Translation Nation: A State of the Union

In Feature Articles by Chad W. Post

Editorial by Chad W. Post


ROCHESTER, NEW YORK: For years, people have speculated that the number of literary works in translation being published in the United States has been in decline. I say “speculate,” because the publishing industry — which is notoriously poor at market research and data gathering — didn’t really keep track of how many translations were being published here, instead relying almost entirely on wistful memories of days gone by and other equally questionable anecdotal evidence. Two years ago, I started a “Translation Database” at the Web site to finally quantify what’s going on with literature in translation, and although data for 2009 is still coming in, it looks like there will be a bit of a drop off this year — of as much as 10%.

This database — which I put together by scanning hundreds of catalogs and publisher websites (God help me), checking all reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, and going through every “new releases” e-mail from Small Press Distribution — contains as much information as I could possibly find about all original translations of fiction and poetry that are currently being made available to American readers. To make this a bit clearer, by “original,” I’m looking only at titles that have never before been translated. So, no “new translations,” or “first complete translations” of writers such as Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Borges, are included in the database. Instead, this database tracks only the new works and new voices that are being made available to American readers.

In addition to the title information, the database includes information about the author, translator(s), price, publication date, publisher, language it was translated from, and the author’s country of origin. Over time, this should be very helpful in analyzing various trends, such as an increase in translations from a particular region, or a rise in translations coming from a particular type of publisher, or a drop off in the number of works of international poetry making their way to America.

All this information is potentially interesting, but what most concerns me is the stark decline in the number of translations coming out this year. For whatever reasons  — Roberto Bolaño, Muriel Barbery, and the PEN World Voices Festival, perhaps — the press has given literature in translation a surprising amount of love of late. For instance, the New York Times publishing reporter Motoko Rich’s covered 2008’s Frankfurt Book Fair through the prism of publishers such as Graywolf, David Godine, and my own Open Letter press that seek out international authors.  Not only was it a smart, interesting article, but one that most people never expected to see in the New York Times. So why, if Bolano’s 2666 and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses can hit the best-seller list, and if everyone’s arguing that literature in translation is important for enriching our culture, are there fewer translations coming out this year than last?

The easy answer is the economy. It’s true that translations cost more to publish than books written in English, and in a time of belt tightening (and absolutely wretched book sales for any title not featuring a vampire or a zombie), it’s easy to peg the cost of a translator as something to purge from the budget. Beyond that, publishers tend to perceive translations as being “more risky” than other books. (I have to pause for a second and point out that this is incredibly stupid. Publishers take risks on all books, and never know how well a title is going to do. See note above about lack of market research.)

Excuses aside, it’s true that publishing translations can be a bit tricky within the typical blockbuster-centric corporate publishing model. Exhibit 1: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which may have soured HarperCollins on translations for years to come. A few years ago at the Frankfurt Book Fair this novel was all the rage, creating a bidding frenzy that was eventually won by Jonathan Burnham, who reportedly paid $1 million for the rights to this book, and paid Charlotte Mandell a healthy sum to translate its 900+ pages. HarperCollins printed 150,000 copies, expecting it to be the next big literary sensation, only to have sales of approx. 17,000 over the first five months of release. (All data is derived from a recent Publishers Weekly.)

The point isn’t that this particular book was a flop, but that there is a disconnect between publishing thoughtful, long-selling literary translations and a system that thrives on the HUGE HIT and is willing to spend millions to make that hit happen IMMEDIATELY.

That is just one one of the reasons that independent, nonprofit, and university presses are publishing the vast majority of translations. According to my Translation Database, in 2008 the main corporate publishers and their subsidiaries accounted for 21% of all the new translations (75 of the 361 titles), and so far in 2009, this percentage has slipped to 16% (50 of 309).

This is to be expected. When sales drop overall, expensive books with low chances of “taking off” are cut. (And it sure doesn’t help that places like the Baltimore Sun included “the newest hardcover” in their list of “Money Wasters to Avoid” during the recession . . .) But focusing exclusively on these commercial presses doesn’t tell the whole story.

In 2008, there were 117 indie/nonprofit/university presses (hereinafter simply referred to as “independent presses”) that published at least one work of fiction or poetry in translation. In 2009 that number has dropped to 95.

And of the indie presses still doing translations, a number of those have been forced to cut back. Notable exceptions include Dalkey Archive and New Directions, which are both publishing more translations than ever. White Pine — a publisher based in Buffalo, NY and specializing in international poetry — has significantly cut back their fall list. And only recently, Archipelago Books, an award-winning publisher of books in translation, launched an ambitious fundraising drive to avoid being forced to trim their list.

This brings up another reason for the precipitous decline in translations: the decline in available funding. A good number of the presses that publish literature in translation (Dalkey Archive, Archipelago, Open Letter, White Pine, Feminist Press, and many university presses, such as those at Nebraska, Northwestern, and Texas) depend on subsidies to stay afloat. All of these presses are funded by the state and federal government, by private foundations, and by individuals.

One of the advantages of the nonprofit model is that it allows such presses to take more risks and to complement sales dollars with donations. Of course, one of the disadvantages is that when the economy starts to collapse, fundraising dollars on every level dry up.

At the State level, the New York State Council on the Arts lost a significant chunk of its budget last year and is worried the same thing could happen again this December. The Illinois Arts Council has lost more than 58% of its budget over the past three years. Happily, the National Endowment for the Arts seems to be holding steady, but you never know.

And the scene is even bleaker in terms of private foundations funding publishing ventures. There’s the Lannan Foundation and, as far as I can tell, that’s about it.

Individual giving has dried up as well, as people are now more worried about the depletion of their retirement savings than supporting a venture like funding the translation of the greatest living poet writing in Maltese, or some other worthy, but unsung literary cause.

Unfortunately, the business of publishing literary translations is a business undertaken by independent, smaller presses that don’t have nearly the same resources as the bigger corporate publishers. And without a better network of support — better placement for these books in stores, better distribution, better funding options — it’s likely that this decline in the annual number of translations published in America will continue.

Chad W. Post is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester.

BROWSE: The US Translation Database

READ: Post’s blog, Three Percent

CONTACT: Chad Post directly

About the Author

Chad W. Post

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.