Breaking the Translation Bottleneck

Emily WilliamsBy Emily Williams, Co-Chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee

The home site for BUSINESS MODEL GENERATION brags the book was “co-authored by 470 Business Model Canvas practitioners from 45 countries”.

Setting out to write a book about innovative business models, the originating authors – Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur – wanted to use the chance to create an innovative model for book writing. They started out by building an online hub, generated ideas, then followed a transparent writing process that allowed the community members to make suggestions or additions, which were incorporated into the final product.

The book was self-published in September 2009. With no marketing budget and sales exclusively through the BMG website, it sold out its first print run of 5000 copies in two months. A second run of 10,000 copies was sold through Amazon and managed to crack the top 100, despite a price point close to $50. Agent Jeffrey Krames then took on the project and sold world rights to Wiley, who published a (much more affordable) paperback version in July 2010 and licensed rights abroad.

From Self-Pub to Spain’s Biggest Publishing House

Business Model GenerationRoger Domingo, the editorial director of Planeta’s Deusto business imprint, bought world Spanish rights to the book. He decided that this innovative model of authorship demanded an equally innovative model of translation. He reached out through the BMG hub and put out a call for any Spanish-speaking members who wanted to collaborate on the translation.

The collaborators weren’t working from scratch, any more than the collaborators did on the original edition. “​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​The book was translated into Spanish by a translator we’ve worked with often,” Domingo explains,​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ ​”and she was paid her usual fee and gets her usual cut of the royalties. We then posted the translated text on Google Docs so anyone who wants to comment or improve the translation can do so. We’ve shared the draft with everyone who volunteered.​​”

In the end, there were 18 collaborators on the Spanish translation when Domingo wrapped things up on December 20th. Asked what he hoped to get out of the collaborative process, Domingo pointed to the nature of the project and the reach of the web.

“Our intention is to be coherent with the spirit of the book – if the original edition was collaborative, it seemed logical that the Spanish translation should be as well,” he said.​​​​​​​​​​ “I also really believe that it will improve the translation, especially thanks to the contributions from the Latin American collaborators, who will be able to tell us if there’s something that is understood ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​differently there.”

Recruiting collaborators only through the BMG hub limits the number of potential participants, but Domingo was optimistic that the comments they did get would be genuinely useful. “We’ll try to include all the comments – assuming they’re relevant,” he said, “which we think they will be in the majority since the collaborators are all experts on the subject and use the book in their day-to-day work. Once the collaborators have sent in their comments, we’ll decide which to include in the final edition. When the book is finished we’ll send a copy to everyone who collaborated.”

Breaking the Translation Bottleneck

This project was interesting to me because I’ve been on the lookout for web-enabled ways of sharing the burden of translation. Language is still the biggest natural barrier to the spread of books across borders. There are some automated tools for getting the gist of ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​short passages (Google Translate is impressive), but nothing nuanced enough to ensure an accurate, readable experience of a book-length text – and less so the better the original writing is. Humans are still the best mediators but, as little as most translators are paid, the cost of translating a book is still substantial.

Domingo’s experiment solves the most significant problems of 1) creating a quality and stylistically coherent translation, and 2) making sure the person who does the main work of translating gets paid for it. It does this, however, by following the traditional model where a publisher buys rights and advances the money for the translation. Reaching out to the BMG community is a way of spreading the word about the book and getting useful feedback – a good first step, but not an approach that will revolutionize the way books find their way into new countries and languages.

Lessons from Manga

There is a model for a truly reader-driven translation model. It is manga.

Before manga were introduced into the US by publishers, fans created their own “scanlations” – they scanned, translated and posted their favorite manga online (for free!) so they could be read (for free!) by non-Japanese speakers. For years this was a genuinely populist movement and was tolerated by publishers as it helped create an advance fanbase for manga and allowed them to gauge interest in specific series. As the popularity of manga grew, however, the number of professional, publisher-created translations skyrocketed, and some of the scanlation sites morphed into straight P2P download sources, generally pirate scans of editions already published in English. At this point, the industry began to push back.


The power of that big, dispersed fanbase working for free is irresistible though, and there were other attempts to monetize it.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ The MIT Media Lab teamed up with Toshiba to create Manganovel, a short-lived endeavor to create a legitimate forum for scanlations, where the manga were being legally translated and the collaborators could get some form of compensation. The idea was the site gave willing fan translators access to lesser-known manga that didn’t have a shot at professional translation. The translators could pick projects they liked, and the translations would be rated by the community so the cream would rise to the top.

Manganovel didn’t attract a big enough community to survive. Still, the idea is intriguing.

An Idea in Search of a Platform

There are many territories where genre fiction is at the same stage manga used to be in the US: there is a small group of highly motivated fans – of romance, or science fiction – but not a big enough market to support a large number of professional translations. Because the market is limited, there are a lot of authors on the other side whose books don’t get picked up for translation by publishers in those territories. So the question becomes: is there a way for these books to draw on the energy and expertise of the fans to create translations that would allow them to find a wider audience?

Working within a genre, it seems possible to create a platform – on a smaller scale than Manganovel, maybe, with a leaner operation – that would give readers a place to discover new books, and give authors a chance to connect with fans…and possibly with someone willing to create a translation in return for a cut of the sales.

Now, it is not my intention in any way to devalue the work of professional translators. I’ve worked as a translator and know it is a craft, an underpaid and underappreciated art, and often a tough slog. But it can’t be a bad thing for there to be more outlets for books to be matched with willing translators, and if the internet has shown us anything it’s that we should never underestimate the power of a crowd of willing and talented amateurs.

Every other aspect of publishing is being opened up to new models of creation and distribution through the internet. It seems unlikely that translations would be the lonely exception. The missing piece, as always when it comes to books and translation, is figuring out how everyone gets paid!

Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *