Since it was first published in 2008, Andre F. Clewell and James Aronson’s Ecological Restoration: Principles, Values, and Structure of an Emerging Profession has become an important text in its field. But as the book’s publisher, Island Press, prepared to release a second edition in 2016, it came up against a common problem: it had no viable way to reach interested readers in other languages.

“As a mission-driven publisher, we were frustrated,” said David Miller, president of the Washington, D.C.–based company. “We had been trying to sell the foreign rights in Spanish and Portuguese, but there were a lot of factors that made translation difficult.”

The biggest hurdle was the cost of translation, which Miller estimated to be $5,000–$8,000 for an acquiring publisher or $9,000–$35,000 for Island. So the publisher devised an entirely new translation workflow, based on the use of a widely available digital product, Google Translate API, which lowered the baseline costs of translation to $16.50 for a first pass on a manuscript.

The process grew out of a recently completed digitization project in which Island converted its catalogue into the ePub format. The company’s senior technology adviser, George Tourtellot, believed that ePub’s information architecture would be compatible with Google, making it easy to take a formatted book in English, run it through the translation service, and have a formatted text come out at the other end.

“EPub is easy to work with because it’s basically a zipped folder of HTML with a bit of extra metadata,” Tourtellot said. “Because it’s HTML, I knew that the transfer of HTML using Google Translate would be effective.”

The entire process took two hours per language, but it was not without its difficulties. Google’s translation interface only handles 5,000 characters at a time, so Tourtellot had to submit individual passages for translation in chunks. Along the way, the program made errors that would drive a copy editor mad, including swapping all em and en dashes in the text. Where he could, Tourtellot also developed scripts to ensure that the program addressed grammatical differences, such as the placement of periods inside or outside of quotation marks at the ends of sentences.

Though the end result was accurate in many ways, it was still far from perfect. For instance, though the program easily translated common terms, Miller said it struggled with identifying technical terms and often misunderstood the input language as something other than English. “Google Translate is good at [translating] ‘Spot the dog ate his breakfast,’ ” Miller said, “but certain terms for dry field restoration of grasses are a different matter.”

Island turned to the authors for help. Through their work in academia and at research institutes, Clewell and Aronson brought on multilingual graduate students to refine the text for an additional cost of a few thousand dollars. The result was reflowable ePub versions of the book’s second edition, updated with color photographs, in Spanish and Portuguese.

As with automation in many industries, the process raises questions about the future of human translators. “I understand their desire to use graduate students to save money, but at the same time it sets a bad precedent for translation as a viable art or job,” said Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter Books, who oversees the Translation Database, which contains details about more than 6,000 books that have been translated into English (and which is hosted by PW’s website).

Tourtellot said, however, that he sees the process adding work for publishers in new areas: “As automation comes about, it doesn’t necessarily [only] take away jobs—it creates new ones. There’s going to be a whole new side of the workforce that becomes important that is maybe undervalued now.”

For Miller, the project meets an immediate set of needs by creating a method to disseminate information broadly and quickly. In addition, he said, the project demonstrates to Island authors and supporters that the publisher is working on ways to get its books to more readers.

The overall success of the endeavor remains to be seen. Translations in Portuguese and Spanish were completed by summer 2017, but Miller said that print-on-demand doesn’t have the reach in bookstores in foreign markets, and no foreign publisher has acquired the rights yet. At last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, however, Miller was able to share the finished translations and, he said, publishers expressed greater interest than ever in the books. “It changes the conversation a lot,” he added. “Having $5,000–$8,000 worth of translation costs go away is a lot of money.”

For now, e-book versions of the Spanish and Portuguese translations are available on Island’s website.

Meanwhile, Miller and his team are already looking for the next books in their catalogue to translate. “For us it’s great to do these [particular translations] but the real goal here is there’s a future, that there’s a way to do this with 40 books a year,” Miller said.

As Island plots its next steps, it’s considering ways to streamline its approach. In a recent meeting, Miller’s team reviewed what went well and what went wrong with their first attempt. Reflecting on the em and en dashes, Miller said that the most important lesson of all “is that it’s the little things that bite you.”

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