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Lawrence Venuti on the Business of Publishing Translations

Literary Saloon pointed this out yesterday, but the new issue of Words Without Borders contains a fantastic article by Lawrence Venuti on the business of publishing translations.

He wrote this essay for the Frankfurt Book Fair panel on To Be Translated or Not To Be (warning, that links to the entire report in pdf form), a fascinating study done by Esther Allen, the Ramon Llull Institute and PEN centers around the world. (I’m actually reviewing this for a scholarly publication, and am planning on spending all next week posting about the different sections.)

Back to Venuti’s essay: His thoughts tie in really well to the economic analysis that we wrote about yesterday.

Early in the twentieth century, a largely unwritten policy came to prevail among Anglophone publishers. Buy the translation rights to a single book by a foreign author. If soon after publication the translation suffers a substantial loss or fails to earn back its production costs or to realize a modest profit, then stop publishing translations of the author’s books. If, however, the first translation manages to break even or to approach a break-even point, then continue to publish translations of that particular author in the hope that more translations will create a readership and add profitable titles to the backlist. [. . .]

Sales in the range of 5,000 copies became a benchmark for a successful translation of a foreign novel. Yet the figure also came to reflect the sad reality of publishing translations in English. In 2002 Christopher MacLehose, formerly director of the Harvill Press, observed that “for the most part now the majority of even the finest books that are translated find their way to sales between 1,500 and 6,000.”

Over the past hundred years few English-language translations have managed to reach that upper limit. As a result, most foreign authors who have had a book translated into English have not been translated again, either by the initial publisher or by others, who were scared off by the poor market performance of the first translation.

All of this is spot-on true, and fairly well documented. The bigger issue is how to get more translations published, and more people reading them. Venuti’s promotes a more holistic, multi-pronged approach designed to create a better context for readers to approach “strange” or “difficult” books from other countries.

I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture. Translators too need to participate in these choices, since their expertise is invaluable in assessing the losses and gains in the translation process. But they must regard translation in more self-critical ways than is generally the rule today, when translators tend to take a belletristic approach to their work, making impressionistic comments which show that they, like publishers, find writing to be primarily personal, a form of self-expression or a testimony of their aesthetic kinship to the foreign author. Publishers and translators alike need to depersonalize translation and to become aware of the ethical responsibility involved in representing foreign texts and cultures. What a sad time it is for intercultural exchange when publishers and translators look abroad and see mainly opportunities to imprint their own values.

The initiative I am recommending cannot be pursued by one publisher alone without a significant outlay of capital and probably not without the funding and advice of a cultural ministry or institute in a foreign country. But publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success.

For the most part, I second this. Publishers, readers, reviewers, bloggers, literary people in general, can work together to create a better context for receiving a particular book. All true. I’m not sure I quite agree with this “critical detachment” on the publisher’s part. It almost seems like he’s suggesting that publishers should be doing certain books because someone (who exactly?) has decided that these texts are representative of foreign cultures.

That’s all fine and good—but not necessarily the function of a publishing house. Then again, it depends on what house you’re looking at. In terms of a commercial house seeking out chick-lit books from Iran, because “these are the books that sell,” I agree with Venuti. This does very little cultural good, and in fact, may well be harmful to a greater understanding of other cultures.

If Archipelago decides to publish a Basque book though (like they are), I know it’s because Jill Schoolman loves that particular title and wants to get it in the hands of everyone she knows. Granted, it would be awesome if there were critical apparatus to create a better context for approaching this book, however, it’s not her moral imperative to do other titles that more fully sketch out the situation of the Basque in Spain.

That said, more collaboration would benefit everyone. Not sure of the specific form this takes, but linking up Graywolf’s forthcoming Bernardo Atxaga books with Archipelago’s Unai Elorriaga title starts building this context. Who does this though? And how? Seems to me that these are critical questions to the on-going development of a book culture that respects and appreciates world literature.



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