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Books in Translation: It’s Time for Others to Join the Fight

“Major publishers and the media are seriously underestimating the audience for translated books.”

Editorial by Joanna Zgadzaj and Nancy Roberts, Stork Press

“I am wary of translations,” comments one reader on the booklovers’ website Goodreads, which begs the question: what is the problem with books in translation? Is it really true that readers do not want to read translations? And where does this attitude come from? When we talked to a number of booksellers we were told people who buy books don’t care if it’s a translated title or not, just whether it has a good story. And yet!

Joanna Zgadzaj & Nancy Roberts

Last year during International Translation Day, Alexandra Büchler from Literature Across Frontiers provided evidence that translation makes up only 2.5% of all publications in the UK, with a figure of 4.5% for literature. The United States, a nation which prides itself on its immigrant history, is no better with a mere 3% of the market. By comparison other countries far outstrip the UK and US in this regard; in Poland a staggering 46% of books published are titles in translation, in Germany over 12%, in Spain around 24% and in France around 15%.

Translation makes up only 2.5% of all publications in the UK.

Britain is a multi-cultural society with a rich and vibrant immigrant history, a country where one in eight people were born abroad. British society has undergone profound social change in recent years, but are these changes reflected within culture? It seems that when it comes to letting the ‘foreign’ voices tell their stories, Britain is less open to cultural cross-pollination that perhaps we would like to believe.

Mass Market Reviews are Hard to Come By

A vital way that readers find out about new books is through book reviews. All publishers rely heavily on reviews to capture a market for their titles. And although the days of the British Empire are long gone, it still seems that the mainstream media, even those left leaning outlets which pride themselves on cultural diversity and liberal values, are far too conservative to devote column inches to literature and non-fiction in translation. During a publicity meeting we attended with one of the largest papers in the UK, we were told that it’s the books by British and US authors they were interested in, not books in translation. “We’re a British paper,” we were told. We felt at this stage it was pointless to argue about the foreign literary influences on British literature. The level of ignorance and unjustified fear among book reviewers towards literature and non-fiction in translation is staggering. By comparison, bloggers are far more welcoming and open to accepting books in translation for reviews or features.

The permeating stereotype about books in translation is that they are “too literary” and “too serious” for a general readership in comparison to, say, light and entertaining cook books, celebrity memoirs or the recent publication of “mummy’s porn” Fifty Shades of Grey which was given almost every available space in every paper.

Publishing a book in translation is expensive. You are lucky as a publisher if you get a translation grant which rarely covers 100% of the amount it is costing you to get the work done; sometimes you get nothing and you face the possibility of dropping the title from your list altogether because it’s simply too expensive for a small press to cover the translation costs. Chances are, if a publisher decides to take on a book written in a non-English language, the foreign author will be very well established with a few prizes under his/her belt to give the publisher a fighting change of getting the title reviewed at all. And so those books translated into English are often literary, high-brow, and serious.

Stork Press publishes translations of books from Central and Eastern Europe.

Now, let’s reverse that scenario and say we want to publish an unknown young foreign author who perhaps has not — yet — won any prizes in his/her country of origin, but has written a bloody good book. How are we going to convince a reviewer to give it a go if most of them get an instant headache when they can’t pronounce the author’s name? Let alone if they actually bother to respond to your query as most book reviewers in the mainstream media don’t. No reviews or publicity means no sales. Let’s say after all this you still decide to take a chance and publish the book. If your author isn’t known in the UK (and yes we do realize the twisted logic of this catch 22), doesn’t speak fluent English, isn’t an entertaining type, or God forbid is dead, very few literary festivals will be interested in offering you space. As a publisher you will think very carefully next time a partially-translated manuscript lands on your desk.

Not surprisingly most of the publishing of books in translation is undertaken by small independent publishing houses, and with their limited financial recourses they can hardly make an impact on the market or compete with big presses which pour serious money into publicity and marketing. When was the last time you saw a poster advertising a title in translation on the London Underground? Probably only ever for the recent wave of Scandinavian crime, which seems somehow to have overcome the barrier of being translated and has actually moved into the mainstream. It’s common knowledge that there’s no money in publishing books in translation, meaning it’s done by people who are seriously passionate about literature often subsidise the business with their savings or second jobs.

People are struggling to pay for energy and food let alone spend money on books. Bookshops and libraries are closing down. Big publishers get bigger. Smaller publishers are lucky to survive. Amazon, much disliked among publishers and independent booksellers, the Darth Vader of publishing as we like to call them, has monopolized the sales of books and now publishes books in translation as well through their imprint AmazonCrossing. Like it or not Amazon sells the largest number of our books, which for a small publisher and all our authors it makes a big difference. Unlike the mainstream media, Amazon makes no judgements and will sell any book a reader wants to buy; perhaps publishers and book reviewers should take note?

Is it Worth Publishing Books in Translation?

Readers of translated fiction are never afraid to evangelize about their latest discovery.

After all this, then, is it worth publishing books in translation? If we did not believe in what we do and did not have the passion for great stories we wouldn’t be doing this. Smaller presses move faster and can take risks on authors and books which big publishers would not take on. As the biggest publishers continue to consolidate, now more than ever their commissioning choices are going to have to be driven by the bottom line rather than the love of a good narrative — something worth remembering next time you visit a bookshop or online bookseller. Small presses don’t have Finance, HR, Publicity departments with people who get paid for what they do. We don’t get paid and we still do it. It doesn’t matter if a book is originally written in English or any other language to us. The main question is, do we love it? And do we think other readers will love it too?

Recent years have seen quite a large number of smaller presses entering the publishing market, and half of the books on the Booker shortlist this year were published by small presses. This was hailed in the Guardian as “Independents’ Day” suggesting that the commissioning decisions being made by small publishers are worth taking a look at, and even, maybe, that the media is starting to recognize this. We would love to see more prizes in Britain which include titles in translation — apart from the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize and the Guardian First Book Award (which also accepts submissions of translated titles) there isn’t anything else. The recently launched Literature Prize states on its website its international focus, and that it is “open to writers from around the world” — but the book must have been written in English. So much for celebrating international voices; a sadly lost opportunity to celebrate fully the beauty of international fiction.

The publishing market is changing rapidly and small presses are the dark horses of publishing, risking much more than big publishing conglomerates and giving back unforgettable and truly beautifully produced books. The blogosphere and social media buzz around these books is enormous, and readers of translated fiction are never afraid to evangelize about their latest discovery. Our experience of our readership strongly argues that major publishers and the media are underestimating their audience, and that readers are not afraid of translations. Imagine what our collective bookshelf would look like without Kafka, Márquez, Allende, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It’s time for the establishment to stop fearing translations, to listen to readers, and to celebrate the story, wherever in the world it is written. Britain must throw off its colonial assumption that only the mother tongue can deliver great thoughts. It’s not so long ago that women’s literary voices went unheard; a new cultural battle around translated voices must be fought, and so far it is only the small independent publishers of today who have taken up arms. Time for the others to join the fight.

DISCUSS: Should Overseas Publishers Americanize Their Authors’ Names for US Distribution?

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  1. Posted February 15, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    Hear, hear! Yes, let’s celebrate the story, wherever it is written. This article does a good job summarizing the challenges faced by small publishers doing translations. To overcome these challenges, I think we need to move away from the traditional models, starting with the role played by translators, and certainly on many other levels as well. Like much publishing, it is truly a labor of love, that is for sure, so it is no surprise to read that your main question is “do we love it?” That is our motto too: if we love it, we’ll translate it.

  2. Posted February 15, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Whenever someone starts talking about the love of books being a (the?) main motivator behind literary translation, as a translator I get nervous. If I don’t get paid a decent wage, I’m going to do something else. The attitude that there are things more important than money in this business is precisely why many translators are paid so poorly (is there any weaker bargaining position?), and hobbyist translation and publishing only deepen the disconnect between the books and the reading public. People are willing to pay for things they value. That’s the whole point of money, to measure value.

    I wonder if the percentage of translations (mostly excerpts) rejected by large publishers is any larger than the percentage of regular author-submitted manuscripts rejected. I doubt it. The belief that translations should be able to circumvent the slush pile because the author is big in Japan might need some reevaluation, since it seems to result in much less polished work being presented to purchasing editors. Really how much editing do an excerpt and synopsis (if one is even provided) receive before the package goes out to potential buyers?

  3. Posted February 15, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Of course plenty of ground exists between the “big publishers” and hobbyist publishing. I have a harder time feeling charitably towards translators who work for peanuts though, since they drag all of our rates down.

  4. Steve M
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Translated books are an absolute necessity in the English speaking World. To deny English speakers/thinkers the sheer depth and beauty of some of the writing and stories would be horrendous.

    To think of missing the consumate passion of ‘foreign’ writing, the intricacies of lives and peoples we normally only glimpse in passing would be a tragedy.

    A comparison would be a World where only Hollywood films exist. Imagine if we lived where Hungarian, Polish, French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Chinese films did not exist. We would miss so much.

    The World should take time to translate books (Hungarian, French, Polish, Russian etc), invest in the resources required, broaden peoples horizons and geographies beyond the borders of the English speaking World. Other peoples exist, have a voice, and they should be heard !

    Wake up publishers to the phenomenal marketplace and huge potential hidden in these depths. These words can wake senses which people may never have seen or explored in the English World. Let them experience the beauty and touch of foreign lands, let them smell the smells, feel the breeze, and hear the rustle of foreign trees but translated from a language which begs to speak to anyone who will listen. Its only right this should happen soon. Passion comes from many languages.

  5. Posted February 15, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    “It doesn’t matter if a book is originally written in English or any other language to us. The main question is, do we love it? And do we think other readers will love it too?” YES. If only more English language publishers shared your view.

    This was the case some time ago, according to Christopher MacLehose (whose MacLehose Press has published books from as many as 19 different languages so far!) in a recent interview in the Guardian: “Everybody read books in whatever languages they could and thought it normal to take books from other languages, translate them and publish them simply because they were the best books.”

    Read the full interview to get a good understanding of what happened next: http://bit.ly/12S5gZm.

    Thanks for this wonderful article, Joanna and Nancy!

  6. Ben
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    “… with their limited financial recourses [sic] they can hardly … compete with big presses which pour serious money into publicity and marketing”

    Absolutely. We published a translation of a best-selling novel (the author is indeed big in Japan), with almost no up-front costs (print on demand, and the author and translator both happy to take just a share of eventual profits), and despite some favourable reviews and social media buzz etc., it has yet to make any profit at all. If we’d had several thousand spare to spend on advertising, we’d probably have got ten times that figure back. Probably.

  7. Posted February 16, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Excellent article and great comments. Thanks!

  8. Posted February 26, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    We ( Galileo, a very small publisher in Cambridge UK) recently published the first English language translation of Albert Thelen’s magnus opus The Island of Second Sight (which had been a bestseller in German, French and Dutch in previous times). It was completely ignored by the English press (we got one Literary Review notice though a friend of a friend) but in the USA, licensed to Overlook, it got a full page rave review in the NYTBR and has been through two printings in 4 months. And it has received many other smaller reviews. Simply, the literary editors in the UK go for the very obvious. In my opinion, (and I have been a publisher on both sides of the Atlantic, so this is not mere speculation) US media is considerably more open to new ideas.

  9. Posted March 15, 2013 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    This has long been a source of frustration for me. Having grown up in countries where translations were common-place, when I moved to the UK and found few translations available, I struggled. Oh, yes, there are the occasional fads (Scandinavian crime fiction, for instance), when all the publishers jump on board a trend and do it to death. But little consistent translation of great works (including reissues of classics from world literature, like from South America or Asia). I too would like to see translators appreciated and getting a better deal – in many cases, their names barely appear on the books.
    On the other hand, I have to admit that I have heard recently quite a few (expat) English speakers claim that the only high-quality literature being written nowadays is in English and so why should they bother to read anything else? I cannot tell you how much that pained me.

  10. Hermann Müller
    Posted November 28, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    “…in Germany over 12%…”

    “WAY over 12%” would be accurate. A minimum of 60% of all books published in Germany are translated. In numbers of copies sold more than 80% are translated, because the typical steady-sellers are written by foreign authors. Germany is a main market for US-american, scandinavian and british books – and titles from all over the world are also available in translation.

    Here’s an overview of german bestseller-lists. Click on the logos for the complete list

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