5 February 08 | Chad W. Post

Esther Allen—director of the Center for Literary Translation, amazing translator, and committee member for Open Letter—recently passed along a fascinating article entitled The Impact of English Dominance on Literature and Welfare by Jacques Melitz, and published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization back in late 2007.

There are many interesting things about this article, starting with the fact that an economist decided to investigate and write about the difficulty of getting books translated into English.

Before getting too far into this, I have to admit that although I did pretty well in my recent Economics class, it’s the only graduate Econ class I’ve ever had, so please keep that in mind if you read my attempt below to summarize this article (which is available in its entirety via the link above).

This article starts off with a noble argument:

Quite precisely, my argument will be that the tendency of an integrated world market to privilege the translation of English fiction and poetry into other languages for reading or listening enjoyment may damage the production of world literature and in this respect make us all worse off.

Right on. And something we all tacitly understand—English is the dominant world language (for now), therefore it’s easier to get books translated from English into “smaller” languages than it is to go from the “small” language to English. What’s interesting about this particular article is the reasoning and explanations Melitz presents as to why this works out.

(Again, disclaimer re: my real econ knowledge—read section 3 to get a better description.) Repeating my mantra of last month, Melitz starts from the premise that all publishers function under the “profit-maximizing condition” of setting marginal cost (the amount it costs to make the next unit) equal to marginal revenue (the amount of revenue you can gain by selling the next unit). This is a basic economic principle setting forth the conditions for maximizing a firm’s profit.

As we all know, it costs more to publish a book in translation. In his mathematical model, Melitz uses F to equal the “flat payment to the author for his time” (I’m reading this as the lowest possible advance given to a book making its way into publication) and “in-house expenses of selecting and editing a manuscript.” For translations, he replaces F with Ctr + C*, which is equal to the cost of translating a work plus the cost of selecting and editing a book in translation.

What this boils down to is that if Ctr + C* > F for the lowest selling book published by a firm, than the house will not publish that book in translation. (Still, no real surprises, just new language, which fits my working theory of the real value of business school—new definitions.)

Applying this model, books that get published in translation (either in English or another language), are titles that will have projected sales that are equal to, or greater than, the lowest projected sales for a work written in English. So only the most popular, best-selling books get translated from other languages into English:

As one student of the publishing industry observes: “Not surprisingly, what people most want to read [in translation] are other people’s best-selling literature” (Curwen, The World Book Industry)

All of this is logical—if not a bit depressing and maybe a bit off, especially when you get to real data and realize that indie presses are publishing 10 times the works in translation that the big commercial houses are, and that these books frequently were not best-sellers in their original language, but well, that’s why we started the 2008 translation database and why relying on stats from UNESCO only get you so far—but, here’s where things get a little weird in his argument.

By applying such an industrial, economic model to publishing (which, for those in the know, is for the most part, not all that economically sound) one of the conclusions reached is that more books will be translated from English into other languages because a) these best-sellers have succeeded against greater odds, and b) that it’s cheaper (in terms of C*) to translate 10 books from 1 language than 10 books from 10 different languages.

The second point is true in terms of fixed costs—just think of the number of editors necessary—and indicates why during certain periods a ton of French or German books might be translated into English. (Oh, and French and Germans write good books, but whatever, I’m in business explanation mode now.)

The first is the one that leads to odd conclusions, namely, that it’s much harder to get published in English (for any writers, including native ones) than in another language just because of the sheer competition. This is reached via the assumption that the means of production are the same everywhere and that there’s an equal ration of speakers of a given language to number of books published in that language in any country in the world. (E.g., if there are 10,000 speakers of language X, then 1,000 books will be published, just as 5,000 speakers of language Y results in 500 books.)

Regardless, his final conclusion is something most people involved in translations can agree with:

I have argued that the dominance of English threatens the accumulation of capital in the form of literature. Since publishers need to offset the costs of translation, they tend to confine translations to works that have sold especially well in the original language and thereby to limit their costs of selection. Because of some economies of scale and the signaling value of success in a huge market, the dominant language will capture a disproportionate share of translations. Very significantly too, according to the market analysis, advances in the technology of diffusion increase the advantage of the dominant language in the field of translations.

OK, so the “accumulation of capital” thing is a bit confusing to me, but the basic sentiment that, left to its own economic devises, the publishing industry will trend towards a model where English books are translated everywhere and very little gets translated into English, and that this is unfortunate and damaging to world culture, is something I agree with.

Beyond all the points in this article and details I’m glossing over, it’s interesting that this even exists. Sure, he didn’t really talk to publishers or create a very complicated model of the publishing scheme, but it’s cool that someone out there is thinking about this and identifying reasons for the problem that most of us “literary” folks don’t necessarily think about. At least not in a global, world market sort of way.


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