This is the fourth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors last week. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. And we’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of this for the next week or so.
Stage Two: Translations, Economic Censorship, and Independent Presses
So where do translations fit into this? Well, basically they don’t. The famous translator Esther Allen once turned me on to the term “economic censorship” to help explain the financial reasons for why big publishers shy away from doing books in translation.
First off, in deciding to do a translation, a publisher is assuming the cost of paying a translator in addition to all normal expenses.
The current going rate for a translation is $125/1000 words, so, for a 70,000 word novel, a translator should get paid $8,750. That’s not a huge amount—especially compared to _Dewey_’s $1.25 million—and frequently at least part of this is offset by grants from foreign governments. But on a profit and loss statement, it is an additional cost that doesn’t exist for books originally written in English.
Still, that doesn’t explain why big publishers shy away from translations. They have the money to spend, and if they thought a book would sell hundreds of thousands of copies, $10,000 is really just pocket change. But how many translations sell hundreds of thousands of copies? Answer: almost none. Over the past week articles have appeared in both the New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal pointing out just how few translations make the best-seller lists. In fact, Roberto Bolaño—currently the hottest author in translation, considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time, and the one foreign author everyone seems to be talking about—has yet to crack the Times Best Seller list.
To be quite frank, with the exception of certain breakouts like Bolaño, Per Petterson, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (whose books aren’t of the same caliber as the first two), literary fiction in translation sells poorly in the States. I’ve heard that even Saramago was selling in the low thousands (or high hundreds) before winning the Nobel Prize. It’s in no way unusual for a literary translation to sell in the 2,000 copy range. And publishers who sell 4-5,000 copies of a translation feel like they did an excellent job.
Dismal sales figures, along with the additional cost of translation helps make foreign books unappealing to corporate publishers. Sure, you can get the rights on a dime (most advances for literary translations are under $10,000), and you have an almost unlimited number of authors to choose from (rarely do foreign books go to auction), but if you’re only spending a few thousand dollars, your sales and marketing department isn’t going to do much to help this book find its audience. They have to spend their time and energy on the million-dollar advance books—the ones that really matter.
Sales, marketing, and publicity departments at big presses generally treat literary translations as red-headed stepchildren that they have to live with, but really don’t love. Advance sales to bookstores are paltry, not much effort goes into getting coverage for these books, and as a result, sales are wretched, the publisher loses $15-$20,000 on the book, and, in a world where profits have to keep increasing year in and out, the desire to publish more works in translation is quashed. Going back to the horse race metaphor, sure, occasionally a Bolaño comes along and a publisher can cash in, but most translated titles are like a horse with a bum leg. It’s much more profitable to get world rights to a mediocre American author and sell rights to a couple dozen countries. Now that’s a horse that can “win” in a major, global way.
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. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .