The Translation Industry Is Frozen

Before getting into the February translations, data on what’s being published (or not being published), and all the random stuff, I wanted to point out a few modifications to the Translation Database at Publishers Weekly that were recently implemented.

First off, when you’re entering a title, you can now choose “Male,” “Female,” “Both” (for books with multiple authors or translators of different genders), or “Undisclosed.” I know there are lots of other options that could/should be included, but for now, this seemed like the best way of giving non-binary authors and translators a different option while ensuring that the data going forward is compatible with what’s been collected over the past ten years.

Also, if you want to change your gender on your listings—or update a pub date, correct a typo, etc.—on that same form you can click “correction to the database,” which will let me know that this isn’t a new/duplicate entry, but a signal that there’s something wrong in the existing record.

Finally, for all us Excel nerds, you can now get the “tab delimited” data for any search that you make. Just enter in your criteria and click the link at the top—right next to the newly added line indicating how many titles fit your criteria. Once you have the “tab delimited” listings up, highlight and copy all the information and then choose “paste special” in Excel and select “text” and you’ll instantly have a sortable database with ALL the information for the individual records. Magic!

And please keep entering your titles! I really want to bulk up the children’s and nonfiction sections, and although I have plans on how to do this in a more systematic way, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that before the summer break.

OK, on to the February data!

Everything Still Sucks, or, When Are We Renaming the Blog 1%?

Remember last month when it seemed like all the translations had vanished? And when I postulated that it was probably just a small sample size and things would all even out? It’s one month later, the sample size is still small, and there’s still hope for the future, but man, this is disconcerting.

Just like last month, it’s possible I’m missing some titles, but I spent almost all day tracking down books, including looking into a bunch of presses that brought out translations in 2017, but nothing this year, and still, at the end of the day, there are only 28 works of fiction and poetry in the database for February 2018, compared to 51 last year. That’s an INSANE drop off.

In the first two months of 2017, 100 works of fiction and poetry in translation were published in the U.S. for the first time, compared to only 59 this year. I would still bet that by the end of the year, this will normalize—I’ll find a stash of missing poetry titles along with a few new presses that were off my radar—but if it doesn’t . . . that’s huge. Over the past decade there’s been a huge growth in the number of translated titles (367 in 2008, 620 in 2017), membership in ALTA has increased (or at least attendance at the annual conference), there are more university-based translation programs, more awards for translation . . . and yet.

There’s a dark possibility at play here . . . I don’t want to even type it up, but it is probably the simplest explanation: sales of translations aren’t good enough to sustain this level of publication. It doesn’t take that many failures to put the smaller presses out of business or convince the biggest ones that there’s no need to continue with this money-losing enterprise. Instead of being a subsection of publishing with linear growth, maybe translation publishing is more cyclical . . . After hitting a peak in 2016 (653 titles), the industry will contract, and in a handful of years, when we’re back to a handful of presses doing the vast majority of translations, we’ll crank up the grant rhetoric about how isolated American readers are and everything will start over again. Translations will be “cool,” everyone will start doing them, we’ll break the 2016 mark, etc. Or I’m 100% wrong. Hopefully that.

Abrupt Mutations by Enrique Luis Revol, translated from the Spanish by Priscilla Hunter (Dalkey Archive Press)

I would love to read this book and write about it for my weekly column, but what are the odds that this book actually comes out this month? Maybe 25%?

This probably isn’t something the average reader notices, but over the past few years, Dalkey’s catalog has come to resemble the annual Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog—a bunch of cool looking shit that you’ll never actually own.

Let me put this in perspective: I spent an hour today correcting the pub dates for their books in the database. By “correcting,” I mean changing listings for books that were supposed to come out in 2017, but are now scheduled for November of this year. Like Warning to the Crocodiles by one of my all time favorite authors, Antonio Lobo Antunes. Not even exaggerating when I say I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for two-and-a-half years. The translator, Rhett McNeil, talked to me about it back when MLA was in Austin in 2016 and, unless I’m totally mistaken, the book’s publication was imminent at that point. And although the Dalkey website lists a May 2017 pub date, Ingram lists a December 2018 release date, and Amazon comes up with “Your search ‘9781943150137’ did not match any products.” By the time this is finally published, I’ll probably have given up on reading.

