6 June 13 | Chad W. Post

For everyone interested in the state of literature in translation today, I just posted updates to the 2012 Translation Database and the 2013 one.

First things first: In 2012, AmazonCrossing published more works of fiction and poetry in translation than any other press except for Dalkey Archive, and is the largest publisher of literature in translation so far this year. More about that below.

Before getting into all of that though, here are some basic statistics. According to our Translation Database1, here are the overall number of translations published in the U.S. since we’ve started keeping track:

2008: 360 total (278 fiction, 82 poetry)
2009: 363 (291, 72)
2010: 344 (266, 78)
2011: 374 (304, 70)
2012: 453 (384, 69)
2013: 300 (249, 51)2

So, in terms of the simple bean counting of all this, the number of works of fiction in translation being published in the U.S. is growing pretty nicely. Actually, the 26.3% increase from 2011 to 2012 is incredibly impressive. That’s like ebook sales type growth.3

What accounts for this jump? I don’t want to paint too optimistic a picture here, but there are more presses doing translations each and ever year, and basically everyone involved in publishing literature in translation is doing a little bit more.

Let me preface the list of publishers with a few extra statistics: In 2010, 137 presses published at least 1 translation, and the top 10 publishers brought out 10.6 books/piece, and the average for the top 20 was 8.

In 2011, 146 presses did at least one translation (up 9 over 2010), with the top 10 publishing 12.1 books on average, and the top 20 doing 9 books on average.

2012 was followed the same trend: 153 presses (up 7 over 2011), with the top 10 bringing out 15.1 translations on average, and the top 20 averaging 10.6 books per press.

Talking in ratios and percentages, the presses doing the most translations have increased their output dramatically over the past three years, from 10.6 for the top 10 in 2010, to 15.1 in 2012—a 42% increase.

On top of that, there were 16 additional presses that published at least one work in translation in 2012 compared to 2010. That’s pretty significant considering that there were “only” 137 presses publishing lit in translation in 2010.

Who are these top 10 presses? Here’s the breakdown for 2012:4

Dalkey Archive: 32 books
AmazonCrossing: 29
Seagull Books: 16
Europa Editions: 15
American University at Cairo: 12
FSG: 10
Open Letter: 10
Other Press: 10
New Directions: 9
Yale University Press: 8

That’s a pretty stellar list, and not that much different from 2011.5

What’s most interesting to me though is that in 2013, this top 10 switches in one important way: To date, AmazonCrossing has 24 titles in the database and Dalkey Archive only has 19. (Europa Editions, Open Letter, and Pushkin Press follow with 10 each.)

The 2013 database is probably 60% complete or so, so it’s possible this might change, but given Amazon’s growth over the past few years, I kind of doubt Dalkey will surpass them. And for the sake of what follows, I’m not sure it matters. Regardless of the final tally, AmazonCrossing is a major player in the world of literary translation publishing.

So, what does this mean? First of all, I think it’s interesting that of the 10 presses listed above, Amazon and FSG are the only ones who aren’t nonprofit/independent/university presses. It’s hard to compare these two though, since FSG is a traditional press, is part of the multi-national Macmillan, and has been in business for decades. Amazon, as a company, is barely 20 years old and has been publishing translations for, like, three. Also, the vast majority of these books aren’t available through independent bookstores. Not because Amazon doesn’t want to sell them there, but because those stores see Amazon as the biggest threat to their continued existence, they’d rather not stock these things.6

One can speculate all one wants over why Amazon would spend their money on doing these books—especially books like Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, which, at 700+ pages, must’ve cost a fortune—and postulate all sorts of secret, secondary reasons, but the fact of the matter is, they are publishing a lot of books, employing a lot of translators, and, apparently, selling them pretty well (see: all the Olivier Pötzsch books and the Apocalypse Z series). That plus Amazon’s giving program which has supported a dozen (or more) translation-related initiatives, and it’s clear they’re a major contributor to the business of translation.

On the flipside of this, did anyone notice who’s not on the top 10 list of publishers of literature in translation? Archipelago. The press that’s won more Best Translated Book Awards than any other press in the country. Which just goes to show that this sort of bean counting is valuable, but not necessarily related to literary quality. (Although I think they have a handful of books that are BTBA worthy—see Andrei Gelasimov’s works—AmazonCrossing has yet to make the longlist.) Which raises other questions I hope to explore later this summer about the impact of particular books and the positive, outsized importance of particular works of literature in translation.

But for now, visit the Translation Database page and see what’s come out, coming out, and worth reading. I’ll be using this over the next few weeks to provide a BTBA 2014 preview, a list of translations to read this summer, etc., etc. It’s a fun database to put together, and leads to all sorts of weird and interesting things, such as Hashish: The Lost Legend.

1 Which, just to remind everyone, only keeps track of original, never-before-translated works of fiction and poetry that are distributed (in ways beyond just Amazon.com) in the United States.

2 Obviously the info for 2013 is incomplete at this time.

3 It’s really not, but ebook gurus love to use meaningless percentage statistics to claim that this is the only future!, so I figure these sorts of hyperbolic number games are par for the course.

4 All of this info is available in the downloadable Excel files linked to at the top of this article. I’m just cutting and pasting.

5 The top 10 in 2011 were: Dalkey Archive, AmazonCrossing, Knopf, New Directions, Seagull Books, Europa Editions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, FSG, New York Review Books, Open Letter.

6 At the risk of upsetting the people at Melville House tons of people, this situation plays right into Amazon’s rhetoric about serving customers. The traditional line on indie bookstores is that they make these sorts of books—obscure translations, literary books not found at the chain stores, bookseller cult classics, etc.—available to readers everywhere. But as much as I love bookstores, outside of the top 100 or so, this is a fallacious claim. They don’t want to carry most anything that’s not by Stephanie “Fifty Shades” Rowling. And in this instance, a few dozen translated books a year aren’t being made available to their customers. Those readers who are interested in, say, Icelandic literature have to go to Amazon to buy Hellgrimur Helgason’s The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning or Bergsveinn Birgisson’s Reply to a Letter from Helga. For Amazon’s PR department, this is fucking golden. They are serving a set of subset of readers that the independent stores (and B&N) are categorically ignoring. Sure, we’re talking about a subset of readers here, but for PR purposes, that doesn’t matter as much as the message itself: You can get everything from Amazon, or you can shop the prejudice laden, restrictive collection of books that Indie Store X has made available. I don’t necessarily support this, I’m just saying that such an statement could be made and is tricky to argue with. It’s why critics of Amazon should, and do, focus on Amazons business practices and labor issues rather than on how Amazon services customers versus a traditional bookstore.


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