To Be Translated or Not To Be: Part II

Following up on my earlier post I want to summarize the statistics that Esther Allen cites in her essay “Translation, Globalization, and English” that open the To Be Translated or Not To Be report from PEN and the Institut Ramon Llull.

One of the things worth pointing out is how shoddy all the data is for literature in translation published in English. In contrast to other countries, we come off as an ass-backward second-rate country. Case in point: in 2000, when switching databases, Bowker—the central place where publishing statistics are recorded—quit tracking the number of titles published in translation. Nice. Every year Bowker is able to report on the number of sports books published, but not translations.

So all of the numbers cited are a bit shady. Nevertheless, as you can see below, a number of organizations have attempted to come up with a figure (often around 3%, which, ahem, is the basis for the name of this blog), although most of these studies provide summary data without many details. All of these studies led to our creation of the 2008 Translation Database, which hopefully will support the findings below while also providing detailed information about each work in translation so that the complete list can be added to, analyzed, and manipulated in various ways.

Anyway, here are the studies and stats Esther summarizes in this essay:

  • Bowker: According to information Bowker released in October of 2005, in 2004 there were 375,000 new books published in English. (Including titles published in the UK, Australia, Canada, etc.) Of that total, approx. 14,440 were new translations, which is slightly more than 3% of all books published. The U.S. accounted for 4,982 of those titles, but this figured includes nonfiction as well as literature. Breaking it down to just adult literature and fiction titles, only 874 works in translation were published here in the States in 2004. And this number is very misleading, since it includes retranslations, reprints, etc. (Again with the summary stats without the details.)
  • NEA: The NEA looked at the 12,828 works of fiction and poetry published in the U.S. in 1999 and found that only 297 were in translation. And this number also included retranslations. (On a positive note, even extracting reprints, new translations of classic works, etc., it seems that there was a genuine increase between 1999 and 2004, which is encouraging.)
  • Center for Book Culture: I helped with this study, which is reproduced on page 26 of the report and which looked at the number of literary works published by country for the period of 2000-2006. In this report—still lacking in rich detail, since the list of published titles making up the figures was never published and is therefore somewhat suspect—France fared the best, having had 52 books translated into English during this time (ave. of 8.7/year), with Italy’s 39 (6.5/yr) and Germany’s 36 (6.0/yr) coming in second and third. What’s really depressing is the slew of countries below 1 book/year, such as Argentina, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Lithuania, Romania, Catalonia, etc. (Mysteries and anything “genre” related was excluded from these numbers, which is another reason it would be nice to have the list of books. By comparison, through Apr/May, there are 14 German books in our translation database.)
  • German Book Office: Over the past few years, the GBO has been keeping track of the number of translations reviewed in Publishers Weekly compared to the total number of books reviewed. In 2004, 132 translations were reviewed out of 5,588 total translations. In 2005, this number had shot up to 197 reviews out of 5,727—another encouraging sign. (I believe the GBO is releasing 2007 info in the next few weeks—I’ll post it here as soon as it’s available.)

Another good source for info on translations is Annotated Books Received, a journal published by the American Literary Translators Association that contains information on any translation submitted to the journal. Exactly the opposite of the studies above, this journal provides tons of specific data, but no summary info breaking out books available in Canada from U.S. ones, or retranslations from originals, etc. Still it’s an excellent publication, although the most recent issue online is from 2006 . . .

Overall, all these studies are useful, since they help us get a handle on how many works in translation are being published. And in various ways, they all point toward the same figures, which, logically, is what we should expect since they’re drawing from the same subset of the overall population. Still, I think this points to the need for better tracking (why isn’t “translation” a category at the Library of Congress?) in order to analyze trends, and have a better sense of what’s being published from where and by whom.

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