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

By Emily Williams

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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?

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30 Comments

  1. Posted January 11, 2010 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    As someone who was born outside the US, came to this country as an adult and still writes and publishes books in English, I am curious about your definitions. What is your definition of a foreign author? Someone who resides abroad, like Hemingway did? Or someone who was born abroad like Nabokov did? I guess you mean someone who is writing in a language other than English? Those people are not necessarily foreign. They may as well be American citizen. Other than that, I enjoyed the article.

  2. Posted January 11, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Emily, and Ed in his companion piece, and Mark just above, are all indicating how limiting our definitions of transcultural curiosity are. It is arguable that it is more important to embrace entire cultures by having them live amongst us than than having twice as many books from that culture be translated in published amongst us. The ignorance of that man from the Nobel committee living in a very homogenous society lecturing America on interculturality was just shocking.

  3. Tyler
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Mark, since the title is “The Translation Gap” and the article is specifically about non-English speaking authors and works in translation, I’m not sure why you’re curious about definitions.

    “I guess you mean someone who is writing in a language other than English.” Yes. Obviously.

  4. Posted January 11, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Richard, good point. Cultural diversity is a rich meal for the soul.

  5. Posted January 11, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Tyler, I questioned (but not objected to) the word “foreign.” There are thousands or maybe tens of thousands of people who write in a language other then English and still reside in America.

  6. Posted January 11, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I don’t believe most publishers exclude non-American authors. It’s a matter of the manuscript being submitted in English. If the author is from the UK or Australia, there’s not much problem. But if they’re in a non-English speaking country, the burden of translation is on the author prior to submission. Both Damnation Books and Eternal Press have authors from around the world but in all cases the story was submitted in English.

  7. Tyler
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Mark, that’s true, but the article is unambiguously about foreign authors and bringing their work from the international publishing market to the US market. At absolutely no time does the author of the article talk about US residents who are either foreign-born or write in a language other than English, so your question seems either disingenuous or just another attempt to derail a discussion about foreign authors and the value of their work.

  8. Posted January 11, 2010 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Aside from the aspects of hegemony, don’t forget about the practical issues of scale and market: the US is roughly the half the population of Europe, but it and has a wholly contained, monolingual literary market therein. No national / linguistic group in Europe compares (even Russia is less than 150 million people). If Missouri spoke a different language than Massachusetts (sometimes we think it does), and Illinois from California, etc., then translation and multilingualism would be not just commonplace but necessary for practical everyday matters of governance. Comparing a multilingual and heterogeneous continent with centuries of inter-cultural relationships to a single mono-lingual and geographically isolated nation is disingenuous. I’m not excusing the state of translation, and I both support ant read translation, but this stereotype of Americans is a myth.

    I wrote about this myth at my site:
    http://danpritch.blogspot.com/2009/12/literature-in-translation-bumpkin.html

  9. Posted January 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    When I was published by Grove Press back in the 80s, because I read French I was one of the imprint’s “scouts” for fiction from France. I was paid $100 per report, and my job came to an end when I was sent a quirky little novel called La Salle de Bain by a new writer named Jean-Philippe Toussaint. I loved the book and said so, but I was torn because, really, I was also supposed to be finding fiction that would succeed in this country. So, sadly, I suggested that this would be a very tough sell.

    A week or so later Dutton picked it up, and I was back to being just a simple novelist once again. But I remain a fan of Toussaint to this day.

  10. Posted January 11, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    I am a Canadian-born writer and publisher who started off slowly in the U.S., but within months of receiving my green card (courtesy President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program) I was on my way to having my fiction appear in such places as The New Yorker, having a short-story collection published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and receiving my first legal paycheck — from Columbia University’s graduate writing program, where I’d begun teaching. Now, twenty or so years later, I try to keep an eye out — both as an interested reader and in my role as a literary publisher — for foreign-born American-domiciled writers (writing and/or publishing in English, my only language) to connect with, but I’ve found very few….

  11. Posted January 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I was hoping to enhance the discussion, Tyler, rather than derailing it. If the author of the article didn’t mention something, I felt free to add my opinion. That’s what the “add comment” button is for. N’est-ce pas?

  12. John T. Cullen
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    The US is a marketplace, like any other. The best way to remedy the problem is to publish in digital form, which is much cheaper. The marketplace will correct itself. US readers over the years have shown a considerable hunger for good foreign-language fiction in translation, from Hermann Hesse to Jorge Luis Borges and many other authors around the world. The extreme cost of print publication has crippled the ability of US authors to “get published” by the six conglomerates in NYC who run the US industry. But again, it’s purely an economic problem of supply and demand.

