh the fact that you don't hold any rights to your own work. Sigh.

Realistically speaking, the risk is very high for everyone. I would say that it's too high. And granted, for the translator, this seems like one of those opportunities that gets you experience and exposure early on in your career, as well as that all-important line on your CV. For some people, this is exactly what they need. Heaven knows I had my own terrible experience at the beginning of my career. I regret the outcome (and the payment, egads), but I can't regret the experience it gave me, and what it taught me NOT to do.

All I'm saying is that Babelcube looks like a very easy way to get a translated book under your belt, which could be really great. Just don't spend all of your time there.

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Emma, I'd be extremely interested to hear what you think, as someone who's working with Babelcube. Are you happy with how you're getting paid? Did you have a good experience with your author? Any logistical snafus with the site itself?