The last case study in the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report was written by Anne-Sophie Simenel when she was Program Director for the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
Before getting into specifics of the case study, I think it’s worthwhile pointing out some of the oddities of the French Cultural Services system. Unlike the German Book Office, appointments at the FCS are for a limited term. Anne-Sophie—one of the best books people the FCS has ever had—was, like her predecessors, limited to a two-year term, which is nonrenewable. So by the time she really figured out what she was doing and how U.S. publishing worked, it was time for her to leave. During her stint there, she worked a lot with Fabrice Rozie, who is one of the most energetic, intelligent, interesting people I’ve ever worked with, and who managed to advance a number of the innovative ideas discussed below. Of course, he’s moved on now as well.
From what I’ve heard, Fabrice’s and Anne-Sophie’s replacements are doing an admirable job and picking up right where Fabrice and Anne-Sophie left off. In fact, I’m sure they’re both wonderful and will do a great job in their positions.
My point isn’t to criticize them or long for the golden days of years past, but in relation to getting French books translated into English, this enforced turnover of key staff is a special obstacle that the French face that hasn’t popped up in any of the other case studies I’ve written about.
This case study starts off looking at the scene in France:
For some time now the French and foreign literature sections have been sitting side by side on the shelves of French bookshops in almost equal proportion. They reveal a diversity and an eclecticism that show, year after year, the opening of the French publishing scene to the world.
Of course, in France, almost a third of all literary works published are in translation. Compared to our paltry output here in the States. One of the reasons Anne-Sophie cites for this difference is the dedication of many French houses to employing foreign language editors. Actes Sud is cited as a prime example of this attitude, which, it’s implied, isn’t all that prevalent in the United States.
Another reason for the high number of translations published in France is the fact that the Centre National du Livre (CNL) finances 50%-60% of the total price of the translation. Presumably, a French publisher can get this money in addition to subsidies from other foreign governments, thus offsetting a significant portion of the total costs. This kind of support can go a long way . . .
One of the interesting statistics in this article is in regards to the exchange of rights:
According to the 2004 National Publishing Union (SNE) external statistics, the number of titles sold had risen to 6,077, of which almost two thirds (1,817) were works of literature. A comparison of the purchases and sales of rights for 2004 speaks for itself: France sells far more literature than it buys, at the rate of 1 title bought for 4.2 titles sold.
I can only imagine what this ratio is for U.S. publishers. Much worse than 1:4.2 though, I’m sure.
However, that balance is reversed when it comes to English-speaking countries. Indeed, for 240 English titles bought, only 90 French titles were sold in 2004, with the same figures for the United Kingdom and the United States (42 titles each).
This is much more balanced than most countries, a position that Anne-Sophie goes on to point out:
In the United States, even if the trade balance is unfavourable to France and there are still great efforts to be made, French publishing production is in a good position, wiht 0.8% of the total American production, of which 2.8% are translated works. In other words, about 30% of the works in translation in the United States are from French language sources.
Not sure where these statistics come from, but the 2008 Translation Database paints a slightly different picture. Of the 175 original translations currently listed, 25 (or 14%) are translated from the French.
Still, 25 original translations is far and away the most from any given language (Spanish is in second with 18, then Arabic with 17, German with 16, and Russian with 12). This is due in part to an historical interest in French writing, but also because of the variety of activities undertaken in the States to support French literature. Here’s a short list:
Quite an impressive list of activities, and this isn’t even everything. French Cultural Services also sponsors a lot of events, readings, panel discussions every year, often in collaboration with the French-American Foundation, which helps strengthen ties between the two countries and gives out the annual Florence Gould Translation Award for the best translation of a French literary work into English.
Continuing the ongoing series on the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report, today we’re covering the case study on China, which contains the most disturbing translation statistic I’ve ever come across:
According to the official statistics, China produced about 110,000 new titles in 2003, and 112,857 in 2005. Among the new titles for 2003 there were 10,000 new literary creations and 10,842 for 2005. But the number of those new titles that have been translated into other languages, as far as can be told from an extensive Internet search, was less than 100 in 2003, and almost the same in 2005, though these were mostly literary works. This means about 0.01% of Chinese books are being translated into other languages . . .