  13. Posted January 13, 2010 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    I’d like to point out one inaccuracy in Emily’s otherwise rather complete analysis. “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.”

    The vast majority of editors working at European houses speak and read in more than one language. Many houses have distinct editorial divisions—foreign and, say, french for french houses. The editors working in the foreign division will typically read in two or three different languages in addition to their native language. And, given that the publication of writers from abroad is more common in all of Europe, even if an editor cannot read a book in the language in which it was written, he or she may be able to read it one of other languages in which it has already been published. That many (most?) editors at US houses do not read in any language other English is not so much a clichè but one of the main obstacles to the publication of foreign fiction in America.

  14. Emily W.
    Posted January 13, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. @Mark, I understand the word foreign can sound a little jarring, in the publishing world it’s used pragmatically to mean not American. For the purposes of this article, I was concerned with people from other countries writing in languages other than English, as @Tyler says. These writers are much less likely to have representation or connections inside US publishing, which leads to the dynamic described above – though I appreciate the wider conversation about multicultural diversity that you and @Richard Nash introduced. @Michael Reynolds, I assure you I’m well aware of the structure of European houses, I worked closely with several very large such houses in my years as a literary scout. As I point out in my piece, the editors that work in the divisions devoted to foreign books generally have an excellent command of English in addition to their native language, and sometimes French as well, with German as a distant third. It was my experience, however, that command of languages besides English was not much more widespread than in the US. There are also more editors in New York who read French than any other foreign language, with a scattering of German and other languages as well, and these editors can of course evaluate books once they’ve been translated into one of the additional languages they speak (this is why France plays a valuable role as a gateway to authors from many countries, a role I personally think the US has the potential to play and wish it would play more often). When it comes to other languages, however, like Japanese or Mandarin or Arabic or Turkish or even Spanish and Italian, I found the scouts were able to provide a valuable role if we could read and report on a book from one of these regions because the international editors we worked with not only didn’t have anyone in house who read in those languages but had no readers they worked with on a regular basis and whose judgment they could trust.

    The main difference with US houses is that there is no equivalent to these divisions devoted to translated books, for all the reasons I go into in the article, so a foreign book on submission is competing for editors’ attention with all the US submissions underway at the same time. Since there is often only one editor with the language skills to read and evaluate the foreign manuscript, that person cannot share the material and get additional support and has to become the book’s sole champion, as Rachel Kahan describes so vividly. This is more of a risk for the individual editor and it is also simply harder to get such an acquisition approved. (And no, we are not the only ones in the world with this problem, I ran into similar roadblocks in other countries – Japan, for instance – whenever a publisher did not have editors specifically tasked with acquiring for translation.)

  15. Posted January 14, 2010 at 4:22 am | Permalink

    My feeling is that command of a second, third or fourth language among editors is more common in European houses than it is in American ones. But, honestly, it is only on anecdotal evidence that I base this affirmation. And your point is well taken: single editors’ command of second or third languages is less important than having a structure within the house itself that focuses on foreign work. As we all know, much of our work depends on creating and nurturing personal relationships. The publication of a single Turkish author, for example, can open the doors to a wealth of interesting work from that country if one has the time, the support, and the means to nurture relationships with said author, his or her agent and editor, people at the original publishing house, editors that have published the same work in other countries, organizations with which the author may be affiliated, critics who have written about the work in question, translation funding agencies, etc. etc. But an editor cannot do this kind of work alone, in a vacuum, without the support of a “division” dedicated to the search for foreign books.

    Whether it is editors’ polyglotism or the lack of a structure supporting the search and publication of foreign work that is the problem, it is the industry itself that needs fixing. The issue is not the American reader’s infamous insularity or cultural isolationism—a hypothesis, by the way, I find to be nonsense, a cliché, one that, at least in my experience at Europa Editions, is largely unfounded.

    If these issues were addressed in US publishing, not only would it enrich our reading possibilities, but this market could, as you suggest, be an extraordinary gateway to foreign literature, one that would be much broader and much less conditioned by “secondary”, i.e. historical or political factors, than any of the existing European “gateways.”

    Thanks for this article and the many considerations it has provoked.

  16. sid
    Posted January 14, 2010 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Why is it so difficult for many foreign writers, writing in English, to find a publisher in the US. In their case language is not an issue, it is the story. Americans like stories about Americans.

