Five Against One

Continuing my random recollections of last week’s Salzburg Global Seminar on Translation in a Global Culture, I thought that today I’d write about Anuvela, a really interesting “translation collective” that I learned about at the seminar.

In brief, Anuvela is a collective of seven translators (six women and one man) who work together to produce translations into Spanish of best-selling English works. (For example, one recent project Ana Alcaina talked about was Anuvela’s translation of Ken Follett’s World Without End.) This is a pretty interesting work model: they negotiate the contract as a group, they split up the text itself, they use a Google doc spreadsheet to share info about how they’re translating particular terms, and they share the financial benefits and copyright recognition. (It’s worth noting that for each group translation, the person designated as the manager and contact person is responsible for working with the publisher and making sure the end product is consistent and smooth.)

As demonstrated in yesterday’s post about translation statistics, books written in English dominate the global marketplace, especially in West European countries such as Spain. Which is why the idea of Anuvela works. As an American translator, can you imagine being in a situation where your skills are in such demand that you have to form a collective to take on all the work being made available to you?

This presentation was one of the moments during the seminar that we started to see all the different bifurcations that separated both the participants and the various markets we represented.

Although Bolano’s 2666 has sold tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of copies, and although The Kindly Ones (as described in today’s Times article by Motoko Rich) is primed to do the same, best-selling translations are a real anomaly in America. Which is completely the opposite in other countries throughout the world where translations of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo dominate the bestseller lists.

This difference played a significant role in shaping the conversation of the small work group that I was a part of. We were assigned to talk about “how to influence publishers”—an interesting topic, and one that has a variety of answers depending on which market you’re looking at.

Here in America (or even in the English-speaking world in general), we tend to focus on the severe lack of translations being done these days. So our response to such a topic is to try and find ways to get publishers to do more books. But in Europe, the issue isn’t necessarily the production numbers (although there could always be more translations among non-English languages), but on the work conditions of the translator.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow, but CEATL studied pay rates for translators across Europe and found that in almost every single country, full-time translators earn less than your average manufacturing or service worker. Usually in the range of 80-85% of what these workers make. Which is incredibly disturbing and discouraging—what is the future of translation when you’re better off learning to drive a truck than learning the art of translation?

But this divide between the situation in the English-speaking market and the European market (not to mention the Arabic market, African market, Asian market, etc.) is only one of the divides that molded our general conversations. Sticking with markets for a second, the other rhetorical/philosophical divide that I picked up on was the difference between leaving translation to the marketplace and the nonprofit tendency.

I think I’d need a few blog posts to really work out all the intricacies of this, but when talking about literature—especially literature in translation—we tend to look to marketplace successes (like the Bolano or The Elegance of the Hedgehog) as inspirational models, while at the same time, employing the rhetoric of the nonprofit and the need for most translations to be subsidized in some way.

Restricting this to America and the UK, it’s easy to think that in the post-_2666_ world, more commercial presses will be willing to “take a chance” on a translation, since it’s been proven that American readers will buy a really long, really complicated book in translation. Yet at the same time, a lot of discussion and programs center around the need for translation subsidies, since the additional cost of the translation is a deterrents to a lot of publishing houses. But are these $3,000-$7,000 grants that much of an incentive to a place like FSG or Random House? (Again, Harper paid almost $1 million for the rights to The Kindly Ones, and I highly doubt that the possibility of getting a grant for the translation was what convinced them to make the offer.)

So in this bifurcation, we have commercial presses that are totally beholden to the marketplace, and to impact them—to cause them to a) publish more translations and b) to do a more consistent and better job at promoting these books—the market itself has to change. There has to be more readers for literature in translation. But, as Harold Augenbraum pointed out in his recent Reading Ahead post, the question is larger than that. It’s not that we need to cultivate readers for literary translations, we need to cultivate more readers for literature as a whole.

Putting aside the commercial market for a minute, we know that the independents and nonprofits and university presses are publishing 80%+ of all works of literature in translation. And for these presses, that $3,000-$7,000 grant makes a world of difference. Although these presses are also subject to the whims of the marketplace (at least on some level), the stakes aren’t nearly as high, and they can survive on some grant money and sales of 3,000-5,000 copies. This isn’t to say that these presses don’t want to sell 75,000 copies, but the imbalance of the marketplace (except in a few instances, these presses don’t have the means to be distributed to all bookstores and WalMart stores like Harper or Penguin or whomever) makes it extremely unlikely that sales like that will ever happen.

But for all sorts of obvious reasons, the big commercial successes are the books that dominate the media, are stacked up on bookstore tables (again with The Kindly Ones — why doesn’t Stan Hynds order a “stackable quantity” of one of our translations? I’m not convinced that there’s something intrinsically more “readable” or “appealing” or whatever in a literary translation coming from Harper as one from Open Letter—this is a function of the marketplace not of the quality of the work itself), that will sell googles of copies and will serve as the template for how to “successfully publish” a work in translation. Meaning that the bulk of publishers doing literature—and literature in translation—should emulate this model?

I really don’t have a clear point here (sorry to both of you who are still reading this), but it seems to me that when we talk about translation (or literature) we’re looking at one big, messy picture of the market, one that’s filled with compromises. (Translators do some schlock to pay for the right to translate a book they love, publishers do some more commercial titles to make up for the literary ones that won’t sell, etc.) So in trying to come up with recommendations on how to “influence publishers” or maybe how to influence the publishing landscape as a whole, it seems worthwhile to consider whether we want to push the indie/nonprofit/university presses into a more commercial model (grants to help them market and distribute their books to better “compete” with the commercial presses) or ignore the conventional marketplace entirely and look for new systems of support and audience development that will allow publishers to survive by doing literary translations without holding them to the same standards as more commercial presses.

Anyway, looking at it in this way, it seems next to impossible that we were able to come up with any suggestions/recommendations for how to influence publishers. But we did, and I’ll share some of our ideas later this week . . .

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