[Note: Using the figures of 100 translated titles out of 112,000 This actually comes out to 0.09%.]
And just to clarify and reemphasize, that’s less than 100 titles translated into all other languages combined.
For a country with the largest population in the world, these statistics are shocking:
The official Chinese Writers Association reported 6,128 members in 2005. But less than 300 of those writers have ever had their work translated into any other language—that is, less than 5%.
(This may well be the first country profiled in which it’s not just America and Britain that look like cultural ignorant jerks—in this case, the whole world is ignoring Chinese lit.)
Of course, there are political issues involved in the Chinese situation. As Chen Maiping, writer and translator and founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) states in this article, there are thousands of other writers who are not members of the official Association, and who don’t have an opportunity to publish their works in China. I may be wrong, but these are the authors that would probably most appeal to independent and university publishers in the U.S.—the two groups that publish the lion’s share of literature in translation.
Noble Prize winner Gao Xingjian—who has lived in exile since 1987 —is a member of the ICPC, and is still forbidden from publishing in China. Not sure about Yan Lianke, whose Serve the People! is a Reading the World 2008 title, but based on the blurb on the back from the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau—“This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex. . . . Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it”—I’m guessing he’s a bit of an outsider as well.
As if there weren’t enough obstacles already to getting a country’s literature translated into other languages, the political situation in China adds an additional layer of difficulty. Unlike the other case studies, no where in this article is funding for translations mentioned, although there is a comment about translation into Chinese that doesn’t bode well:
In Chinese cultural history, literature traditionally serves political purposes and so does literary translation. [. . .] The Chinese government has also sponsored translation of the kind of Chinese literature that suits their political propaganda.
In terms of translation into Chinese, Maiping claims that international literature has always been more popular in China than Chinese literature, leading to a situation nowadays in which a lot of books are translated because they are best-sellers, rather than for their literary value. This has had an impact on the quality and interest in translation, with the prestige associated with being a literary translator on the decline despite the fact that China was one of the first countries to publish translations of books like The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter.
Overall, this is a complicated situation, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens when China is the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009. From an editorial perspective, it’s always been difficult trying to get information about Chinese authors worth looking into. And even if you do identify someone, the rights situation seems very messy . . . I rely on Paper Republic? for general info, and in my opinion, Columbia University Press and its Weatherhead Books on Asia series is one of the best sources for Chinese literature (and lit from other Asian countries as well).
Despite everything above, Maiping is pretty optimistic, and ends his piece with an interesting look toward the future:
Literary translation itself follows the social development and people’s needs. It is also important to keep a diversity of cultures. Diversity means that we should let different values flow freely between areas in the coordination I describe above. With international support, we should try to break the barrier between them, no matter if these barriers are natural (from language perspectives) or artificial (political reasons). Internet will help to overcome the barriers.
This section was written by Riky Stock, who is the director of the admirable and ambitious German Book Office. Putting aside the content of her report for a second, it’s worth pointing out that this is the first case study we’ve featured written by someone based in the U.S. (The forthcoming French case study is from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, but I believe Anne-Sophie Simenel wrote this before moving here.) In the context of promoting a country’s literature, this seems like a pretty important structural change.
For those not familiar with it, the German Book Office is one of the “Book Information Centers” created by the Frankfurt Book Fair to “serve as a contact exchange and cultural mediator between the German book trade and that of the office’s host country.” Other offices are in Beijing, Bucharest, Moscow, and Warsaw.
On a practical level, these Centers work with publishers, critics, journalists, academics, and translators in the host country to help promote German literature. They provide information about new books, disseminate New Books in German, assist publishers in getting translation grants, host and arrange events celebrating German literature, provide information about Frankfurt Book Fair fellowships, and—at least in the case of the NY GBO—arrange annual editors’ trips to Germany. And I know I’m forgetting/overlooking other things as well . . .
This level of activity in the U.S. is in stark contrast to some of the other countries featured in this report, and seems to be paying off. (In the Center for Book Culture report, Germany/Austria/Switzerland averaged 6 literary works in translation a year between 2000-06, which is the third highest, behind France and Italy. According to our 2008 Translation database, there are 15 books translated from German coming out this year . . .)
