Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lost in Translation

Foreign language rights for the Riyria Revelations have either been sold to, or are in the process of being sold to, the Czech Republic, Russia, Spain, France, Germany, and Poland. For those of you who have never engaged in foreign language translations of their work, you might wonder, what this means to the author. Sadly it doesn’t mean you get to go to these places and chat in exotic cafes with linguists about the meanings of words while waiting for the bullfight, or Oktoberfest to start, but it does have some very pleasant benefits.

First it means a lot of money. While none of the foreign publishers are willing to pay the kinds of advances that a domestic New York house is--let’s face it, ten thousand here, ten thousand there, eventually adds up to more than enough to buy a cup of coffee. When my agent sent over my first foreign language contract it was for just a bit more than four thousand dollars, and being new to this whole arena I assumed that’s what I could expect from foreign language sales. I wasn’t complaining. I never even thought of foreign deals when I was first published. Somehow in my sheltered mind, I assumed that such things were handled by a publisher and that the author had little involvement and saw little reward from a proliferation of their titles. So this was like bonus money being thrown at me, a nice little holiday gift.

Then when I was presented a contract for 45,000, I was astonished until I saw that it was 45,000 euros. When I noticed that, my excitement dulled. I had been to Mexico for my honeymoon and knew the insane prices of things in pesos. Back then an onyx chess set carried a price tag of 4,000 - 10,000 pesos. I saw this and my jaw dropped until my wife explained that was something like twelve dollars. So seeing 45,000 euros I assumed that meant the deal was for another four or five thousand, but probably less. Only I had it backward. In today’s market, and it fluctuates hourly, 45,000 euros equals about $66,000. That was a lot more than enough to buy even one of those fancy coffees with the milk that they make into the designs of flowers. And that was for just one sale, and there are a lot of other languages and countries. This is just one of the reasons I love my agent.

The second thing foreign language sales mean to the author is that you get to see your books in languages you can’t even read. I know that might sound strange, but there is a certain mystique in knowing you wrote something as enigmatic as a book you can’t read. They also make different covers. And seeing how your book is portrayed in the art of another country is always fun.

Lastly, foreign sales provides a fascinating insight into the art of translating, which can sometimes be humorous. I am corresponding right now with a Spanish translator who is working on The Crown Conspiracy. I receive emails every other day with interesting, and at least for me, entertaining inquiries. 

Questions like:

What is Salifan? And how do you make sausage with it?

What is a “low pocket” where water gathers?

What is a “wayward traveler?”

What does “daft” mean?

What is a Fall retreat?

Are Tiliner rapiers swords from a place called Tilin?

Is the Rilan Valley named after a river called the Rila?

These last two fascinate me, and got me wondering if the translator was right. It also made me curious about the differences between languages that brought these questions to mind. In Spanish, are names of things often related to associated things?

What really wreaks havoc on the translators are idioms like the one I just used in this sentence, or plays on clichés such as when Hadrian says, “I have been known to hit the forest from the field.” The translator knew this meant something more than what it literally stated, but wasn’t sure what.

And then there are special cases like Wintertide. It is a word that literally means “winter time” but translating it that way would lose the meaning. 

I now have a desire to learn other languages just to be able to read my books and see how they came out. How will Royce sound with a Spanish accent?

“Hola, Senior Hadrian! Buenas dias, Senior Royce.” It sounds like a Riyria/Don Quixote mash-up.

At present the only non-English version presently available is the Czech version, that MStajer reported on. So you who are multilingual, will need to keep me informed on the quality and general impression as the others are released.


  1. I'm not sure if I should be thrilled for you or let my jealousy prevail and hate you for your good fortune ;) JK - that's incredible news! If you ever sell Japanese rights make sure you share the news. I have a number of people I'd like to gift the books to.

  2. one of my middle school students said to me the other day "No hablo ingles," so I replied with "then no hable" to which he said "No hablo español" So I said, "C'est qui parle?"

  3. Knowing more than one language has been a natural thing for me since I was very small - and even more so because I learned it by myself, not through school or family. At first I thought of languages as just a tool for communicating with other people, but as I grew older I realized just how deeply language can mold those who speak it - and so it was no surprise that when the time came for College, I decided to study to become a Translator.

    Personally, whenever I can I choose to read the original work rather than a translation - us translators must strive to be invisible, but our own influence does change the final result.

    The best thing for a translator undoubtely is when they can chat with the original author and understand what they meant to say through their words, rather than what the words themselves mean.

    Best of lucks! When your book becomes available in Spanish, I will finally be able to lend it to my friends ;D

  4. I'm sure you will catch up and likely pass me, Steve.

    Tucker, I followed you until the last question. Nothing like missing the punchline.

    MSA, the Czech translator never contacted me, but the Spanish one is, which I too think is good.

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