Although it doesn’t explain everything, Dalkey’s delays (similar to those for Hispabooks, which is still in business, question mark?) do screw with the data quite a bit. When the Translation Database went from my computer to Publisher Weekly’s website, we had data on 37 titles that Dalkey “published” in 2017. There were even more titles announced, but those were shifted to 2018 before exporting all this data. That’s now slipped to 32, not a huge difference, but way down from the 42 titles they published in 2016. I don’t know how they manage to do so many books to begin with, but for the sake of my interest in reading so many of them, I really wish more of them came out on time.

But the bigger point: The numbers cited mid-year might be inflated due to small presses announcing books that are then delayed. And delayed. And delayed.

The Right Intention by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Transit Books)

Going back to data for a minute: Spanish was the most translated language this month. With five titles. (In February 2017, French had 7 titles, and Spanish 6. How are there only 3 French books this month? Weird.) What’s more interesting is that there are 3 Norwegian books (including two titles in Jens Bjorneboe’s “History of Bestiality” trilogy . . . which . . . I’ll just leave that there like that) and 1 Latvian book! Go Latvia! I assume that 30 Questions People Don’t Ask by Inga Gaile, translated by Ieva Lešinska is part of the build-up to being guest of honor at the London Book Fair. Definitely.

(Kaija—worried that I was making fun of Latvia while writing this—just informed me that there are “something like forty” Latvian books coming out from UK presses across 2017 and 2018, since that’s where the government has been putting its efforts and money. So far, this poetry collection is the only one scheduled to come out in the U.S. This ties into something I want to write at some point in time about how most publishers of translations in the U.S. are buying rights from the UK and not originating the translation. Open Letter’s never done that [okay maybe once], because we’re JOB CREATORS.)

This past week, I used Such Small Hands by Barba in my World Lit & Translation class and my students had the opportunity to talk with Lisa Dillman, who is definitely one of the best Spanish translators working today. During our conversation, I told her about my probable misreading of part of this novel. For those who read it, you may remember that in the middle, Marina tells the girls at the orphanage about how she’s been to Disneyland in Paris, how she’s already seen all the movies that they watch on their weekly movie nights, etc. When I first read this, I assumed that she was lying—like my kids would, like most kids would—as a way of getting back at them for making her an outsider. Lisa said that no one had ever mentioned a reading like this before—because why would they? this is crazy talk—but that it might well tie into the earlier bit in which Marina is given the doll and claims that the doll is the “only one who doesn’t lie” . . . Sometimes I feel like I’m totally stoned while I’m reading.

Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by [Not Listed on Grove Website] (Black Cat)

The translator is Brian FitzGibbon. See, Grove, that wasn’t so bad!

Also, AmazonCrossing was the first to publish Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. They did The Greenhouse back in 2011. It’s definitely worth checking out. Iceland rules.

I kind of want to leave things there, but this was the placeholder I was using in my mind to try and talk about how incredibly odd Memphis was during ABA Winter Institute—an annual convention for booksellers. I’ve never been in a city that felt more vacant. One night we went to Beale Street, the street for music and bar hopping. Structurally, it looks like 6th St (?) in Austin, with police cars at both ends so that no one can drive there and everyone can drink booze in the streets.

Except that it was totally empty. Like, literally empty.

Over the course of the four days I was there, I think I saw 14 people who weren’t associated with Winter Institute out in the wild. One was a “security guy” who doubled as a PR man for downtown Memphis. He accosted me and Will Vanderhyden as we were walking down the street one day.

“Y’all got any questions about downtown?”

“Where are all the people?”

“Here in Memphis, we’ve got four Fortune 500 companies, but they’re all located about 40 minutes away the suburbs and downtown is being revitalized and during the months of April through September it’s a totally different place.”

“Cool. Makes sense. Thanks.”

“Do you know what Highway 40 doesn’t pass through here?”

“. . .”

“The state wanted it to. But Memphis folk? We stand up for ourselves. We said NO HIGHWAY THROUGH OUR PARK. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and Memphians won.”

“Where are we?”

“Downtown Memphis! Where the people are all friendly and there’s a massive Pyramid that houses the world’s largest Bass Pro Shop! You HAVE to check it out! Ain’t nothing else like it.”

Season of the Shadow by Léonora Miano, translated from the French by Gila Walker (Seagull Books)

Shit! I forgot to include my original Grove joke . . . Right before Will and I encountered Mr. Memphis, we were at a food truck square for lunch. Eight food trucks, six Memphians. Good ratio! As we were eating, Morgan Entrekin, current publisher of Grove, came wandering up and said, “Where is everyone?” I’ve never seen anyone look so befuddled and out-of-sorts.