  17. Vern
    Posted January 16, 2010 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Let’s not get too carried away with complimenting ourselves on how culturally open America is. I walk into Barnes and Noble and I see a pitifully limited selection of books; just the other week this site had an editorial on how Open Letter press is yet to sell more than 3000 copies of any one edition. Even the travel literature sections, written by native English speakers about foreign lands are pretty feeble.

  18. Posted January 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Good article, Emily.

    Sid may have something. We at AKW Books published an excellent English translation of a best-selling Russian spy novel in 4 eBook formats (thanks for the plug of eBooks, John). The translation is so good, that it’s hard to believe it was originally written in Russian (the owner of the English rights is of Russian heritage reared in the USA). The title sucked (probably made sense in Russian), so we renamed it “KGB in High Heels”.

    It sold 600,000 copies in Russia and Israel (Israel???) and was made into a 4-part TV miniseries in Russia. Yes, the story is that good.

    It’s been greeted with a huge yawn by the American public. Maybe at $4.45 it’s not priced high enough to get respect? Or is it, as Sid said, that it’s not about an American (the protagonist is a Russian cultural reporter)?

  19. Ramdane ISSAAD
    Posted January 21, 2010 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Hello,
    I’m a french novelist, I wrote my last text FAULT LINES directly in american, you could read it for free at this adress :
    http://rushes.com.free.fr/FAULT%20LINES.htm

    It’s impossible for me to find a publisher for it in France. PLEASE HELP ME, I need your advises.
    Thanks
    Ramdane ISSAAD (Wikipedia)

  20. Posted July 14, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Great post on a sad topic. It hurts to think how much American readers have missed.

  21. Barbara
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Great article. About a year ago while visiting Poland I bought a polish book with an interesting title “How to marry well after forty”. I started reading it on the plane on my way back to Canada. I wasn’t able to put it away till I finished it. This was the most enjoyable and “short” flight I have ever done. I have read many relationship books so far and found it quite different. What sets it apart from others is that other than humorous advice it has a story. Anyway, back in Canada book was all the time on my mind. I could already see it translated to English. Subject of this book concerns readers all over the world in the same way.Using my connections I found an author and the publisher. Met with them on my next trip there and bought the rights to translate the book and publish it in all English speaking countries. At present I’m almost finished with the translation (of course with help of my Canadian friends, since my English is not that good) and don’t know what to do next. Author of this book is a well known Polish celebrity, speaking perfect English. If book was published in North America, marketing with an author would be easy. Can anybody advice me a good agent dealing with translated work.
    Thank you in advance. Best regards. Barbara
    I would love to hear from Emily. BTW I live in Ontario, Canada.

  22. Lysa
    Posted November 22, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    A question: if I reside in America, write in my mother tongue (because it is much easier for me to do so) and then either translate my novel myself, or give it to professional translator before submitting it to an agent, will I have better chances of getting published? Will the publishers even know I have originally written in a foreign language? My novel will not have cultural connotations – I will be writing an urban fantasy set in a semi-fictional European town (possibly in the past).

