16 January 08 | Chad W. Post

Rachel Deahl’s article for Publishers Weekly on how well translations sell is really interesting (not just because we’re mentioned there) and worth expanding a bit.

The main idea comes from Tom Colchie, famous translator and literary agent (and all around nice guy), who thinks that the “doom and gloom about readers avoiding works in translation is off the mark”:

Colchie also believes that given the dearth of translations published in the U.S., their hit ratio is similar to, or better than, English-language titles. “If you take the performance of the 200 to 300 translations published a year and compare them to the performance of the 200,000-plus [American] titles published, you won’t see a big difference.”

(One of the first things that jumps out to me about this is that if his numbers are accurate, then even Eliot Weinberger’s belief that only 0.3% of books published in the U.S. are in translation is overblown. According to this, the figure is closer to 0.1%.)

Echoing my comment in the article, this seems to be a statistical game of sorts. Since there are so few translations published, a higher percentage of them “take off” compared to the percentage of American authors that become household names. (In other words, if 25 of 300 literary translations do well, that’s a much better percentage than the 500 or so American books out of the 40,000+ published annually that do really well.)

It’s an interesting argument to make, especially taken in combination with Colchie’s later statement—“I now sell fewer books in a year, but sell them for a lot more money.”

This comes as no surprise, but what he seems to be describing is a publishing industry more bottom-line conscious than ever. I believe that publishers are willing to shell out more cash for books from wherever that are capable of selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Instead of being a translation vs. English question, perhaps this experience is representative of how publishing functions in a marketplace where (thanks to chains, WalMart, etc.) at any point in time, twelve to twenty books are selling spectacularly well and are everywhere (a la Shadow of the Wind or The Da Vinci Code) while most everything else is puttering along.

I’m not sure exactly what to make of this. One the one hand, the more books published in translation, the better; on the other hand, Colchie’s saying that the sheer number of translated books is declining but that the number of best-selling titles that get translated is increasing. Which, as someone who doesn’t usually read best-sellers, doesn’t appeal to me all that much.

Another interesting aspect of this article are the Nielsen numbers at the bottom. Nielsen numbers aren’t precise, and the arguments against this are well documented, but for the basis of comparison, it’s pretty illuminating. Of the four books cited, The Savage Detectives is the most clearly “literary” (in my elitist opinion) and sold 22,000 copies—a figure that is spectacular in terms of literary fiction, and demonstrates how much publicity and good attention Bolano has been receiving—but that is still 55,000 copies lower than the next book on the list, Perez-Reverte’s The Queen of the South, which has sold 77,000 copies since 2004, and it’s dwarfed by Serra’s The Secret Supper‘s, 88,000 copies and The Shadow of the Wind‘s 518,000.

Comments are disabled for this article.
The Odyssey
The Odyssey by Homer
Reviewed by Peter Constantine

Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.

–(The Odyssey, Book I, line 10. Emily Wilson)

In literary translation of works from other eras, there are always two basic tasks that a translator needs. . .

Read More >

I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

Read More >

Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

Read More >

The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

Read More >

Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

Read More >

The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

Read More >

I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

Read More >

Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

Read More >

The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

Read More >

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