It was so weird! A bunch of us went walking to a nearby restaurant during rush hour, and strolled across major streets without even bothering to look both ways. Memphis rush hour in February is like something from the Walking Dead. We saw maybe four cars and a homeless guy picking Other Press tote bags out of the trash. (True story! He even got a bunch of books with the tote! Which he’ll never read but which may make a good paper-quilt . . . ) Everyone who was at Winter Institute will back me up on this. It’s entirely plausible that Memphis was just a simulacrum and we were all in some hidden basement in Amazon having memories implanted into our minds.

Empty Set by Veroónica Gerber Bicecci, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)

Two things about Winter Institute and money:

1. Winter Institute is absolutely, without question, the best event in the country for publishers to meet with booksellers and get them to get behind their books. (Handselling to the Handsellers would be a great band name for a terrible bookstore band.) Winter Institute can make a book. But to get in the door, publishers have to put up at least $6,000. That’s maybe reasonable? If you’re New Directions, NYRB, Europa, Coffee House, Graywolf, Melville House, etc., not to mention the Penguin Random Houses and Hachettes of the world.

(They pay far more than $6,000 in order to lock down their control on the bookshelves of America. I love how PRH pays lip service to independent booksellers at events like this, wining and dining them, and, taking them by bus to a remote dinner party so that the booksellers can’t leave. On the surface, this seems totally cool. Why shouldn’t PRH buy the booksellers some fancy whiskey? Because of my paranoid tendencies, insecure depression, or game theory ideas, I see a bit of a darker lining in this. PRH is like Post Cereal—they’re as concerned with limiting competition as they are with producing great product. If you can keep booksellers locked in, paying attention to you and all your books, you can make sure that 75% of all inventory is from your company. That’s super valuable simply because it decreases the odds that a customer will end up buying a book from one of your competitors. Post produces dozens of cereals a year that don’t sell for shit, but take up the space that a better cereal from some dirty hippie indie manufacturer [like this Sea Stars cereal from Love Grown that we bought at a Whole Foods once, and which looks and tastes exactly like regular sugary rice-puff cereal, but once my kids saw the words “lentils” and “beans” on the box they for real started to cry and refused to eat any] would otherwise occupy. This is why there are 49 Starbucks on every corner. And I’m sure that the higher-ups at commercial book publishers know this strategy and how much this sort of market penetration is worth.)

For presses like New Vessel, Open Letter, Transit, Deep Vellum—those indie translation presses that I’m obviously concerned with—this is a fortune to spend on a week-long event. And yet, you have to be there. Which means that we end up with another contradictory situation in the book world: booksellers advocating meritocratic ideas of really handselling what they love, where quality counts, while also inhabiting an economic space that’s very much a pay-to-play situation. Such is baseball, such is life.

If translation presses can’t keep their collective feet in this door, they’ll probably end up doing fewer and fewer translations, or just stopping all together, and instead of the 660ish translations we got in 2016, we’ll get . . . oh.

2. Patrick Walsh of Custom Publishing Partners (hi, Patrick!) got drunk with a bunch of us on the last night. Several people—Nick Buzanski, Javier Ramirez, and Will Vanderhyden—heard him bet me $1,000 that in 2018, Hunter Pence will “have a Hall of Fame season” and bat over .320 for the year. Now, I’m not supporting gambling, but I’m taking that bet ALL DAY E’ER’ DAY. Right now Pence is projected to bat .264. To move from a lifetime batting average of .282 to over .320 basically impossible. Patrick, do you go to Fangraphs at all? I’M GOING TO TAKE YOUR MONEY THIS IS LEGALLY BINDING.

Stone Building and Other Places by Aslı Erdoğan, translated from the Turkish by Sevinç Türkkan (City Lights)

I obnoxiously sent a publisher—who rejected the book I wrote—a text about how he should publish all 64 translation pieces I’m planning on writing this year (52 books and 12 monthly overviews). Taken as a whole, these should be an interesting look at world of publishing AND about a healthy swath of books published during a given year. There’s totally some cutesy title about “52 weeks” or a “year of” reading X while Y that you can build out of this idea.

This is so presumptuous!

To be honest, I only write these to work through my emotions on screen. The joy I get out of writing these posts is so outsized compared to the number of people who actually read them. And that’s fine. TRUST THE PROCESS.