  23. Posted February 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

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  24. Dario
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    As a seven year foreign resident in the US, and 11 years researcher in US foreign policy, I totally disagree with the arguments of Ms. Williams and Mr. Nawotka.
    I can certainly confirm that the US provincialism does matter in explaining the low translation rate at issue.
    The translation gap and passport figures are perfectly in line with other structural data about American’s relationship with the rest of the world.
    None of Williams’ arguments explain why foreign editors – and, ultimately, foreign readers – are so much interested in non-native works in the first place. If you have no interest whatsoever in translating foreign authors, you hardly bother to get appropriate editorial divisions, as foreign publishers do.
    The language barrier argument is absurd, no matter how you use it. For you must still explain why foreign editors are so much better equipped to deal with non-English transcripts than their American counterparts.
    The colonial past argument, while plausible to some extent, is also amply unconvincing. First, European countries with very limited colonial experience, such as Italy, publish an enormous amount of foreign literary works. Secondly, in many former European colonies people speak the language of the former colonizer and submit their manuscripts in that language (it’s obviously the case of former France’s and England’s colonies), which add to, and are NOT included in the translated works. Finally, all former colonial powers in Europe translate a very high volumes of works from countries that were NOT former colonies.
    The low translation rate in America cannot be understood if you do not factor in the provincialism of American educational, media information and cultural system.
    The available evidence shows that relatively few Americans display a significant interest in foreign culture and foreign affairs.
    In order to see this, we first must avoid confounding absolute and relative terms regarding the American population.
    The USA is a very populous country. For starters, a very small percentage of Americans can be still accounted for by a huge amount of people in absolute terms.
    You must bear this in mind constantly while making statements about general trends in the US.
    Based on the last Census data, the US population consists of approximately 310,000,000 people. Now, we may agree that, for example, 5% is hardly a very high percentage, no matter what kind of variable we try to measure. Yet, 5% of Americans represents something like about 15,5 million people.
    If 5% of Americans show substantial interest in foreign cultures, that obviously means that few Americans do.
    Yet, there would still be roughly 15,500,000 Americans who do. In other words, you could meet as many as 15,500,000 Americans across the US who do display such interest.
    This might give you the deceptive impression that “a lot of Americans” are indeed interested in foreign cultures.
    For other structural data clearly suggest otherwise. The following are just the most significant.
    As late as 2006, the National Geographic Society conducted a survey on young Americans’ knowledge of the foreign world. Young Americans were defined as people between 18 and 24 years of age, which includes high school and university graduates : http://www.nationalgeographic.com/roper2006/findings.html.
    Among the dismal results, there are the following:
    “Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map.
    6 in 10 young Americans don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
    […]
    Half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map.” [!!!]
    Now, obviously the educational system is largely responsible for this outcome, though it is not the only one. In doing a very basic research on geography programs in US schools, you’ll find easily how foreign geography is neglected – isn’t this quite revealing itself?
    However, as I said, education is hardly the only culprit.
    In this respect, the finding about Iraq is especially significant. For you can hardly blame the educational system alone for it. Considering how relentlessly the media were talking about Iraq in 2006, the conclusion is inescapable: only a very limited interest in foreign affairs can explain the survey finding .
    Add to the picture US educational programs in history up to 12th grade. European history is an elective, not required class in most US history programs, even though this is by and large a country of European immigrants.
    Furthermore, US history course usually starts with colonial history and little if nothing is said about pre-existing cultures.
    As to the passport data, Mr. , it is impossible to concur with your view. That is certainly a most compelling evidence of most American’s weak interest in the foreign world.
    Someone who is truly interested in experiencing foreign cultures cannot possibly be content with meeting some foreigners in NY or LA or even just hyphen-Americans.
    You must go abroad. By contrast, if you’ve never made a passport, you’re not even considering going.
    How incredibly arrogant is, anyway, to conclude that meeting foreigners in the US accounts for a foreign culture-experience? And that the US is “geographically large and diverse, meaning there is lots of room to explore and roam”? In countries so much smaller like France and Italy, there’s an artistic, architectural and natural diversity that has hardly anything to envy to the US. Yet, many more French and Italians than Americans hold a passport.
    Also, in bragging about foreign diversity in the US, you tend to forget that ACTUAL-foreigners, NOT HYPHEN-AMERICANS – are concentrated in very few areas of the USA. In most of the country you meet only Americans.
    Furthermore, are you seriously blaming short vacation terms for low passport applications? For real? If so, why couldn’t Americans go to the Caribbean or Latin America in those two weeks? Too far away? As I experienced directly, a vacation to the Dominican Republic can be ludicrously cheap and certainly affordable to most Americans.
    The arguments used in these two articles – overwhelmingly endorsed by the readers – are a very sorrow example of the status of denial in the US.

  25. cac
    Posted July 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    As an International Trade major, I see it more in terms of economic and business protection than anything else. The bottom line is that money talks, America seems to be particularly protective in the film, song and book industries more than anywhere else. It’s very easy to find Holliwood movies the world over not for their quality but for the money the movies’ production dumps into the market for the promotion where foreign movies and authors do not have the same kind of cash available. The ultra motives are quite different, since foreign movies tend to have lower budgets, less special effects and more of a story line and depth. For the cultural aspect, Holliwwod prefers to do remakes that are mere resemblance of originals but that appeal for sure to their public. It’s regrettable that the public is short changed in terms of quality and exposure just for monetary purposes where other countries are dumped with a lot of American junk. It’s unfair business which leads to a dominant position against international trade conventions.

  26. Izak
    Posted December 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I am looking for a good American English translation of a famous book written in Kazakh language. After translation, I wish this book will be published in the US. How do I do that? Thank you.

  27. Elham Mirnaziri
    Posted February 29, 2012 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    In the name of God

    Everyone’s happiness depends on his/her unawareness. Awareness entails suffering. It changes shallow delight.
    In this platonic cave, as long as someone assumes that all dynamism of the universe is confined to these moving shadows, smiles and lives happily. But those whose dark tranquility is disturbed by a message or a sound out of the cave…

    This is the first common feature among characters of my novel and of course, it can be a good criterion to find its audience.

