Translating Books: Get Someone Fluent to Do It!

I became acquainted with Olga after I became a part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. We’ve interacted a few times on Twitter, and I’ve always found her to be approachable and honest. I’ve corresponded with her on good books to learn to read Spanish from. That led to me being very curious about the translation of books from one language to another. Happily, she was willing to write something for everyone to read. So, here we go! Olga Núñez Miret on Translating Books: Get Someone Fluent to Do It. (The headings are questions I specifically asked her.)

Lilyn, first of all, thanks very much for having me as your guest on your blog. It’s a great honor as I’ve been following your blog for a while and know how busy you are and what great guests visit you.

Thanks for taking an interest in translations. It’s a fascinating topic. Never a moment’s boredom, for sure!

How often do you have to change phrases dramatically when translating books between English and Spanish?

There aren’t that many sentences that can be translated straight because Spanish and English come from very different sources. There’s always the risk of the false friends (words that are so familiar and so similar to words in our own language that we think we know their meaning, but they mean something different in the other language), but French or Italian have sentence structures that are more similar to Spanish, for example. (I’m originally from Barcelona, Catalonia, and I also speak, read and write in Catalan, and there are many more similarities with those languages too, as they all come from Latin). I remember when I first moved to the UK and wasn’t as fluent in English, I would start a sentence, directly translating it from Spanish, and realise that it didn’t make sense in English and had to start again. It doesn’t happen that often these days, but it’s true that there are always expressions that seem to capture exactly what one means in a language but require complex changes in the other.

Why couldn’t someone just use something like Google Translate to translate books from English to Spanish, one line at a time?

I’ve seen it done and the results are not very good. Google Translate works well enough to give one a general gist of a sentence, but it’s not a person and can’t provide the context. It doesn’t always select the right option, for instance, if a word has many possible meanings. Sometimes the results can be unexpectedly funny. The first novel I translated for another author (not one of my own) was a historical novel set in the Inca Empire. There were several mentions of llamas (the animal, written the same in Spanish and English), but llama in Spanish can also mean ‘flame’, and it’s a word used more often than the animal, so the translation offered by Google Translate was hilarious. One of the other difficulties I’ve observed (and it’s a tell-tale sign for translations made using Google Translate) is that Spanish, like French, Italian, German… is a gendered language. Not only people, but objects also have a given genders (and they don’t coincide in the different languages either, to make life more confusing), and that means that articles, adjectives, adverbs, also have to change according to this. Google Translate never seems to get this right, and it’s something that people studying the language also find tricky.

Of course, the more complicated the language, the worse Google Translate handles it. But even an instructions manual can become something completely different in the hands of Google Translate. But it is a useful tool for basic matters.

Can you give some examples of common phrases in English that are very different when taken literally in Spanish or vice versa?

Among the trickiest things are proverbs and sayings, as they don’t always have an equivalent in the other language. Shakespeare’s: ‘The apple of one’s eye’ … Yes, la manzana del ojo de alguien…  In Spanish we’d say something like ‘la niña de sus ojos’ (the pupil of one’s eye is the expression we’d use in Spanish, as having an apple in somebody’s eye would sound really weird in Spanish). And sometimes expressions that are culturally bound and become popular can cause confusion. I recently translated a book where two friends wrote letters to each other, from Spanish to English. These were old friends but had lived in different countries for years, one in Spain and one in the UK. One of the women is writing to the other and telling her there’s no way she was going to do a certain thing. I used the expression: ‘No way, Jose!’ The author was revising the translation and contacted me thinking I’d made a mistake because there was no character called Jose in her novel. I had to explain what the expression meant, but I don’t think it’s something that even people who might have learned English going to school would necessarily be familiar with, but most people reading the book would be (and I thought it would be the type of thing the character would say).

Other things that prove very complicated are wordplay and double meaning. I am translating a book at the moment called Re-bound, and in this case it plays on bound as binding and also as in re-bound, because the female protagonist has come out of a relationship recently and meets someone new. There isn’t a similar word that has both meanings in Spanish, so I’m trying to get my head around that (and yes, this expression would sound really strange in Spanish).

If someone wants to hire someone to translate their book into another language, what should they look for?

That is a difficult one. My advice would be to ask other authors who’ve had their books translated, especially if you know they are happy with the results, and if they’ve obtained good feedback from readers. We all know about nasty reviews that bear little connection to the content of the books (I even read a review of a book written by a Spanish writer who uses an English sounding pseudonym when writing and somebody said the translation to Spanish was really bad, when the book had been written in Spanish originally) but, in general, word of mouth is a good way to go. There are groups available in places like LinkedIn, which also offer the option of checking somebody’s work and credentials.

There are places like Fiverr ( ) and Upwork ( ) where one can hire somebody to do a job, and there is a process of selection and feedback by other clients to check. It’s always possible to get a sample translation and get it checked if one is not sure. There are also official organizations of translators, but not everybody will be a member and members might specialise on different aspects (not always to do with translating books). In my case, I find authors like the fact that I’m also a writer and understand the process of publishing and am, perhaps, more sympathetic towards the anxieties and feelings this process generates.