Riky points to the why of this in her report:
The most effective practices in promoting German literature are making personal contacts, establishing networks, and maintaining a continuous presence in the publishing scene of another country. This helps to understand the market, exchange information, bring people together, and facilitate book deals. Simply pitching the perfect book to a suitable publisher is not enough. Books sell better when editors trust someone else’s opinion and feel that they will continue to get support once the book has been published.
Based on this logic, and the existence of a Book Center in Warsaw, it’s not surprising that in 2005, Poland was the country that bought the most rights to German titles. (They bought rights to 604 titles, 8.1% of the total 7,491 deals made in 2005.)
The German Book Prize is another activity that’s helping bring more attention to German literature. It was established in 2005 (Arno Geiger won that year for Es geht uns gut) and is modeled on the UK’s Man Book Prize. There are differing opinions on the usefulness of prizes in getting books translated, but the 2006 winner—Katharina Hacker’s The Have-Nots was recently published by Europa. (We currently have this under review.)
One of the more controversial sections of this case study correlates the shift in the typical German writing style to the increase in English-translations:
The increased interest in German literature can also be explained by the change in writing. The year 1989 marked the end of East German literature, but the political upheavals marked a turning point for West German literature as well. The end of post-war literature was near, a genre that had been dominated by writers such as Heinrich Boll, Uwe Johnson, and Gunter Grass. [. . .]
This new generation of German writers turned its back on the writing of the post-war generation, as well as on the experimental, postmodernist, and psychoanalytical writing of the ’70s and ’80s. Before this new kind of renaissance in German literature, German publishers remember their attempts to sell rights to their authors’ work in other countries as a “humiliating experience.” German writing was viewed at that time as academic, serious, and indigestible.
The new German novel, according to the New York Times is “less weighty, more exportable.”
I’m not sure what to think of this . . . I think Riky’s right—this shift in writing has made it easy to publish German literature in translation, but taken to the extreme, the idea of abandoning a particular literary tradition for a style of writing that’s more accessible to the global marketplace is kind of disturbing. (I don’t think that is happening in the authors cited—Daniel Kehlmann, Julie Zeh, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Ingo Schulze—but I could see that thought process taking hold among writers all over the world who really want to become international best-sellers. And to my elitist tastes, that’s sort of sad.)
Like with Argentina, historically, some of the greatest literary figures have been both authors and translators. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Gottfired Herder, and Rainer Maria Rilke, to name a few. And just like most other countries, translators are underappreciated and underpaid:
The average literary translator does not earn enough money to make a living. They hardly make more than 15 to 20 Euros per page gross with an average of 100 pages translated per month. Former German President Roman Herzog confirmed this in a speech once: “That someone with one of the most important jobs in today’s cultural life cannot generally make a living is fundamentally outrageous.”
I’m sure the U.S. administration will be making a similar statement any day now . . .
it’s sad to think that a tradition is being abandoned in favor of literary styles that work better in
Even within the context of this report, Catalonia is in an odd position re: their literary tradition and translation. At a basic level, I’m not sure the general U.S. population is even familiar with Catalonia and realizes that a) it’s a region and not a separate country, yet b) the Catalan language is different from Spanish. It’s an important language, with a unique cultural heritage (especially considering that speaking Catalan was banned during the Franco years), and a ton of great art and literature.
Although the population of Catalonia is small, Catalan is the most widely-spoken minority language in Europe, since it has more than twelve million potential speakers if the population of the Valencia region and the Balearic Islands (within Spain), North Catalonia (in France), Alguer (in Sardinia), and Andorra (an independent country with Catalan as its only official language) are included in the count.
The fact that the major publishing center of Spain (both for works published in Spanish and in Catalan) is Barcelona (which is in Catalonia), is another odd twist to this situation and one of the contributing factors as to why over 90% of the translation from Catalan are into Spanish.
For example, in my opinion, one of the most interesting publishing operations in Barcelona is Quaderns Crema/Acantilado. Quaderns Crema publishes in Catalan; Acantilado in Spanish. Not always the same titles, although there is a decent overlap.
Going back to the fact that a decent number of works are translated into Spanish:
Contrary to what might be expected, Spanish does not function as a springboard for the introduction of a book into the literatures of other languages. Neither does translation into Spanish mean that a work originally written in Catalan will necessarily be accepted as part of the Spanish-language literary system.
