Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Emperor’s New Clothes, Pippi Longstocking: although you may not have realized at the time, some of the first stories you remember reading or hearing were translations. In the US, until relatively recently, it was rare for a translator’s name to even be noted on a book’s cover (with a few exceptions for the likes of The Odyssey or the latest Proust).
Current Status of translated books in the US
In the early 2000s, translated books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Suite Française, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog topped the US bestseller charts, showing that international bestsellers could be popular with American readers as well. Today, nonprofit presses specializing in translated literature have sprung up in the US from New York to Texas to California. Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, Open Letter, New Vessel Press, Restless Books, Deep Vellum, Transit Books, and others make it their mission to curate a diverse roster of international authors. They publish the lion’s share of works in translation on the US market: 86% compared to 14% from the Big Five commercial houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster).
Still, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation (compare that to Italy, where that number is over 50%). And only a fraction of these titles get enough publicity from mainstream media to get on the radar of American readers who are not specifically searching for international works.
According to Publisher’s Weekly, 2018 was the second year in a row where the total number of new books in translation published in the U.S. declined. While the overall growth in the number of translations offered on the market increased from 369 titles in 2008 to a peak of 666 in 2016, there has been an 8.5% drop in translations over all genres released in the US since 2016. The top three most frequently translated languages (French, German, and Spanish) have dominated the list since 2008, with German a distant third and the following languages finishing off the top 10: Japanese, Italian, Norwegian, Chinese, Swedish, Russian, and Arabic. Although there is still a significant gap between the number of titles in the Translation Database written by men (59.9%) and those written by women (35.7%), that gap has shrunk continuously in the past few years.
How the US is unique
Getting a US editor to stake their reputation on a foreign language book is notoriously difficult. Unlike the mentioned small independent presses (whose business models often tend to rely on some form of outside academic or philanthropic support), the commercial publishing houses use exacting monetary calculations when deciding which books to bring to market. They may compete for high profile works, but are not actively seeking out works in translation as part of their publishing mission.
The United States is unique in this position. It is the primary job of many editors in other countries to read and evaluate manuscripts in English, but there is no comparable translation market for any one language in the English-speaking world. So many countries submit books that it is harder for editors in the US to develop expertise in what the market has to offer and discern which books from what country have the best shot of appealing to their US readers. Bestselling American authors like John Grisham or Danielle Steel reliably garner a wide readership around the world. The mature market that these types of books created opened the door to less commercial English-language writers in other genres internationally. This phenomenon has been compared to US dominance of the film industry worldwide – there is a certain level of craftsmanship that comes to be associated with a Hollywood blockbuster, regardless of whether it’s better than any one given film. A savvy in choosing the right US books to translate is a valuable editorial skill in book markets worldwide.
The importance of the sample translation
There are two paths to getting published in the US as a foreign-language writer – have an established relationship with a US agent, or have a really good sample translation. The cost of a good literary translation and marketing treatment can be prohibitive to many authors, but it is the only way most US editors can evaluate a book – creating a vicious cycle. Luckily, a compelling sample in English can also work to help a book find publishers in other countries, as it can be read by many editors around the world who acquire books from the English-language markets (it’s easier to find a French editor who reads English, for example, than one who reads Tagalog). Nevertheless, even when a good sample translation exists, the decision usually comes down to personal connections. The books that are sold for translation likely come through the few US agents with close ties to specific regions, or who have relationships with international agents or publishers.
An Executive Editor at Norton, Robert Weil is fluent in German but has published authors in translation from languages he does not speak. “I can’t read the book so I have to go on reports from people and the reputation of the person overseas,” he explains. “I know many of the great translators in the different languages and if a book comes to me in Spanish I will call up translator Edith Grossman, whom I’ve published, and say ‘Edie, what do you think of this book? Do you think this writer has merit?’” Of course, well-established authors are most often picked up by US agents who can offer the kind of translation and packaging that helps sell books. Publishers like Norton must strike a fine balance between assessing the market to stay profitable and leaving American readers without access to excellent international writers.
Another important consideration for the international book getting translated into English – there is usually just one shot. A new translation prevents the appearance of any other translations of the same book for a very long time, and English readers will not get the chance to read any other version for decades. Beyond copyright laws, the investment involved in translating a literary work is so considerable that most of the time, only one version is possible. This creates a huge responsibility for both the translator and the publisher.
The case for books in translation
If reading a book is stepping out of your own head and sharing someone else’s, then reading a book written in a country, culture, and language different from yours is the ultimate experience in seeing a different perspective. This simple act can force us to confront our own limitations and helps us develop compassion and tolerance. “Anglophone fiction can become inward-looking. When I was reading, my own ideas about what was possible in fiction kept getting jostled, jarred, challenged and inspired,” author, translator, and Man Booker International Prize 2019 judge Maureen Freely said. “It’s not just about voices from another world…It’s even on the sentence level; it’s ways of thinking that I think are more interesting than my own ways of thinking, or that make my own way of thinking more supple.”
As Edith Grossman points out in her fantastic book Why Translation Matters, it is just as impossible to imagine the contemporary English novel without the influence of Gabriel García Márquez (and his own debts to Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar) as it is to imagine contemporary Latin American literature without the influence of Faulkner and Joyce. The process of cross-pollination between great authors without the limitations of a single culture or language would not be possible without access to translated books. “Writers learn their craft from one another, just as painters and musicians do,” she writes. “The more books from more places that are available to fledgling authors, the greater the potential flow of creative influence…Translation plays an inimitable, essential part in the expansion of literary horizons through multilingual fertilization. A worldwide community of writers would be inconceivable without it.”
Sandro Ferri, co-founder of Europa Editions, an independent publisher whose mission is to bring international works to the English-speaking markets, writes of his experience: “I have been very surprised and impressed during these first three years as an American publisher to see the curiosity, the interest, and the enthusiasm coming from American readers, independent booksellers, and even reviewers. And these reactions have led me to conclude that the principal obstacle to having more works of translated fiction on the market lies within the industry itself.” The lack of integration and communication between European and American publishing systems leads to many missed opportunities, he believes. On one end, US publishers cannot evaluate foreign language books without linguistic and cultural context, on the other, European publishers cannot market successfully without an understanding of the US market.
Waiting for the next Lisbeth
Fiction sales in the US have dropped every year since 2013 (with the exception of 2015). The drop in the number of books in translation published in the past two years may be a part of this overall trend. This decline in sales is commonly blamed on how difficult it has become to generate exposure for novels. The number of brick and mortar bookstores has significantly decreased from five years ago, and discovery by browsing drives fiction sales much more than non-fiction books. Media outlets cannot make up for the gap left by a lack of physical stores either, as review space in mainstream media dwindles. Name recognition and the ability to market successfully to a US-audience has become more and more important when taking a chance on an author – something especially difficult for foreign writers. Publishers invest a lot to develop brand name authors who can create a loyal fan base willing to pay premium prices for books.
Executive vice president and director of communications for Alfred A. Knopf Paul Bogaards, who worked on the Stieg Larsson titles (Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – which sold more than 6.3 million copies in 2010), is confident that fiction sales will eventually bounce back. “There will be another big novel,” he says. “There always is.” In its wake, US interest in translated works may increase, driving the availability of more great international literature in English translation.
Maria Diment was born in Russia and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works in the Translations Department at ALTA Language Services.