Which is why it’s probably time to talk about the National Book Award for Translation, which was announced earlier this week.

I knew this was coming. And welcomed it! Who doesn’t want more awards for the thing that they’re passionate about? The more the merrier, right? And there’s nothing at all wrong with giving more money to authors and translators. Plus, the attention being paid to the winners of this award far exceeds what a single press can do on its own. Sure, Tom’s said before on the podcast that the only award that shifts significant copies is the Pulitzer, but every translator in the world would be happy to ride an NBA award for the rest of their career.

But then this New York Times story happened, sparking a ton of questions.

The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (FSG)

I know it’s a bad idea, but I can’t resist pointing out a few of the lazy parts of that article that had people across social media platforms up in arms and trying to process what they had read.

While there are a growing number of publishing houses that specialize in publishing works in translation and international literature — including Europa Editions, Archipelago Books, AmazonCrossing and Tilted Axis, which publishes contemporary Asian literature, mainly by women — translated literature still accounts for a tiny percentage of books published in the United States.

What percentage might that be? Maybe three? Three sounds good.

Also (and no slight or insult intended toward Deborah Smith, who is doing great things), the curious inclusion of Titled Axis—a press with, what, six published books under its belt, thus making it one of the biggest players in the translation publishing world?, right up there with Dalkey Archive, New Directions, and FSG?—which is based in the UK and can’t possibly be eligible for the National Book Award. Unless everything is all upside down. Which is totally possible in 2018, I know, I KNOW.

Other literary institutions have also made efforts to highlight works in translation. The PEN America Center has given out a translation prize to highlight international works since the 1960s. In 2015, the Booker Prize Foundation recast its international prize, which was previously open to novelists writing in English, as an award dedicated to fiction in translation.

Oh, yeah, you’re totally right, other organizations have tried to do such a revolutionary thing! Awards like, oh, I don’t know, the Best Translated Book Award, which gives out TWICE as much award money to international authors and translators than the NBA? (But doesn’t really get the same level of respect from the NYT for obvious, yet disheartening, reasons.)

But wait! Before the BTBA, there was the National Translation Award, which is judged by translators and comes with a $5,000 prize as well (split equally between the prose winner and poetry winner, but still) and is probably the most rigorous of the three major prizes for translation in that it compares the original text to the translated book and is focused on the translation itself. But the NTA wasn’t mentioned in any of the original articles about the new NBA. Not to drone on, but this bums me out. Journalists should be able to do some cursory research for these sorts of articles, and people and organizations doing good work should be acknowledged for it, regardless of how hip and/or well-heeled they are.

It’s going to be really interesting to debate the rationale for whatever books win the first few iterations of the NBA for Translation. Sure, as with their other awards, they’ll be honoring the “book,” but which book? The original book? The English version? The version of Out by Natsuo Kirino in which the ending was rewritten to be more appealing to American readers. That book?

This might seem facetious, but these are questions everyone on a translation prize jury struggles with. Are you looking for the best translation, or the book that will appeal to the most people, thus helping translation transcend its trappings? How does that reflect on the art of translation? But do you really want to get mired in nitpicking particular words in given texts? Probably not. There is a balance, and every jury comes to terms with what they’re valuing and figures this out. My utopic vision is that the four major translation prizes: PEN, BTBA, NBA, and NTA each get at one of the myriad reasons that reading translations is enjoyable and beneficial. The awards could complement each other and create a larger set of reasons for why readers should pay attention to books from outside our borders.

Part of this will obviously depend on the construction of the NBA jury. Most of the other NBA awards are judged by five people—a mixture of authors and booksellers. That could be cool for this as well, although I suspect there will also be a translator or two in the mix. (Although a translation award with a jury comprised of people who aren’t translators sounds really intriguing to me right now. In the end, books should be judged by smart readers.) There are some authors who are definitely more well versed in international literature, so this could end up being an opportunity for those in the know to share their expertise. Or for those who usually stay in their reading lane to branch out and learn about what else is out there. All very exciting to think about as we build up to March 7th and the release of the information about how to apply.

I know that in this day and age, trying to have a nuanced take on something is a one-way ticket to Pariahville, but I do want to mention the one single aspect of this that troubles me. It’s a selfish thing, based in my distrust of late-capitalist structures and the obsession with celebrity, but I think it does end up raising a point that will end up distinguishing this award from the (likely) more populist BTBA.