Another odd thing about Catalonia is the status of the writers who live there, yet write in Spanish rather than Catalan. (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Nuria Amat are three high-profile examples.) The fact that Catalonia supports writers working in a particular language rather than living in a particular country was what led to all the hubbub about who was/wasn’t invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair last year.
I really don’t want to revisit that or really even comment on it, I just think this choice that writers living in Catalonia have to writer in one of two languages is another thing that makes the situation unique.
Translators into and out of Catalan play a huge role (maybe bigger than in any other country covered so far) in getting exposure for Catalan literature.
Many translators of works written in Catalan have become ambassadors for Catalan literature in their own countries. With their work as translators or as university teachers they have decisively contributed towards the introduction of Catalan literature into other cultures. These translators always work directly from the Catalan and their translations are being introduced into more cultures as new specialists discover the Catalan literary heritage.
Of course, translators aren’t treated as well as they could be for their efforts:
“The Spanish book market,” writes Peter Bush, “has a tradition of being very open to translations. This fact, however, hides the conditions which have made it possible for a great deal of translators to work for publishers used to publishing a lot of translations. This tradition is based on tight deadlines, low pay, no pay-rises, and dreadful contracts ( or sometimes even no contract), and all this within an economy where the cost of living has risen sharply due to Spain’s increased integration into the world economy.”
That said, things have been improving, thanks to new university programs in translation and the 1987 Intellectual Property Law, through which translators’ rights were established and contracts taken more seriously.
In terms of support and promotion, Catalonia is one of the model countries for how to increase awareness and appreciation of a literary tradition.
The Institute of Catalan Letters was created in 1987 to promote Catalan-language works, and since 1993 has offered grants for translations into Catalan.
The Ramon Llull Institute was created in 2002 and provides grants to foreign publishers interested in translating literature from Catalan. They’re easy (and fun) to work with, and are ubiquitous on the international publishing scene, especially after being the guest of honor at the Guadalajara Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair. They’re also flexible, open to ideas, and interested in hearing from foreign publishers about what works, what doesn’t, etc., all with the goal of promoting Catalan literature around the world.
And they create beautiful, useful publications about Catalan literature in four major categories: classics, contemporary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Actually, everything they produce is amazing in terms of style, design, and content. All of the Frankfurt materials were incredible, especially the Carrers de frontera book, which may well be the most gorgeous book I own.
Part of our ongoing look at the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report, this week we’re looking at the included case studies from countries around the world. Yesterday it was The Netherlands, today Argentina.
The story in Argentina is almost tragic. As Gabriela Adamo—the author of this case study and the director of the Buenos Aires Book Fair “Editor’s Week”—states at the beginning of the essay, the golden age for publishing in Argentina was the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. Thanks to Franco, a lot of publishers set up shop in Latin America, publishing some of the most exciting and interesting literature from around the world.
This would be unthinkable today. The military dictators and economic crises that devastated Latin America over decades eventually led to the ruin of local publishers, while Spain’s recovery and entry as a full member into the European Economic Community meant that it would become a new leader—at least in commercial terms—int he world of Spanish-language books [. . .]
It is not surprising, then, to note how desperate Latin-American writers are to see their works published in Spain, which they regard as the only real gateway into the international world.
The economic crises of the early 2000s had an interesting impact on what’s available in Buenos Aires and from whom. Pre-devaluation, the big transnational publishers were able to import books from Spain and stock the bookstores with their titles. After devaluation though, these titles became extremely expensive, creating a space for small, independent publishers in Argentina, which “had previously been virtually unable to find a space for presenting their books.”
As a result of all this, translations increased and in 2004, of the 16,638 titles published in Argentina, 2,318 (or 14%) were in translation. Of course most were from English 1,139 (or 49%).
In terms of the status of translators, Argentina is one of those countries where historically the great authors were also great translators. For example, Borges translated Faulkner and Kafka, and even today Cesar Aira is not only respected for his literature, but for his translations as well. (I know that this idea of author-translators is one that Michael Orthofer is keen on and brings up occasionally in relation to German literature.)
