I stole the title for this post from an e-mail Eliot Weinberger sent me that points out a huge discrepancy between the name of this blog and the list of January translations.
As stated on our about us page, a number of studies—from the NEA, Bowker, etc.—have concluded that approx. 3% of all books published in the United States are in translation.
As Eliot pointed out, if that figure is accurate, I missed some 300+ books on the list this month. . . And this is using a conservative figure of 180,000 titles published in the U.S. According to the latest Bowker report, almost 300,000 books were published here in 2006.
In other words, the 18 translations I’m listing for January (including poetry and literary nonfiction) is less that 0.3% of the total output in the U.S. . .
These figures do need to be parsed a bit, but even with a few qualifications and explanations, I think the results are pretty interesting.
First off, we’re really only tracking original translations of adult fiction, poetry, and some literary nonfiction. Some academic books are slipping through the cracks, and kids books have been totally excluded. (Really, there’s only so much time—if someone else wanted to provide this info, we could incorporate it.)
Also, I’m excluding re-translations and reprints of books that were previously published in the States, both of which are counted (I believe) in Bowker’s figures. Even so, I think that wouldn’t change my numbers all that much. A few Dalkey and NYRB titles added to the mix, but on the whole, over the year, this is a pretty small addition.
In terms of Bowker’s figures, the report above states that in 2006, 42,076 new works of adult fiction were published. So rather than base our percentages off the astronomical 180,000 or 300,000, it makes a lot more sense—to me at least—to focus on this number and just our fiction list.
(I’m willing to go out on a limb and state that I think this number should be representative of the whole and close to 3%. I can’t think of another category—history? cookbooks?—where the percentage of translations published would far exceed 3% and make up for any discrepancy. Unless Bowker counts language textbooks as translations or something wacky like that . . .)
So, there are approximately 3,500 new titles of adult fiction published every month. For January through March, I’ve counted 31 titles so far. Assuming I missed a bunch and we bump this up to 40 new translations, that’s still only 0.4% of all adult fiction published in the U.S.—less than half of the figure cited on our about us page, and nowhere near the oft-cited 3% figure.
Per Eliot’s suggestion, I think we should add an asterisk to our name . . .
Part of the reason for starting our monthly list was to try and get some more accurate data about the number of translations published in the States. Sure, it’ll never be 100% correct, but by the end of the year, the margin of error should be pretty low, and we’ll finally have some more concrete info with which to complain about the state of publishing. And with grumbling, good statistics are half the battle.
Esther Allen—brilliant translator, champion of international literature, director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia, and advisory board member of Open Letter—has an interesting article in the International Herald Tribune about Frankfurt and the To Be Translated of Not To Be report she edited.
But when you come to Hall 8, you have to line up for a metal detector. And once in, you hear and see only one language – this is the English-language hall. I never got over to Hall 8 this year, but during last year’s fair I wandered by to say hello to some American publisher friends and was struck by how lavish the stands are. The stands in Halls 5 and 6 are spiffy, but in Hall 8 it’s immediately clear that a great deal more money has been spent. This is where the sellers are.
The English-speaking world buys so little at the fair and pays so little attention in general to writing in other languages that it doesn’t even keep statistics about the percentage of books published in English that are translations. The figure of 3 percent, often bandied about, is almost certainly high.
When I was in Iowa for the 40th Anniversary celebration of the International Writing Program, Eliot Weinberger insisted that this 3% figure was grossly exaggerated and that the real number is closer to .3%. (And that we should change the name of the blog.) He said that the 3% figure includes any book with an ISBN, and that if you only look at nationally distributed titles (which I think is a fair criteria), there’s probably only 300 works of translated literary fiction published every year. (I have a feeling he’s right about this.)
All of this—in combination with finding out that I missed some awesome salsa dancing with the Catalans—is awful depressing, so I’m done blogging for today.
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