Here are the publishing houses of the past ten NBA winners for fiction, counting backward from 2017: Doubleday, Random House, Penguin Press, Riverhead, Harper, Bloomsbury (Jesmyn Ward, now published by Scribner), McPherson (go small presses! Vintage reissued Jaimy Gordon’s more experimental books, which is a fantastic result of winning this prize), Random House, Modern Library/Random House, and FSG. Naturally.

And here’s a quote from the Associated Press about why the National Book Awards added a longlist:

Entrekin said that some of the recent National Book Award fiction lists, which usually get the most attention, had been “very eccentric” and that allowing critics and booksellers as judges could open up the process. The results, he thinks, will be a “little more mainstream,” and less likely to include “a collection of stories by a university press.”

Oh boy. I remember my heart sinking the first time I read that. This is partially why people outside of the Big Five Presses might be a bit reserved when talking about this new award and its benefits for presses doing translations. Although there are dozens of amazing authors who have won NBAs or at least been finalist, the awards aren’t without their share of controversy over style and experimentation. Remember this?

It’s probably the years of being a bridesmaid and never a bride (or more like an usher and never an attendee?) that dampens my belief that the indie presses—who produce 85%+ of the fiction and poetry translations coming out each year—will be adequately represented on the long and short lists. I’m not sure the world needs another award in which the biggest of the big presses get to pat themselves on the back about a job well done. Not that there aren’t good books from these presses, but it would be super cool if this award ended up elevating some lesser known books, authors, translators, and presses.

The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC)—which has awarded translations, although it doesn’t have a specific translation category—tries to be this. All published books are eligible, and if a NBCC jury member loves a given book (from the largest or tiniest of presses), it has a shot to win. There is no entry fee, so even though the small presses rarely win anything except maybe poetry and criticism, at least you feel like it’s possible.

For better or worse, the NBA is a bit different. From their website:

There is a $135 entry fee for each title submitted.

All publishers submitting books for the National Book Awards must agree to:

Contribute $3,000 toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist ($750 for presses with income of under $10 million).

Inform authors of submitted books that, if selected as Finalists, they must be present at the National Book Awards Ceremony and at related events in New York City.

Inform authors that the Finalists Reading will be held at The New School on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists and provide them with a seat at the Awards Ceremony.

Purchase from the National Book Foundation, when appropriate, medallions to be affixed to the covers of Longlist, Finalist, and Winning books. The Foundation also will license the medallion image artwork for reproduction on the covers of Finalist and Winning books.

Yikes! So, when Open Letter submits The Invented Part, which (in my mind) has a legit shot at being a finalist, we’ll pay $135 + $750 + $2000 (travel costs for both the author and the translator, since both are technically finalists) + $1,000 (?—I don’t know what the cost of buying a seat at the NBA ceremony is, but probably not free?) and still have an 80% chance of walking away empty handed? Will being a finalist generate enough sales to offset just these expenses? Not a chance. I totally get why the NBAs have these requirements—both from a money and a publicity perspective—and the translation finalists should be required to be at the ceremony as well. It’s a great honor! But I can also see a situation in which just the possibility of facing these costs would dissuade smaller indie presses from even entering their books. Books that might deserve to win. Books that, by winning, would alter that press’s trajectory by increasing their visibility significantly.

(Can you imagine me at an NBA finalists dinner? Who would ever speak to me? There’s a short unhappy story buried in this vision. I wouldn’t even be able to dress right. My belt would be backward or something.)

Is this NBA for Translation going to be good for the small presses who actually do (read: exist solely because of/for) translations? It’s possible, although unlikely. But maybe! This is all aspirational, and I’m going to aspire The Invented Part right to that stage.

(I would love for AmazonCrossing to pay to submit every single one of their books every single year until they make a shortlist. By sheer numbers it’s bound to happen.)

But to get back to the point, it’s great that the NBA for Translation has finally arrived, but it would’ve been nice if the media acknowledged the other existent prizes that have been doing the work for decades, increasing readership for international literature and generating more respect for the art of translation. A narrative including these precursors that run in parallel would’ve been a better narrative, rather than the implied idea that the NBA created the very idea of awarding such a quirky thing as translation.

2 responses to “The Translation Industry Is Frozen”

  1. […] using bets to delay having to talk about a book—I want to follow up on something from my February 6, 2018 column (“column” sounds […]

  2. […] The Translation Industry Is Frozen […]

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