14 February 08 | Chad W. Post

Continuing our series on the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report (previous posts can be found here), today I want to write a bit about the second essay in the book—Simona Skrabec’s “Literary Translation: The International Panorama.”

Complementing Esther Allen’s introductory essay, this piece looks at literary translation internationally, whereas Esther’s article was primarily focused on the U.S. In creating this report, twelve different PEN centers from around the world responded to a questionnaire about the translation situation in their country. (The complete questionnaire can be found on pages 46-47 of the report.) Based on their responses (which are detailed more fully in part 3 of the report), Skrabec wrote this sort of summary.

There are a few interesting threads in this article, in particular the status and treatment of translators, English as a “useful intermediary,” and the subsidy situation. All of which relate, in one way or another, to the economics of publishing literary translations.

Picking up on an idea from Esther Allen’s section, the idea of English as a “useful intermediary” is really interesting.

Lithuania’s PEN Center highlighted an occurrence that while common, is seldom so clearly illustrated as in this country’s case. Most of the nation’s literary translations into English are made in Lithuania. All the questionnaire respondents stated that they considered translations of works into English as key to their country’s projection abroad but that access to the English-language book market appeared practically impossible. The expression “useful intermediary” used by Lithuania’s Laimantas Jonusys thus seems particularly appropriate. Books are translated into English despite their slender chances of ever reaching English-speaking readers. Rather, the aim is to get the attention of intermediaries who might foster their translation into languages (such as French and German) that are much more open to foreign writers.

That’s really a sad situation, although sort of cool to imagine a samizdat library of unpublished works translated into English floating around . . . (Actually, as I mentioned earlier, this is how we came to Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets. The Icelandic publisher paid to have it translated into English so that they could present it to more publishers.)

One of the difficulties in regard to using English as an intermediary language is the lack of translators capable of translating from “smaller languages” into English. Obviously, there are a slew of great Italian, German, French, and Spanish translators, but for languages like Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Croatian, Macedonian, etc., there are only a handful of excellent literary translators. And this is just plain scary: “According to the UK PEN Center, there is no chance of attaining sufficient command of foreign languages in British schools and universities—something that is cause for great concern.”

For anyone interested in becoming a translator, the section on how much translators get paid on average is quite interesting. All the figures are in Euros, so you multiply by 1.5 to convert this into USD, but here are some stats for how much a translator can expect for translating a 150-page work. (Why 150 pages? I’m not sure, but this 150 number comes up time and again with the French government, so they probably started it . . . and there are probably 1,500 characters per page.) In France the translator could expect 2,925-3,375 Euros; in Britain, 4,423; Australia, 3,700; Holland, 6,712; Slovenia, 2,100; Macedonia, 1,300; Hungary, 1,000; and Lithuania, 945.

To put this into perspective, to earn $50,000 a year by translating in Britain, one would need to translate 8 works a year, or one every month and a half. This is why a lot of translators work in academia, or have some other source of income. And this is why subsidies and grants are so crucial.

Subsidies are another obstacle to publishing literature in translation. From a publisher’s perspective, translations are very costly because one not only has all the normal costs of doing a book, but also the additional cost of paying the translator, and, unfortunately, these books tend not to sell as well. (On the whole, literary fiction tends not to sell as well as other categories, and translations are a step below that.)

A number of countries around the world subsidize translations. These grants range from 50%-100% of the translation costs, with countries like The Netherlands, Finland, Estonia, Poland, Germany, France, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark, among others, funding many publications a year. Countries like Argentina, Macedonia, Russia, and Croatia, that have no such funding scheme are at a distinct disadvantage. From a purely commercial perspective, a publisher with usually go ahead with doing a book that’s either going to sell very well, or has a nice subsidy attached to it. As if things weren’t already difficult enough, this is another obstacle for “smaller nations” to overcome in order to reach a wider, English-speaking audience.

Simona does a great job nailing the current state of publishing:

Both the publishing and retail sides of the book business in the English-speaking world are dominated by conglomerates and chains. Two multinationals—the German Bertelsmann group and the French Hachette group have the lion’s share of the publishing market. Both groups focus on best-sellers. Authors receive vast sums for such works. However, there is also a new trend in the UK—non-author best-sellers. For example, even a firm like Bloomsbury has stooped to publishing ghost-written autobiographies of football players and fashion models. This is the “literature” of the masses with a vengeance and nothing, it seems, can detain its juggernaut career through the industry. The most translated works are detective stories or tales of an erotic, even pornographic nature. One should note here that such works are not considered great literature but rather exotic foreign variations on a theme.

Sounds like something from one of Dubravka Ugresic’s essays . . .

The final point that interested me in this essay is the breakdown of sales levels in various countries, which, despite having populations that are 1/100 of America, have sales figures that aren’t that much different. In Lithuania, the average print run is 2,000; in Slovenia, sales for works of fiction are between 1,000 and 1,500 copies and 400-600 for quality fiction; and in Mexico, sales rarely exceed 3,000 copies.

Putting these pieces together—small sales, few translators getting paid low wages, dominance of the book business by conglomerates looking to publish best-selling thrillers and porn—it’s a wonder anything at all gets published in translation. And as a corollary, it’s no surprise that in the 2008 translation database I’ve been putting together, combined, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster account for 12% of all the original translations I’ve identified so far. In comparison, Archipelago, New York Review Books, New Directions, Dalkey Archive, and Open Letter account for 13%.

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