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.

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