Of course, although some of the greatest Argentine writers were also great translators, the worldwide disregard for translators prevails:
In general, translators are very badly paid, they do not sign contracts with their publishers or, if they do, they must accept very tough conditions such as ceding author’s rights.
In contrast to The Netherlands, France, Germany, even Spain and Catalonia, there are some unique challenges Argentine literature faces, namely the “almost zero support given by the state to publishing activities” resulting in basically no subsidies for foreign publishers interested in translating Argentine literature, and the fact that very few Latin American publishers have foreign rights departments. (And there really aren’t many agents in Latin American either—most of the ones I know who represent Latin American authors live in Spain or Germany.)
All of which means that some of the great twentieth-century Argentine writers—Roberto Arlt, Rodolfo Walsh, Leopoldo Marechal, Silvina Ocampo, Antonio Di Benedetto, Marcelo Cohen, Rodolfo Fogwill, Abelardo Castillo, Hebe Uhart, Eduardo Belgrano Rawson, etc., etc.—are insufficiently translated.
There are two very exciting things going on though that are helping to change this: Letras Argentinas and Editor’s Week.
Letras Argentinas is foreign rights office for a group small and medium-sized publishers. They have a great website and represent some very good authors. LA was founded in 2004, and hopefully will continue to grow in future years. (What I’d personally like to see are sample translations of some of the authors featured on the site.)
Semana de editores (or “Editor’s Week”) is a program sponsored by Fundacion TyPA in Argentina. Each April, 10-11 editors and translators from around the world visit Buenos Aires and spend a week meeting with publishers, critics, editors, and the like. It’s almost a crash course in Argentine culture and publishing . . . Past U.S. participants have included Esther Allen and Barbara Epler of New Directions, and this year I’ll be going on this trip along with a host of interesting people, including Nick Caistor, who has translated a number of great Latin American authors.
So things are looking up for Argentina, which I think is fantastic. The country has a great literary history, and the few authors we have our eye on are absolutely astounding . . . but more on that later.
Continuing the ongoing series on PEN/Ramon Llull’s To Be Translated or Not To Be report, over the next few days I’m going to post about each of the Case Studies included in Part III. These were written by various experts in their respective countries (frequently associated with the local PEN center) in response to a questionnaire (found on pgs. 46-47) that tried to get at the state of literary translation into and out of a particular language, the role of translators in that particular country, funding for translations, and more.
Bas Pauw of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature wrote the section on Dutch literature, hitting on a few points that come up in the other case studies as well.
I feel like I’m beating a dead horse, but even in The Netherlands, there’s a lack of solid publishing data.
The last year for which reliable and detailed figures were published, was 1996. In that year, 651 works of Dutch fiction were published: novels, stories, and novellas. In the same year, 774 works of translated fiction were published by Dutch publishers. Detectives and thrillers are not included in these figures.
According to the Amsterdam-based Foundation for Book Research, translated fiction generally makes up about 45% of the total fiction published in Dutch in an average year. (That figure was apparently reversed in 1996 . . . )
Nothing specific about Dutch literature being translated into English, although Pauw does say, “Dutch authors are in general still relatively invisible in the international Republic of Letters,” a statement backed up by the Center for Book Culture data (18 works of Dutch literature translated into English between 2000-2006) and only one title (Arnon Grunberg’s The Jewish Messiah) in our 2008 translation database.
This isn’t for lack of trying though. The list of activities undertaken by the NLPVF is quite impressive, and they do fund up to 70% of the translation costs for publishers interested in doing a Dutch book.
Here are some of the activities Pauw cites as keys to helping spread Dutch literature throughout the world:
In addition to the translation grants referenced above, translators can apply for special travel and translation grants to supplement what they’re getting from the publisher. (In my experience, the Dutch government treats its translators quite well, both financially and in terms of general respect.)
This case study concludes with a short overview of Dutch literature and a list of great authors yet to be published in English.
According to Pauw, Max Havelaar is “the classic novel of Dutch literature,” which is available from Penguin Classics, yet is still relatively unknown outside of The Netherlands.
Louis Couperus (1863-1923) and Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971) are two other novels yet to receive their international due, and the same goes for Willem Frederik Hermans and Gerard Reve. (Hermans has a couple books coming out from Overlook, but a quick search for Reve books came up empty.)
