Tomorrow's E-Utopia? [Part 2 of 4]

Here’s the second section of the paper I’m preparing for the Iceland Literary Festival. Click here for part one. The third part will go up later today, and the fourth over the weekend.

Let me back up a bit to give a broader context for how e-books hold some promise to revolutionize the business of publishing literature in translation. Most likely you’re already familiar with the dismal statistics about the publication of literature in translation in my country. According to a number of studies from the past half-dozen years, approximately 3% of all books published in the U.S. have been translated into English. And to be honest, that number is probably a bit of an exaggeration.

A couple years ago, I started a Translation Database on our blog/review site Three Percent. Because all of the “studies” of translation production in the United States were simply numbers—no details of which books were included, where they came from, who published them—I thought it would be useful to create a database to track all the original works of fiction and poetry that came out in translation. So starting in January of 2008, I started reviewing hundreds of catalogs and websites, getting in touch with translators, associations, foreign governments and the like. For the sake of my sanity (which, granted, is already a bit suspect), I did put some limits on this: I only collected info on adult books that had never before been translated into English. So, no picture books and no tenth retranslation of Kafka’s Amerika made it onto my list. By themselves, the numbers are a bit staggering, or, well, to put it more accurately, depressing.

According to this database, in 2008 only 362 original translations were published in America. And in 2009 that number has dipped to 326. (Thank you, multinational banks and your corrupt money-making schemes.) This number is so low that I can envision a retired somebody being able to read all of these books over the course of a year.

I can’t bring myself to believe that there are only 350-or-so titles from around the world that are worthy of publication in any given year. From my last visit to Iceland, I came back with at least a dozen really promising recommendations that (with unlimited resources) I’d love to publish. But in 2008 and 2009 a grand total of 6 Icelandic books were published in the United States. (Several of which are mystery novels. I’m not saying, just pointing out.)

Whenever I visit another country and talk about the state of translations in America, people wonder why it is that we’re so fucking provincial. Why don’t we simply publish more literature in translation? Is it because editors don’t read Icelandic? Are we just stupid? Should Icelandic authors try and write more like Stephanie Meyer?

Well, it’s kind of all of those things and none of them. On a very simple level, it’s all about money. Or money and perceived audiences and the long tail concept. Here’s a brief anecdote: This past summer I was on a panel at BookExpo America with Errol McDonald, a famous editor at Pantheon Books who, once upon a time, brought out a few volumes of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet. (After Schiffrin was forced out of Pantheon, McDonald wrote a famous smackdown op-ed piece for the Times about how publishers are entitled to make money and that Schiffrin loyalists were pathetic in their “support of the welfare mentatlity.”)

Nowadays, McDonald’s not much of a foreign lit supporter. Aside from falsely claiming that there’s no press in America that can survive publishing only literature in translation (cough, Open Letter, cough, Archipelago Books, cough), he also made the grand, and very telling, statement that a corporate publisher like Pantheon views literature in translation like foreign movies—the work may be high quality, but there’s just not an audience for it. At least not a large enough one to make it worthwhile to spend tens of thousands of dollars to have a book translated, published, and promoted.

This is a perfect example of the vicious self-fulfilling cycle of economic censorship at work. Sure, there is an additional cost to publishing a book originally written in another language. But that said, in contrast to advances paid to American authors, the amounts publishers offer for foreign works are a dime on the dollar. (With a few notable exceptions, like The Kindly Ones, and a handful of megastar authors.) But, in a way, not spending enough money is part of the problem. Here’s the typical progression of a work of literature in translation at a corporate publishing house (like Pantheon): an editor falls in love with Bulgarian book X and recommends it to the publisher; publisher agrees reluctantly, but only if they offer a low advance because the book is “risky” (ALL BOOKS ARE RISKY); with such a low advance the marketing, sales, and publicity departments assume this book isn’t “important,” or at least not as important as book Y, which they paid $2.5 million for; so this Bulgarian novel gets little love from the promotions area of the publishing house, only advancing a few hundred copies into a couple hundred bookstores across the country, getting very little push with the media, and, as a result—in spite of some booksellers absolutely loving the novel—sells pretty poorly; thus, the publisher’s hesitation about “those international books” is confirmed.

The situation would be different if we lived in a culture that valued long-term sales growth and editorial quality over quick hits and blockbusters. But that’s an issue for a different speech.

This whole long digression—and trust me, we’re working our way back to the e-book promised land—is to illustrate why it is that small, independent, and university presses are the ones doing the bulk of literature in translation. According to my database, over the past two years, the big corporate publishers have brought out fewer than 20% of all the fiction and poetry translations published in the U.S.

And unlike those big presses, these indie, small, university presses (I’ll just call them independent presses from now on to make things easier) don’t have the same level of sales representation, or the same sort of supply relationships with the various bookstores in the U.S. (Another topic for another speech: why bookstores all over the country all tend to look the same, with similar piles of similarly shitty books.) This is—to the ire of independent bookstores everywhere—why indie presses tend to love Amazon.com. Sure, Amazon.com tries to screw you discount-wise, but at least the books are available and everyone in America (and the UK and Canada) can order are receive the books easily and in a short period of time.

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