Writing in Tongues: The Art of Translating Fiction

art of translating fiction

When I tell people I write lesbian romance novels for a living, I often get raised eyebrows. What surprises people even more is that I, as a German, write my books in English and then translate them into my native language.

To me, it makes perfect sense. After all, that’s the way professional translators do it too. Ideally, translators for fiction translate from their second language into their native language.

Why I Write in English

But why don’t I just write in German and leave the translating to the professionals?

Here’s how that came to be: When I first started writing lesbian fiction fifteen years ago, there wasn’t much of a community for writers and readers of lesbian books in Germany. There were very few German authors writing in that genre and very little interaction with each other or with readers. I longed for a network of readers and writers as it existed for English-speaking authors. The lesbian fiction community in the US and in other English-speaking countries seemed to offer so much more support and opportunities to grow and improve my craft than writing in German could.

So I tried my hand at writing an English short story, and I got wonderful feedback that encouraged me to keep writing in English. The rest, as they say, is history.

Joining Ylva Publishing Was a Game Changer

Years later, I switched publishers and joined Ylva Publishing, an international publisher that publishes books in English and German. This gave me the opportunity to make my books available to German-speaking readers too, so I started translating them into German.

Of course, I could entrust my books to one of our talented translators. After all, every hour I spend translating is an hour I could have spent creating new stories. But I enjoy seeing my characters come to life in my native tongue. Plus, having a book translated is expensive—and it isn’t easy.

The most difficult thing to translate is probably humor—and that’s a problem since my books contain a lot of banter between the characters.

Why Translating Humor Is Tricky

Humor often relies on wordplay or on cultural references that are commonly understood in one culture but not in others. Sometimes, jokes also take advantage of a word that has two different meanings. But the joke won’t work in another language in which the word doesn’t have the same double meaning.

For example, in my first contemporary romance, Something in the Wine, there’s a scene in which Drew, one of the main characters, is talking to Jake, the brother of the other main character. Drew met Annie at a party, and the tall, geeky woman instantly fascinated her, so she’s trying to find out more about her. She doesn’t know that Annie is Jake’s sister. Here’s a part of their conversation.

“Do you know if she’s family?” Drew asked.
Jake’s giggles turned into a belly laugh. He slapped his thighs, nearly spilling his drink all over himself. “Oh, yeah. She’s family.”

In the German language, the word “Familie” only means “family”; it doesn’t have the second meaning of being part of the LGBT+ community, so I had to rewrite the passage to create the same effect: making Drew think Annie is gay, even though what Jake is really saying is that they are related.

Here’s a re-translation of the same passage in the German version, Cabernet und Liebe:

“She isn’t one of your exes, is she?” Drew asked.
Jake’s giggles turned into a belly laugh. He slapped his thighs, nearly spilling his drink all over himself. “Oh God, no. It would be pretty unnatural for your blonde to find me attractive.”
“Oh, you mean because she’s a lesbian?”

Translating the Meaning, Not the Words

These differences between two languages are the reason why translators can’t cling too close to the original; they have to translate the meaning, not the words.

Since I, as the author, know better than anyone else what effect I wanted to achieve with a certain passage, I can focus on finding an equivalent that creates the same feelings and responses in readers, even if the words are entirely different. In the end, that’s all that matters: Making sure the reader can enjoy the story and gets to laugh and to cry along with the characters.

I hope I achieve that with all of my books, whether they are written in German or in English.

Copyright picture above: Pixabay 


Jae grew up amidst the vineyards of southern Germany. She spent her childhood with her nose buried in a book, earning her the nickname “professor.” The writing bug bit her at the age of eleven. Since 2006, she has been writing mostly in English. She used to work as a psychologist but gave up her day job in December 2013 to become a full-time writer and a part-time editor. As far as she’s concerned, it’s the best job in the world. Jae has just published Just for Show with Ylva.


July 2018 is Breaking the Language Barrier month at Ylva, and we’re celebrating all our novels that have been translated into a different language. Find out more about luscious ladies who love the ladies, no matter what language they’re speaking. To check out which of our books have lesbians around the world excited, click here:

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  1. Debby Ladiges July 4, 2018 at 19:42 - Reply

    I wondered why you wrote in English first and now I know. Understanding the humor is key to understanding culture. You have a wonderful sense of humor between your characters and this adds so much to the stories. Thanks.