In terms of poetry, Martinus Nijhoff (1894-1953) and J.H. Leopold (1865-1925) are mentioned, and I’m going to end this case study recap with a pretty strong recommendation for the latter:
Leopold’s poetry deals almost exclusively with the possibilities and the boundaries of the Dutch language; comparable maybe to the way James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake investigates the English language.
Continuing our series on the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report (previous posts can be found here), today I want to write a bit about the second essay in the book—Simona Skrabec’s “Literary Translation: The International Panorama.”
Complementing Esther Allen’s introductory essay, this piece looks at literary translation internationally, whereas Esther’s article was primarily focused on the U.S. In creating this report, twelve different PEN centers from around the world responded to a questionnaire about the translation situation in their country. (The complete questionnaire can be found on pages 46-47 of the report.) Based on their responses (which are detailed more fully in part 3 of the report), Skrabec wrote this sort of summary.
There are a few interesting threads in this article, in particular the status and treatment of translators, English as a “useful intermediary,” and the subsidy situation. All of which relate, in one way or another, to the economics of publishing literary translations.
Picking up on an idea from Esther Allen’s section, the idea of English as a “useful intermediary” is really interesting.
Lithuania’s PEN Center highlighted an occurrence that while common, is seldom so clearly illustrated as in this country’s case. Most of the nation’s literary translations into English are made in Lithuania. All the questionnaire respondents stated that they considered translations of works into English as key to their country’s projection abroad but that access to the English-language book market appeared practically impossible. The expression “useful intermediary” used by Lithuania’s Laimantas Jonusys thus seems particularly appropriate. Books are translated into English despite their slender chances of ever reaching English-speaking readers. Rather, the aim is to get the attention of intermediaries who might foster their translation into languages (such as French and German) that are much more open to foreign writers.
That’s really a sad situation, although sort of cool to imagine a samizdat library of unpublished works translated into English floating around . . . (Actually, as I mentioned earlier, this is how we came to Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets. The Icelandic publisher paid to have it translated into English so that they could present it to more publishers.)
One of the difficulties in regard to using English as an intermediary language is the lack of translators capable of translating from “smaller languages” into English. Obviously, there are a slew of great Italian, German, French, and Spanish translators, but for languages like Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Croatian, Macedonian, etc., there are only a handful of excellent literary translators. And this is just plain scary: “According to the UK PEN Center, there is no chance of attaining sufficient command of foreign languages in British schools and universities—something that is cause for great concern.”
For anyone interested in becoming a translator, the section on how much translators get paid on average is quite interesting. All the figures are in Euros, so you multiply by 1.5 to convert this into USD, but here are some stats for how much a translator can expect for translating a 150-page work. (Why 150 pages? I’m not sure, but this 150 number comes up time and again with the French government, so they probably started it . . . and there are probably 1,500 characters per page.) In France the translator could expect 2,925-3,375 Euros; in Britain, 4,423; Australia, 3,700; Holland, 6,712; Slovenia, 2,100; Macedonia, 1,300; Hungary, 1,000; and Lithuania, 945.
To put this into perspective, to earn $50,000 a year by translating in Britain, one would need to translate 8 works a year, or one every month and a half. This is why a lot of translators work in academia, or have some other source of income. And this is why subsidies and grants are so crucial.
Subsidies are another obstacle to publishing literature in translation. From a publisher’s perspective, translations are very costly because one not only has all the normal costs of doing a book, but also the additional cost of paying the translator, and, unfortunately, these books tend not to sell as well. (On the whole, literary fiction tends not to sell as well as other categories, and translations are a step below that.)
A number of countries around the world subsidize translations. These grants range from 50%-100% of the translation costs, with countries like The Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Poland, Germany, France, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, among others, funding many publications a year. Countries like Argentina, Macedonia, Russia, and Croatia, that have no such funding scheme are at a distinct disadvantage. From a purely commercial perspective, a publisher with usually go ahead with doing a book that’s either going to sell very well, or has a nice subsidy attached to it. As if things weren’t already difficult enough, this is another obstacle for “smaller nations” to overcome in order to reach a wider, English-speaking audience.