    Ten characters that are from different nationalities, voyage toward nowhere. There is no destination; as if they want to fight with death. They want to know themselves and their place in the world. Sometimes there is not a clear boundary between freewill and determinism.

    All characters are round. They have unanswered questions that may arise from their unusual life. These religious, philosophical and artistic questions create discussions among them and reveal their way of thought. Main character’s gradual acquaintance with other characters guides us to their special reason for this strange and dangerous journey.

    The novel, Profundity, is a romance too. In spite of unordinary frightening setting that surrounds characters, we will discover deep emotions among them. But critical situation and lack of time prevent them to express it openly.

    Another motivation which fascinates reader to finish the story very soon, is a secret in the main character’s identity. The main character, Ava, is a young girl whose deep love to one of the characters, Martin, leads in solving her identity riddle. The novel has five female characters who create a manifest on women’s real position in the society. Their research is a historical and cultural study on women’s lives.

    To me, it is a novel about common features, emotions and reasons among human beings to be in peace with each other. It is a story about life and death, not as contrasts but as essential elements in promotion of human soul.

    The novel presents different religious views such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Deism and etc. It has a lot of references to famous and influential people’s works and theories such as Kant, Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus, Maeterlinck, Shakespeare, Goethe, Hafez, Shariati, chandelle, Jeanne d’Arc, Schweitzer and etc. Because characters are from different nationalities, we see cultural references too, e.g. Chinese and Indian culture.

    Research and writing process of the novel takes about two years. The novel is in Persian and has not been translated yet. It is about 60000 words. Would you help me to translate it in English and print?

    I tried to give you a real outlook and avoid hyperbolism in this query. In our era, it seems that human beings become alien to God. Literature should be more responsible for that. Do you agree with me?

    I am a young female Iranian author. My name is Elham Mirnaziri.
    Address: Iran, Tehran, Shiroodi, Alborz32, postal code: 3314617746.
    Phone number: 00982156121889
    Cell phone: 09354159531
    Email: elham66_2007@yahoo.com

  28. Posted July 30, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    At last! Info to back-up what I have actually been practising and suggesting to my buddies. Glad I ran across this post and shall definitly end up sending this review onto others. Precisely what true reports is this details dependant on, the more facts the better. Thanks for your precious time.

  29. Abdul
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    You are worrying me guys. Do you mean that I don’t have a chance to shop my novel around in US marketplace? I’m lebanese who lived in the US and write fiction in English.

  30. Posted October 8, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    As a professional translator, I have found that our area of expertise has been widely threatened by automated and machine translators, which are using more elaborate models and logarithms every day to make translation easier. However, they are not yet at the pinnacle of their own invention, but have provided audiences around the world a peek of the future in the translation industry (a cheap and mechanized software for everyone to access). Translation will probably become a useful app in the not so far future. This makes our job difficult to charge and hard for people to believe in its true value and the work involved, as well as the skill level required for a translator to provide a successful translation, specially when it involves texts that include intrinsic feelings and textures. I would like to call upon all editors and publishers to consider and recognize our work as an art in the full expression of all languages.

22 Trackbacks

  1. […] lead article by Emily Williams looks at the question of why so few foreign writers make it into print in the US. […]

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    […] The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren’t Published in America “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.” […]

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    […] Emily Williams explained in last Monday’s Publishing Perspectives, much of the American publishing world does do a great job of printing international titles. Groups […]

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    […] picking them up.  I bought my copy of ‘World Cup Wishes’ from Amazon Canada.  In The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren’t Published in America, Emily Williams points out that the reasons for this aren’t so much cultural as much as […]

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  16. By Hungarian for Inspiration on November 23, 2010 at 3:01 am

    […] it needs to be said that there aren’t nearly enough translations published in the United States. We’ve heard this before. The excellent blog Three Percent is named after the purported percentage of published books that […]

  17. […] read translated lit” and as we’ve written here before, there are valid reasons why more books don’t get translated for publication in the US. But — and this is a big “but” — the success of […]

  18. […] other words, recent events fly in the face of American indifference to foreign thought, an indifference demonstrated in our publishers’ reluctance to translate foreign […]

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  20. […] like books which carry their words don’t cross the boundaries with quite the same ease. Says Robert Weil, an Executive Editor at W.W. Norton: “I always feel almost bereft that so much great literature […]

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