The Skills Needed to Translate Non-Fiction Successfully

The market for non-fiction, especially self-help books, is growing faster than fiction. This means there are plenty of non-fiction translation jobs for skilled book translators. So, exactly what skills are needed, beyond good knowledge of the source and target language?

Let’s take a look at some of the essential skills needed to translate non-fiction books:

A Strong Understanding of the Core Topic and Its Lexicon

You need to have a reasonable understanding of the topic that you will be translating. You don’t have to be an expert, but you will need a very good grasp on the common words and themes for the subject you are covering.

The best way to obtain that knowledge if you don’t have it already is by reading bestselling books on the relevant topic. Read the bestsellers in both the source and target languages and compare the differences.

Not all non-fiction is educational content. If it’s a memoir, then the skills needed are similar to translating fiction books.  The key here is to understand the purpose of each chapter and anecdote and ensure the essence is unchanged in the translated version.

Excellent Command of Both the Source and Target Language

You’ll need an excellent technical understanding of the vocabulary and the rules of grammar in both languages. It goes without saying that you should be able to write with correct spelling and grammar in the target language.

You’ll need to be able to choose a suitable word or words from the target language when the exact equivalent doesn’t exist. For some technical topics, you may even need to ‘borrow’ and keep some words in the source language. It’s essential you do this because it’s necessary and not just because it’s the easy option.

Applying Creative License

Creativity isn’t just for literary translations; non-fiction translation will need you to flex that creative brain on occasion too. Accurate writing doesn’t necessarily make a great translator. A key part of translating non-fiction is understanding cultural contexts.

The vast majority of non-fiction books include anecdotes and stories that illustrate the author’s points. It’s your job as book translator to make sure that these are as culturally relevant to the target audience as they were to the original native language audience.

You’ll need to be able to identify anything that wouldn’t have the same impact for native readers of the target language and come up with a suitable alternative.

You may need to get creative with these.  Don’t be afraid to make suggestions to the author for how to get the key message across in a way that will resonate better with readers in the target language.

Communication Skills

You’ll need the skill to be able to communicate the message of the original book in your translation, but strong communication skills are needed for more than just writing.

It’s not enough to communicate well in the pages of a manuscript. You’ll also need to communicate very well with the author of the original book.

Work closely with the author to understand the key messages in their work, and let them know if you need to make changes to allow for cultural or linguistic differences.

Developing the Right Skills

If these aren’t all skills you already possess to a high degree, that doesn’t mean you can’t become a translator. Work on developing these skills by reading widely in the languages you wish to translate.

Babelcube connects freelance translators with self-published authors, and there are plenty of non-fiction translation jobs available where you can practice your skills.

You can choose non-fiction books to translate that are on topics you know well, and you can even collaborate with another translator if you feel you would benefit from the support.

Book translation is a rich and rewarding career, so why not visit Babelcube now and get started?


Babelcube offers freelance translators the opportunity to pick books to translate, define their project timeline, and share in the royalties of book sales.

Babelcube is the easiest way to translate and sell a book in multiple languages. Book publishers and self-published authors team up with translators. The translated books are sold through 100s of retailers.

Check it out at Babelcube.

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