    • Jae July 18, 2018 at 03:33 - Reply

      Thanks for reading, Debby! Interestingly, understanding the culture is also the key to understanding the humor. So much of humor is based on a common understanding of the cultural context. That’s part of what makes translations difficult.

  2. Sisu July 4, 2018 at 23:40 - Reply

    Even though I’m native German speaking I enjoy the English books much more…. Most off the German once that I tried sound “forced” or to “proper”… Probably because the translation couldn’t catch the references \ humor…
    I read and loved all your books in English maybe I should give your newest a try in German as it has German characters in Germany (did I get it right?) 😉

    • Jae July 18, 2018 at 03:34 - Reply

      I read mostly English books too. My newest book, Paper Love, is indeed a book with German characters, set in Germany (Freiburg). If you end up reading it in German, let me know what you thought!

  3. Cristina July 5, 2018 at 00:36 - Reply

    Enjoyed this insight into the art of how you translate your own work. You wear a ton of different hats at Ylva, Jae!

    I often prefer to read an author’s work in her/his original language where applicable (like the novel exists in the author’s original language and I can read, at least somewhat, in that language). I like being able to see the differences in the translations, where I can understand them, as in some ways, it provides a window into each culture. But, you’ve mentioned, things like humor, colloquialisms, wordplay, double meanings, slang, customs and cultural references sometimes can’t be directly translated. You must aim for preserving as much of the sentiment or subtext or meaning where it can be relayed in the other language.

    For sure humor is hard to translate. Humor is subjective on one level, then culturally specific to certain extents on another level, and then further complicated by other levels such as the reader’s exposure to an experience (like, if a person has never flown, especially on an American domestic flight, a joke about in-flight shenanigans on an American airline might lead to a room full of cricket chirps). So, you have many layers to consider when you tell a joke or write humorously, and that’s on top of anything else working in the crowd.

    Reminds me of a time when I was dating a native Russian speaker and tried to relate a childhood experience to everyone at our dinner table, all native Russian speakers, most who spoke very little English. It was a childhood incident that my extended family and my friends would instantly recognize because it involved my grandmother—a woman who had strict rules about being in her carefully curated living room, which is to say, you were never supposed to enter it, much less sit on or touch or even look at the furniture in her living room, lol—and they all would fall out their chairs from laughing so hard about it. But, I didn’t know the direct or even close equivalents in Russian for certain items or sayings; some of the sayings, some mashups from different languages and most of them littered with slang or colloquialisms, would lose their flavoring if you used standard English much less tried for a Russian translation of them, so I didn’t know how to convey the experience fully through English-to-Russian. To top it off, I was only in my first year of Russian study at the time, so my vocabulary word bank and verb conjugation was at a minimum, lol. I fumbled so much with conveying the humorous bits, I just said the heck with it, stood up, and acted out the telling of the incident. The beauty is, once I acted out and mimed the whole thing, they all laughed. Because the underlying emotions of the experience easily translated, in things like facial expressions and body language, but not the words. And, it just so happened, despite very different cultural backgrounds and the language barriers, some of them had had similar experiences, almost down to the letter, lol.

    • Jae July 18, 2018 at 03:39 - Reply

      Even within the same language, humor can be difficult if two people don’t share the same background and the same experiences.

      Personally, I find it very fascinating how similar yet different languages can be. That’s part of the fun of writing in different languages.

      • Cristina July 19, 2018 at 17:21 - Reply

        “Personally, I find it very fascinating how similar yet different languages can be. That’s part of the fun of writing in different languages.”

        I totally agree. Back in college, one of my roommates was an English major. She had to ‘translate’ a long passage in Old English and also read the passage out loud for class. She was having a bit of a time pronouncing some of the words the way she remembered her TA doing (she was a perfectionist, lol). I leaned over to peer at the passage, and was like, “oh, cool,” and tried saying a string of the words. She was like, “How’d you do that? You almost sound like my TA.” I told her that it looked a bit like German, so I just took a stab in the dark, lol. Also was like the time when I was learning Arabic and could guess what a few of the phrases meant and how to pronounce them because they were similar to some phrases in Spanish.

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