Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 5)

This is the fifth 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.

Obviously there’s more that goes into the resistance of commercial publishers to translations—such as the fact that most editors are monolingual, that without investing a lot of time in international literature it’s hard to know which titles and authors are the most important, that there aren’t as many agents for international works as for American and British writers, that only select editors attend the Frankfurt book fair (it’s all about selling, not buying)—but it all adds up to a situation in which America is “too isolated, too insular,” where we “don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” which is how Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recently categorized it.

Prejudices, financial losses, and bum legs aside, a number of translations are published in the U.S. every year. In January, I started keeping track of all original translations of fiction and poetry published or released in America this year. (In part because nobody else was. Bowker—the company that keeps track of all statistics about American publishing eliminated “translation” as a category years ago.) I didn’t count children’s books, or graphic novels, or retranslations of classics, or paperback versions of previously published titles. Instead, I focused on works of adult fiction and poetry that had never before been published in English.

According to my records, all of 340 translations were published in the past year. Of those translations, 269 are works of fiction, 71 of poetry. More relevant to this presentation, the six big houses—Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster—and all their various subsidiaries, published a total of 69 works in translation, or 20% of the total. Most of these 69 books are from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (10), Penguin (9), FSG (9), Knopf (8), and HarperCollins (6), five of the one hundred and thirty presses and imprints that published a translation this year.

In the same way that poetry has fallen to the shoulders of the independent press, approx. 80% of all works of literary translation are now being published by independent, nonprofit, and university presses, which generally don’t operate on the “big advance-big return” model described above.

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