There are options that might be worth exploring if one doesn’t have funds to get a translator. Babel Cube (, for instance, offers the possibility of putting in contact writers and translators and then splitting the earnings 50/50 between them (minus the percentage for Babel Cube, and of course exclusivity is granted for a number of years to the company).

A similar option (that I’m exploring at the moment and I’ve had a few of my books translated already) is Fiberread ( ) for Chinese. It’s worth checking out!

Do you find that any of your books do better sales-wise in one particular language? Any clue why, if so?

In my case, not really. One of the things that are surprising is that quite a few of my books in Spanish (mostly the free ones, but others too) are also bought in places like Italy and Brazil (of course also Mexico and .com if we’re talking about Amazon), where Spanish is not one of the official languages. I’m never sure if those are people who are studying the language, or perhaps they are curious and think the language is close enough and they can understand it. I’ve seen differences in books set in a certain place or that have a local interest, as those might sell much better in one place than in another, and non-fiction is quite different.

I know a Spanish author who writes in different genres (fiction and non-fiction), and after having some of his self-help book translated to Greek (via Babel Cube) discovered that they sold like hot cakes there. He has no idea why, but it seems they struck a chord. I guess it’s a bit what happens sometimes with singers or bands that become very popular in countries very far away from their own, seemingly not the intended audience.

Research as to popular topics in different markets might help, but nowadays many trends are global, and coming to the attention of reviewers or bloggers popular in a particular country might push a book. And, getting to know writers from other places and checking what they do to promote their books can always help too.

Thanks very much for your questions and your interest and thanks to all your readers for having me.

Want to find out more about translations?

Take a look at some of the books Olga has translated:

olgaprofilpic - translating books guest postOlga Núñez Miret is a doctor, a psychiatrist, a student (of American Literature, with a Doctorate and all to prove the point, of Criminology, and of books and people in general), she writes, translates (English-Spanish and vice-versa) and although born in Barcelona, Spain, has lived in the UK for many years. She’s always loved books and is thrilled at the prospect of helping good stories reach more readers all around the world. She publishes a bilingual blog ( ) where she shares book reviews, advice, talks about books (hers and others) and about things the discovers and enjoys.

Those are my free books in English: And in Spanish:

Other Author Links: Amazon:úñez-Miret/e/B009UC58G0 | Twitter: @OlgaNM7 | Author page on Facebook: | Goodreads page:


escapingpsychiatry - translating books guest postEscaping Psychiatry. Beginnings
. By Olga Núñez Miret

How far would a writer go for a killer story? This is the question psychiatrist Mary Miller must answer to solve the first mystery/thriller of her career. You can get to know the main characters of this psychological thriller series for FREE and test your own acumen and intuition in this novella about the price of ambition.

Dr Mary Miller is a young psychiatrist suffering a crisis of vocation. Her friend Phil, a criminalist lawyer working in New York, invites her to visit him and consult on the case of a writer accused of a serious assault. His victim had been harassing him and accusing him of stealing his story, which he’d transformed into a best-selling book. The author denies the allegation and claims it was self-defense. When the victim dies, things get complicated. The threshold between truth and fiction becomes blurred and secrets and lies unfold.

Escaping Psychiatry. Beginnings is the prequel to Escaping Psychiatry a volume collecting three stories where Mary and her psychiatric expertise are called to help in a variety of cases, from religious and race affairs, to the murder of a policeman, and in the last case, she gets closer than ever to a serial killer.

If you enjoy this novella, don’t forget to check Mary’s further adventures. And there are more to come.



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10 Responses to Translating Books: Get Someone Fluent to Do It!

  1. Thanks so much for interviewing me and featuring me in your blog. You’re a star!

  2. Brian Bixby says:

    My copy of “Anna Karenina” translated into English kept referring to a “paper knife.” I eventually figured out that this must be a bookmark.

  3. Donna says:

    Brilliant guest post! I have stopped reading in French, which is my mother tongue, because I was appalled at the horrendous translations I was confronted to. I have been taking Translation classes for a few years and it takes a lot more than Google Translation to present a decent work.

    • How many more years of Translation classes do you need to do? And were these translations from respected publishing houses?

      • Donna says:

        According to some teachers: 30 more years! xD They see translation as an art. Technically, I should be done with the courses in two years, but it takes a lot of experience to really feel comfortable. So I’m in it for the long haul. Well, I do think Game of Thrones was published and translated by a big one… I still shiver when I think of that opening.

  4. A good translation is crucial. A couple of my early books were translated into Dutch, so I sent my author copies to a cousin in Belgium. I got an e-mail back saying that a few passages made her laugh out loud … and the humor wasn’t intentional. Sigh.

  5. Thanks Lilyn and Brian, Donna and Ed. It’s true that sometimes you know something is wrong with a translation you’re reading but only by thinking backwards you can manage to work out why they mean. But depending on the subject, it might involve specific jargon that requires plenty of research. I edited a thriller that took place in a petrol tanker, and even working closely with the author it was hard to try and get the terminology right.

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