Simona does a great job nailing the current state of publishing:
Both the publishing and retail sides of the book business in the English-speaking world are dominated by conglomerates and chains. Two multinationals—the German Bertelsmann group and the French Hachette group have the lion’s share of the publishing market. Both groups focus on best-sellers. Authors receive vast sums for such works. However, there is also a new trend in the UK—non-author best-sellers. For example, even a firm like Bloomsbury has stooped to publishing ghost-written autobiographies of football players and fashion models. This is the “literature” of the masses with a vengeance and nothing, it seems, can detain its juggernaut career through the industry. The most translated works are detective stories or tales of an erotic, even pornographic nature. One should note here that such works are not considered great literature but rather exotic foreign variations on a theme.
Sounds like something from one of Dubravka Ugresic’s essays . . .
The final point that interested me in this essay is the breakdown of sales levels in various countries, which, despite having populations that are 1/100 of America, have sales figures that aren’t that much different. In Lithuania, the average print run is 2,000; in Slovenia, sales for works of fiction are between 1,000 and 1,500 copies and 400-600 for quality fiction; and in Mexico, sales rarely exceed 3,000 copies.
Putting these pieces together—small sales, few translators getting paid low wages, dominance of the book business by conglomerates looking to publish best-selling thrillers and porn—it’s a wonder anything at all gets published in translation. And as a corollary, it’s no surprise that in the 2008 translation database I’ve been putting together, combined, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster account for 12% of all the original translations I’ve identified so far. In comparison, Archipelago, New York Review Books, New Directions, Dalkey Archive, and Open Letter account for 13%.
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:
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.
At Frankfurt last year, PEN and the Institut Ramon Llull released a report entitled To Be Translated or Not To Be regarding the “international situation of literary translation.” This report (which is downloadable in pdf format by clicking the link above) has gotten some decent attention online and is one of the most impressive worldwide studies of the state of literary translations. The report is full of statistics, information, opinions, and analysis, and because it’s such a rich and useful document, I think it’s worthwhile taking a week or so to go over it in more specific detail.
“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”—Paul Auster
The first part of the report—“Translation, Globalization, and English” by Esther Allen—is a brilliant overview essay of the state of translations, and one of those pieces that will be cited years into the future.
There are two main aspects to this section: 1) the depiction of English as an “invasive language” that serves as a mediating language between “smaller” tongues; and 2) current statistical information about the number of literary translations being published in English.
In terms of English as an “invasive language,” what Esther has to say is a bit disturbing, but not all that surprising. The English language now dominates the world to such a degree that kids in China and Chile are taught English from a very early age despite the fact that Spanish and Chinese are two of the top five most widely spoken languages in the world. English has become the language of business, and as a result, participation in the global economy is much easier for those who are fluent.
As a result, more than 3,000 languages are endangered:
David Crystal reports that of the 6,000 languages currently in existence, half will have died out within the next century. “It turns out,” he writes, “that 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4% of the world’s people.” Only 600 of the world’s languages are not presently in danger.
The impact of this situation on literature should be fairly clear—a book published in English truly reaches a global audience, not just an American or British one. Because of this reach, English can serve as a sort of mediating language—books translated into English have a better chance of then being translated into other languages. (For example, the publisher of Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets paid to have this book translated into English, believing it much easier to sell the rights to a book with a English translation than to find someone capable of reading and evaluating the Icelandic original.)
So like most everything in the modern world, it’s both a bad and good thing that so many people speak English. It would be a much better situation if translation into English was more valued.
English’s indifference to translation is not merely a problem for native speakers of English who thus deprive themselves of contact with the non-English-speaking world. It is also a roadblock to global discourse that affects writers in every language, and serves as one more means by which English consolidates its power by imposing itself as the sole mode of globalization. [. . .] The real issue is not the English language itself, or its global scope, but the cultural forces within the language that are resistant to translation.
There’s no need to explain here the “cultural forces” that are resistant to translation—I think anyone reading this blog is pretty aware of the latent prejudices among reviewers, buyers for the chains, publishers, etc., that translations don’t sell. It’s more complicated than that, and one point Esther does make that is worth identifying is the status of translations in the academy. Typically translations are greatly undervalued in the academy (University of Rochester and a few other places being exceptions to the rule) and most scholars avoid mentioning the dreaded “t” word:
Faculty members who continue to publish translations sometimes do so under pseudonyms, for fear of seeing their scholarly reputations tainted, or simply leave the translations off their curricula vitae when career achievements are being evaluated.
