20 November 08 | Chad W. Post

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.

Comments are disabled for this article.
Rambling Jack
Rambling Jack by Micheál Ó Conghaile
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“50 pages?”
“Including illustrations.”
“And this—what. . .

Read More >

The Things We Don't Do
The Things We Don't Do by Andrés Neuman
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .

Read More >

Private Life
Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:

When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .

Read More >

Dinner by César Aira
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

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. . .

Read More >

We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

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. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

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. . .

Read More >

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

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.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

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. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

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. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >