The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren’t Published in America

In English Language, Resources by Emily Williams

By Emily Williams


NEW YORK: Parts one, two and three of my series on scouting looked at American efforts to sell American books overseas. Today, this fourth and final installment of the series looks at the other side of the equation and brings us to a question most scouts run into sooner or later, often posed by one of their foreign publishing clients: Why is it so hard for foreign authors to get published in the US?  It’s clear to anyone working in international rights that the sophisticated marketplace involving scouts, rights sellers and foreign publishers that exists to get American books out into the world does not exist to the same degree in the other direction.

There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon, very few of which have to do with stereotypes of American readers as being culturally insulated or lacking curiosity about the outside world.

It is well known that placing a foreign book with a US editor can be devilishly difficult. First, there are the unforgiving economic calculations that publishers face in taking a translation to market. Rather than go into those here, I defer to my fellow Publishing Perspectives contributor Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter Books, who has written more knowledgeably than I could ever hope to on this subject on his blog, Three Percent.

And while there are, indeed, a number of small, independent presses doing great work bringing translated authors to the US, including Open Letter, New Directions, Other Press, Melville House, Europa Editions, Archipelago, Graywolf, and others, their business models tend to be different, often relying on some form of outside support — be it academic or philanthropic — from the bigger commercial houses.  For the purposes of this article, which looks at the submissions and acquisitions side of the market, my focus is on the large scale houses that compete for high profile submissions and are not always actively seeking out translations as part of their publishing mission.

Apart from economics, the often cited reason for the difficult of placing translations with American publishers is the limited number of US editors who speak a foreign language.  This is indeed an obstacle.  Rachel Kahan, a senior editor at the Putnam, says, “There doesn’t seem to me to be as concerted an effort to bring [foreign language] authors to the US as there is to bring UK authors to the US, but I think a lot of that is just the language barrier.”

One remedy is for a publisher to prepare a good sample translation — with an emphasis here on the word good.  Still, points out Kahan, “It costs a lot to have something translated and get it gussied up and ready for the American market.  They have to decide, is it really a book that’s likely to find a US publisher anyway?”

A vicious cycle develops where the difficulty of placing books in the US makes it less likely foreign publishers and agents will invest in packaging their authors to submit here, which makes it harder for US editors to develop an understanding of foreign markets and what authors might be the best match for their audience.  This, in turn, arguably contributes to the scattershot nature of publishing translations here and the chances that the books that do get published will find success.

The Language Barrier

That said, the issue is more complex, and in defense of the Americans, despite the cliché, I have found that we’re not the only country with language barriers.  I would argue there aren’t necessarily more Dutch or Italian or Russian editors than there are in the United States who have enough of a command of, say, Spanish, to evaluate a manuscript.  European countries may have old colonial connections or regional affinities that encourage some cross-pollination, but the ideal of a market that provides equal access to writers from any language or region is hard to find (France, with its strict cultural protections, might come closest).

So by what standards are Americans being judged?  By the fact that a high percentage of editors in other countries do speak English well enough to read and evaluate a manuscript. In fact, for many, that’s their primary job, and one they may have been performing for decades.  That, quite simply, is the difference.

There has been a hegemony for years of English-language books being translated into many other languages, a cultural phenomenon comparable (though much smaller in scale) to US dominance of the worldwide film market.  Bestselling American authors like Michael Crichton and John Grisham and Danielle Steele and Stephen King have, in translation, reliably topped bestseller lists around the world.  As the market for matching these authors to publishers abroad matured, it opened the door to less commercial writers and other genres (in nonfiction, for example, American business books continue to be in high demand).

A certain savvy in picking the right American books to translate developed into a valuable editorial skill in markets abroad.  Imprints and publishing strategies were then established to capitalize on books in translation.  Foreign rights turned into a profit center for US publishers, and scouting agencies sprang up to help navigate the increasingly complex marketplace.

The rising fortunes of US books abroad coincides with the rise of American pop culture in general, but also has to be partly attributed to a strong culture of commercial fiction (and the editorial skills that evolved to serve these books) that, until quite recently, simply didn’t exist in many other countries.  A foreign editor I worked with once compared US commercial fiction to Hollywood blockbusters: any one book might be better or worse overall, but there’s a certain level of craftsmanship you can depend on.

Diversity as a Detriment

There is no comparably mature translation market for any one language in the English speaking world, and the fact that books coming into the American market come from many different countries and languages makes it harder for editors here to develop the expertise in what any market has to offer, and which books from that country have the best shot of appealing to American readers.  The books that are sold for translation here are more likely to come through the handful of US agents with close ties to one region or another, who are themselves usually working through professional relationships with particular agents or publishers abroad.  What books by foreign authors that end up crossing an American editor’s desk, then, depends in no small part on chance and good connections.  Rachel Kahan, a Senior Editor at Putnam who reads fluently in Spanish, admits, “If they don’t have a US agent and they aren’t being conspicuously packaged for the US sale, which is the case a lot of the time, I tend to luck into things.”

There are some instances where the absence of an American agent offers a savvy editor the advantage of speed, but in most cases American representation makes things easier.

“Not all editors in the business have relationships with their colleagues overseas or with foreign agents, so if there’s an American on board, I think in some cases it lends the project a little more visibility,” said Kahan. “And also if there’s an American agent there’s usually a translation or a partial translation of the book itself. That [US] subagent will have packaged it in a way that’s the most accessible and maximizes its potential for the American market. Whereas when it’s been an author that I’ve discovered, then I’m doing all of that work myself.  [I’m] the one saying, ‘You really have to trust me here, I think this is going to work, I’m staking my reputation on it.'”

In Kahan’s experience it is the established authors that most often get picked up by US agents who can offer the kind of treatment that helps them sell.  “Carlos Ruiz Zafón has a US agent and is presented to publishers in pretty much the same way any big bestselling author would be.  The people who are debuts or who haven’t been published in the US, a lot of them don’t have those kinds of agents or those kinds of relationships and there’s no one really promoting them to US publishers.”

As mentioned before, foreign books with a good sample English translation have an advantage, as they can be treated more like the domestic submissions that make up the lion’s share of most US editors’ lists.  “It’s a lot easier because you can share it the same way you would any other project,” explains Kahan.  “You can share it with people in your paperback division, you can share it with people in marketing, share it with other editors, to get other reads.”  A compelling sample in English that gives a good sense of the book’s strengths can also be a great tool in finding publishers in other countries, because it gives the author access to the extensive network of editors in other countries around the world who acquire books from the English-language markets.  (It is easier to find a German editor who reads English, for example, than one who reads Mandarin or Croatian.)

Recommended Reading

For literary editors, even when a rare sample translation exists, the decision more often comes down to personal recommendations.  Robert Weil, an Executive Editor at Norton, is fluent in German but has also published authors in translation from numerous languages he doesn’t speak.  In those cases, “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?'”

Again, this system tends to favor established authors — though, to be fair, there are many established authors to choose from simply because so few are likely to have already found a US publisher.

“It’s an especially brutal market out there for new authors,” Weil notes.  “You generally don’t have the author in the country, and with the collapse of so many reviews it makes it even tougher because you have no one really beating the drums here.”

Weil’s strategy is to pick prestige projects that he can turn into literary events.  “I signed up the complete works of Isaac Babel and it took me years to put that together, and that was a huge success about 8-9 years ago.  [Or] this book The Greek Poets which I commissioned eight years ago, half of the 700-800 page book is Greek poetry which has never appeared before in English.  There’s a 2000 year tradition of Greek poetry which no one knew about.  I love that book.  I think in a year I’ll be at 10,000 copies of a $40 book.  I did a big fat book and you have to pay attention to it.  Then I can separate the book into little books.  I’m going to be living happily ever after with these Greek poets.”

However, on a more commercially-minded list like Putnam’s, a book is more likely to be judged strictly on its potential to appeal to US readers. “I’ve always worked for very overtly commercial houses,” says Kahan.  “None of the houses I’ve worked at have a mandate to go out and search for world authors, but we’ve certainly been able to publish some of them, and publish them well, using exactly the same formula as we use for our English language authors.  About 30% of my authors are not American — a fair number of them are from the UK, which is the same language but a different culture.  We’re able to make these people who are not Americans work in the American market using pretty much the same marketing and the same kind of packaging. You have to find the right book that is going to appeal to the audience that your imprint serves.”

Norton, true to its heritage as an independent publisher of serious literary titles, has more of a cultural mission, though in the end the criteria that determine what Weil publishes in translation are not so different from the rest of his list.  “Norton’s had a commitment to translations forever,” Weil recounts.  “Polly Norton used to translate Rilke herself in the 1930s, so Norton knows how to do translated books.  But you still have to be very careful assessing the market.  I think it’s the same with any book, it’s just a lot harder.”

This difficulty restricts the number of translations Weil is able to take on, while he struggles with the fact that this leaves American readers without access to some excellent writers.  “I always feel almost bereft that so much great literature is being ignored,” says Weil.  “If you were to sit down and comprehend how much we’re missing in English you would have nightmares.  You can’t really worry about what you’re missing, you can only do as much as what you can do.”

Making Translations Work

As for what makes a translation more likely to succeed in the market, well, the factors are going to sound very familiar. First, the book’s author should be able to help the publisher promote the book, preferably in English.  As an example, Weil mentions Words Without Borders: Writings from the Middle East, an anthology coming up in 2010 edited by author and television political commentator Reza Aslan. “I’m incredibly excited about that book,” says Weil, “not only is the literature gorgeous, Reza Aslan is a great promoter and he’s on television.  That will be very good for this book. This is a case where we may be in great shape.”

Kahan emphatically agrees, citing authors Marek Halter, the French-speaking author of religious historical fiction whose books she acquired while working at Crown, and Luis Miguel Rocha, the Portuguese author of the thrillers The Last Pope and The Holy Bullet, which she publishes at Putnam.

“Both speak reasonably good English and are very charismatic and very interesting,” says Kahan, “and in both cases they came to New York, they met our sales people, they were involved in the publicity of the book. And, yes, that made a really big difference.”

These success stories have given Kahan the impetus to continue to look for great authors from abroad.  “I know it’s very often said, Americans don’t read books in translation, and publishers aren’t interested in foreign writers, and that is not the case,” she asserts.  “We’re not buying as much in other languages as our counterparts overseas are, but we are definitely buying them and there are certainly ones who break out.  The first book I bought by Marek Halter [Sarah] has sold over 200,000 copies.  They do work.  They’re harder to make work, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s this idea that American publishers just throw up a wall and don’t take a chance on writers who don’t write in English, and I don’t think that’s the case.”

It’s true that, lately, there has been more diversity on bestseller lists around the world.  And, it’s important to note, many of those same books that have been international hits — such as those by Stieg Larsson, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Muriel Barbery and Roberto Bolaño — and have sold equally well in the US.

Despite the perceived difficulties, Kahan is optimistic about the future of publishing translations in the US.  “We’re definitely actively looking for authors.  We don’t ever want to leave a stone unturned.  At Putnam we’ve had a really good experience with [translation], it’s something that I’ve really enjoyed as an editor.  The rewards are the same — the rewards of finding a really good story and an author who really speaks to you, and working with that author, all of those things are the same no matter what language the author happens to speak.  And with translation you’re able to bring something to people that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise be getting.”

Emily Williams is a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.

DISCUSS: Is the Cliche of the Culturally Insulated American a Myth?

About the Author

Emily Williams

Emily Williams as Manager of International Digital Content at Barnes & Before that, she worked as digital content producer for Publishers Marketplace, contributor to Digital Book World and Publishing Perspectives, and also held a senior scout position with Maria B. Campbell & Associates.