What’s especially disturbing about this is that translators definitely aren’t valued by the marketplace (see the following post for statistics on how few books are published in translation), and if they aren’t protected in universities, they’re pretty much screwed. (Unless governments or private funders heavily subsidize literature in translation, but that’s another can of worms for another post.)
He wrote this essay for the Frankfurt Book Fair panel on To Be Translated or Not To Be (warning, that links to the entire report in pdf form), a fascinating study done by Esther Allen, the Ramon Llull Institute and PEN centers around the world. (I’m actually reviewing this for a scholarly publication, and am planning on spending all next week posting about the different sections.)
Back to Venuti’s essay: His thoughts tie in really well to the economic analysis that we wrote about yesterday.
Early in the twentieth century, a largely unwritten policy came to prevail among Anglophone publishers. Buy the translation rights to a single book by a foreign author. If soon after publication the translation suffers a substantial loss or fails to earn back its production costs or to realize a modest profit, then stop publishing translations of the author’s books. If, however, the first translation manages to break even or to approach a break-even point, then continue to publish translations of that particular author in the hope that more translations will create a readership and add profitable titles to the backlist. [. . .]
Sales in the range of 5,000 copies became a benchmark for a successful translation of a foreign novel. Yet the figure also came to reflect the sad reality of publishing translations in English. In 2002 Christopher MacLehose, formerly director of the Harvill Press, observed that “for the most part now the majority of even the finest books that are translated find their way to sales between 1,500 and 6,000.”
Over the past hundred years few English-language translations have managed to reach that upper limit. As a result, most foreign authors who have had a book translated into English have not been translated again, either by the initial publisher or by others, who were scared off by the poor market performance of the first translation.
All of this is spot-on true, and fairly well documented. The bigger issue is how to get more translations published, and more people reading them. Venuti’s promotes a more holistic, multi-pronged approach designed to create a better context for readers to approach “strange” or “difficult” books from other countries.
I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture. Translators too need to participate in these choices, since their expertise is invaluable in assessing the losses and gains in the translation process. But they must regard translation in more self-critical ways than is generally the rule today, when translators tend to take a belletristic approach to their work, making impressionistic comments which show that they, like publishers, find writing to be primarily personal, a form of self-expression or a testimony of their aesthetic kinship to the foreign author. Publishers and translators alike need to depersonalize translation and to become aware of the ethical responsibility involved in representing foreign texts and cultures. What a sad time it is for intercultural exchange when publishers and translators look abroad and see mainly opportunities to imprint their own values.
The initiative I am recommending cannot be pursued by one publisher alone without a significant outlay of capital and probably not without the funding and advice of a cultural ministry or institute in a foreign country. But publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success.
For the most part, I second this. Publishers, readers, reviewers, bloggers, literary people in general, can work together to create a better context for receiving a particular book. All true. I’m not sure I quite agree with this “critical detachment” on the publisher’s part. It almost seems like he’s suggesting that publishers should be doing certain books because someone (who exactly?) has decided that these texts are representative of foreign cultures.
That’s all fine and good—but not necessarily the function of a publishing house. Then again, it depends on what house you’re looking at. In terms of a commercial house seeking out chick-lit books from Iran, because “these are the books that sell,” I agree with Venuti. This does very little cultural good, and in fact, may well be harmful to a greater understanding of other cultures.
If Archipelago decides to publish a Basque book though (like they are), I know it’s because Jill Schoolman loves that particular title and wants to get it in the hands of everyone she knows. Granted, it would be awesome if there were critical apparatus to create a better context for approaching this book, however, it’s not her moral imperative to do other titles that more fully sketch out the situation of the Basque in Spain.
That said, more collaboration would benefit everyone. Not sure of the specific form this takes, but linking up Graywolf’s forthcoming Bernardo Atxaga books with Archipelago’s Unai Elorriaga title starts building this context. Who does this though? And how? Seems to me that these are critical questions to the on-going development of a book culture that respects and appreciates world literature.
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .