When It Comes to Translation, It’s a Small World After All

In English Language by Rachel Aydt

Swiss author Joel Dicker, whose novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, is being marketed in the United States as the successor to Stieg Larsson.

Swiss author Joel Dicker, whose novel The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is published in the United States this week, has been touted as the successor to Stieg Larsson.

BEA 2014 highlighted translation, with overlapping sessions focusing on missed chances, the ever-expanding marketplace, and changing avenues toward publication.

By Rachel Aydt

For the first time, BookExpo America — the United States’ primary publishing event — focused its Global Market Forum on the topic of translation, rather than on a specific country. And from the beginning, the sessions rang with overlapping themes of missed chances, an ever-expanding marketplace, and the changing avenues toward translation.

The conference’s keynote speaker was Rüdiger Wischenbart, director of International Affairs for BookExpo America, who noted, “This year, translations are a genre that are a true destination at BEA, with approximately 30 events unfolding at the East Side Stage.” His tone was optimistic, but as the chorus rang throughout the morning, the “genre” is not without its issues.

Here’s the problem with translations: they’re a challenge to produce; they’re hard to sell and hard to market; audiences are hard to find.

Most translations fall into the literature category, and literature is, these days, a mere flicker in the book landscape, a topic that also emerged. There are the bright lights, of course; Stieg Larsson being mentioned no less than five times across the first three panels. A newer star is Joël Dicker, the bestselling author of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, who’s “conquered a global audience in the last two years” and was there to speak on the first panel. But first, a historical perspective.

The Legacy of Translations

“Publishers are like monkeys,” said Carol Brown Janeway, Senior Vice President, Senior Editor, International Rights Director at The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. “They’re incurably curious. That is what makes a publisher a publisher. If a publisher lays his or her hands on something that transfixes them, it’s their job to get after it as fast as they can…that they’re translated is wonderful for all of us.”

Janeway has had a very long career developing the notion of how we consume translations; indeed, her career at Knopf translating and editing spans decades. “The very first book that Alfred Knopf published was a translation of a 19th-century French playwright. When I asked Alfred, who’d retired when I started but would come into the offices regularly, he looked at me and said simply: anti-Semitism. He was child of Berlin Jews who’d immigrated to America. American authors didn’t want to be published by a Jewish publisher. Alfred and Blanche, his wife and a publisher in her own right, turned to Europe, and that’s how from the beginning we made it through to international literature.”

As time’s marched on, so has the popularity of translations. A couple of weeks ago in fact, one panelist reported that the top three books on the London Sunday Times’ bestseller list were translations. Of course this hasn’t been an easy road, and is one that shifts seismically as publishing changes. Different countries have different needs, purchasing power, resources, and influence.

Expanding the Audience for Russian Writing

Read Russia Logo

Peter Kauffman of ReadRussia (who’s not Russian, but who dedicated his remarks to his Russian grandparents who “hailed from a land of totalitarian thought-control”) described the country’s foray into the global landscape. “A Russian issue that dates back to before the revolution is that there were one to two book distributors, and that was it. Russia is making up for lost time. Centuries of lost time.”

ReadRussia, launched by the Russian government in 2012, supports their culture and literature internationally. They have offices in New York, London, and at home in Moscow. Kauffman came on to help launch the effort, but not without reservation. “When the lad came to my door he said, ‘Come, let’s go out for a drink.’ That was my moment of downfall. Eight drinks later I agreed to this, with two conditions. One, that there would be no political influence in anything we did — nothing from the Russian government—and two, that we use resources which are available to us in 2014. If you’re not Tweeting, producing video, or unearthing legacy audio [say, of famous authors reading from their work], you’re not effectively using the tools that are available to us.”

Raising Awareness of International Writers

Words Without Borders

Other online platforms, such as Words Without Borders, and Asymptote, have also been champions of raising awareness of international writers. Susan Harris, the director of Words Without Borders, explained that the organization has published over 1,800 pieces from writers in 128 countries, and has translated them into 101 languages. “Originally I envisioned a site to serve as a resource for publishers. But ten years in and we’ve evolved into an organization that supports, promotes the best literature and translations in the world, in the interest of understanding different cultures.”

Harris makes it sound so easy, but in truth the world of translations is built on the shoulders of charitable souls – the international writers, who are generally paid less than their American counterparts – and the underpaid translators themselves.

Eric Becker, Assistant Managing Editor of Asymptote Journal, a new international journal dedicated to literary translation, spoke sheepishly on the issue of writer compensation (their submission guidelines state that they’re unable to pay contributors at this time). However, Michael Wise, co-founder of New Vessel Press, came to his rescue by professing his gratitude for the visibility their journal had offered some of New Vessel’s writers. New Vessel has published six translated titles and has six more rolling down the pike, and their current geographic roster includes Italy, Argentina, Moldova, Austria, Poland, and Israel.

English Is Not the Only Gateway Language

“We know other countries through a political prism, but we should understand them through their literature,” said Harris. “We want to give voice to authors who aren’t known much in the English world. Ten years ago, Words Without Borders first published works from three countries that were known at the time as being a part of the Axis of Evil: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.” With newish technology like Google analytics, Harris can track see the servers from which their site is read. “It’s sort of creepy, but we can track readership day by day. The top two countries are the U.S. and the U.K., with a surprising Pakistan coming in third.”

It’s easy to imagine the world of translations as a one-way street: Books flow from every other language to English. And why shouldn’t they, when 500 million people around the world speak the language? Some panelists expressed a desire to expand the conversation beyond English so it’s not a one-way exchange. As an industry, we should work harder to ensure that English be translated into other languages. Of course it is, but here’s a reality: the previously insatiable European market now finds that their preference is to translate writers from their own continent.

Elsewhere, there seem to be lost business opportunities aplenty. How about English into Spanish? Javier Celaya, CEO of DosDoce.com, explained that “right now there are 5,000 ebooks by Spanish publishers that are sold in Mexico. In 2018, 50,000 will be available, most consumed on tablets.” So where are the publishers? There hasn’t been much faith by big publishers (until Larsson) that translations would make money, though John Siciliano, an editor from Penguin who travels the world to acquire them, said that across the board all of their translations have made money.

No More Yawns

At the Case Studies panel, moderator and language professor at Baruch College and CUNY Esther Allen, got a laugh when she said the working title of the panel was “No More Yawning,” in reference to a New York Times article that famously decried “America yawns at foreign fiction.” So has this changed? Ask Siciliano. “In the last two weeks I’ve been getting interview requests from Entertainment Weekly. They’ve done two pieces on translated books: one on the global sensation Joël Dicker, who I’m very happy to be publishing, and the other about literary translation in the wake of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s death. This would have been unheard of before now.”

Maria Campbell, President of Maria B. Campbell Associates, also feels the market strengthening, particularly since the financial collapse in 2008. “The crisis here was the beginning of ‘let’s look around to see what we could find elsewhere.’ The international publishers have gotten savvier about presenting their books to American market. They learned from decades of agents and rights sellers who pitch endlessly at Frankfurt. The Spanish market has more local agents than any other market other than the UK and U.S. Also, there are better sample translations. Publishers are investing in good samples before they submit a book. The actual mechanisms have improved dramatically. Publishers and readers are more adventurous in searching for fiction. They know it can come from anywhere.”

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.