Yawn No More: Americans and the Market for Foreign Fiction

In English Language by Saskia Vogel

As proven by the conversations at BookExpo America, American publishers, editors and readers may finally be coming around to embracing more foreign literature.

By Saskia Vogel

Nose-guard. Knouse-gourd. Knausgaard. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s name was on everyone’s lips. Some were uncertain how it should be pronounced and said as much, other simply raved about the Norwegian author and his six-part autobiographical novel. From the evening cocktail parties with a view that stretched out to the Statue of Liberty to the climate-controlled floor at BookExpo America (BEA), Knausgaard inevitably would be mentioned. Down two floors in the green-glass giant that is the Jacob K Javits Convention Center, those who were most probably most heartened by the success of Knausgaard were gathered for the annual BEA Global Market Forum, this year focused on books in translation.

The Seeds of the Translation Boom in 9/11

Organized by BEA’s director of international affairs, Rüdiger Wischenbart, the program ranged from a seminar on funding programs available from a selection of European and Middle Eastern countries to discoverability and finding readers for new digital works.

Czech author Mariusz Szczgiel

Polish author Mariusz Szczgiel

To name of few of those on stage during the day: the immensely charming Polish writer Mariusz Szczgiel, author of Gottland, who compared writing a story to the art of strip tease; Susan Bernofsky, author, translator and Director of Literary Translation at Columbia University; and Baruch College associate professor Esther Allen, referred to by translator Antonia Lloyd Jones in the same breath as the UK’s Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz and Maureen Freely in terms of their excellence and determination in advocating on behalf of translators and works in translation; Joël Dicker, whose The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is set to be as unmissable as Knaugaard; Ahmed Al Amri, the director of the Sharjah International Book Fair, whose epic translation funding scheme is in part responsible for the rapid rise of the profile of the festival; Michael Z. Wise, co founder of New Vessel press; and a host of editors including Carol Brown Janeway of Knopf, which is having its centenary next year.

Janeway shared a short history of how Knopf came to be a leading publisher of translation. She recalls a conversation she had with founder Alfred A. Knopf. She once asked him how the company came to publish so much in translation, and Knopf began his answer simply: “Anti-semitism.” He proceeded to tell her how when he was starting out American authors preferred not to be published by a Jewish publisher, so Knopf turned its eyes to the Europeans. She also dispelled the notion that TS Eliot’s Cats was the main title filling Faber’s coffers. In fact, she said, for a long time a book on goat husbandry was the backlist bestseller.

The anecdote about how Knopf came to publish quite so much in translation relates back to another point brought up during the first panel: that in the years that followed 9/11, the political climate was the soil for the seeds that have led to the blossoming of translated work today. Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders (which turned ten last year) noted, “In the US, we know so much of the world through a political prism. Our interest is in publishing work from parts of the world that aren’t well-known.” Like countries from the “Axis of Evil,” as the Bush administration categorized them. “You might call it a first world problem,” Harris said of the identified need for more books in

Susan Harris of Words Without Borders

Susan Harris of Words Without Borders

translation. “But it’s a first world problem that inhibits us from understanding the rest of the world.” So far, the online only publication that gets around 600,000 hits per year has published work in over 101 languages, produced 7 anthologies and know of 16 books that were signed on the back of excerpts being published on the website.

Peter Kaufmann, coordinator of Read Russia, was also on this first panel and was lauded by Wischenbart for running the program with an admirable range of activities and a strong continuity in ongoing efforts, including symposia, events, the Read Russia Annual Prize for Russian Literary Translation and translation grants. The program has a 20-year plan, and is on course to creating a new wave with Russian literature in translation. Kaufman stated that when he took on the job, he was clear that Read Russia would have to be free from political influence and that it could only succeed if the strategy was fully integrated with the digital age, in terms of content, data and building communities.

This brings us to the second panel about discoverability and finding readers for new works digitally. The conversation on this panel quickly turned to pricing and money. Javier Celaya, CEO of dosdoce.com, said, “Fixed pricing doesn’t work in the digital age. In analog world it protected the market.” He reminded us that pricing is one way to be dynamic in the market and advocated for dynamic pricing that fluctuated with supply and demand. After discussing the Net Book Agreement, Susie Nicklin asked Asymptote journal’s assistant managing editor Eric Becker about their volunteer-based publishing model, stating that editors and contributors do it for love, but surely the aim of all is to get paid, and then elaborated on the recent debate among UK writers about how they are being remunerated and the backlash against doing author appearances for free. Her question raised an interesting point.

With some publications sharing profits in lieu of a set fee for contributors to a number of book publishers trying out subscription models, in the vein of And Other Stories, to some publishers offering higher royalty rates to translators again in lieu of a set fee, how critical of these alternative models of monetization should we be? Asymptote, like Words Without Borders and new ebook publisher Frisch and Co, is a discovery platform for new writers in translation and new translators, they are all aware of the bottom line. But like the music industry had to evolve with changing content delivery models and the rise in piracy, publishing of course will have to adapt as well. Connu, Readux Books, Novellix, Deep Vellum, New Vessel Press, Restless Books are just a few new publishers in the US and Europe that are platforms of discovery and have an indie spirit. We’re still finding our comfort zone with digital content delivery, pricing structures and all the rest, not to mention the industry is still developing anti-bodies to Amazon. The ecosystem of publishing will achieve balance again. There is too much passion, creativity and intelligence in play for it not to.

Becker lamented the shrinking of space for intellectual debate, and Nicklin added that she’s noticed in the circles she runs in, people aren’t all reading the same books anymore. Everyone seems to have their own canon. In this light, these many discovery platforms seem more and more vital. Perhaps stories themselves are taking the place that this shrinking space has left open. Perhaps we must re-conceive the shared experience of literature, and look to technology, the media and book marketers to see how they are innovating in the current climate.

Ahmed Al Ameri of the Sharjah International Book Fair

Ahmed Al Ameri of the Sharjah International Book Fair

For example, Sharjah’s al Amri pointed out that ebooks in the Arab word haven’t been well-supported and faced problems due to piracy, but now companies in the Middle East are creating their own ebook solutions. During the day one panelists predicted a rise in micro marketing as a result of the Hachette-Amazon contract dispute. Susan Bernofsky reminded the audience that change will also come from technologies that we don’t yet know of. Riky Stock, the director of the German Book Office said, “The future has already begun.” She added that with all the digital possibilities for communication and discovery, “getting back to personal meetings” has become increasingly important.

Foreign Fiction Viable in the US After All

The panel entitled “Successful Insights from Translators and Editors” returned to the theme of the digital age and discovering new work. Moderator Esther Allen kicked off the discussed by citing a New York Times article from July 2003 with the headline “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction.” The article argues that literature in translation is just not viable.

In the 2003 article, writer Stephen Kinzer wrote: “We’re the clogged artery that prevents authors from reaching readers anywhere outside their own country.” And continued: “It’s a great paradox of American life that on the one hand we feel very cosmopolitan, with Mexican restaurants and cab drivers who speak Swahili, and we feel that we inhabit a mind-boggling multicultural universe, but at the end of the day, it breaks down to different ways of being American.’’

Though English is seen as a gateway language, it’s still often one of the last languages that foreign-language books are brought into, including Stieg Larsson’s mega-success. An increase in translations between European countries was also noted during the day.

Not so anymore, was the point of the day and the opinion of booksellers, agents and publishers across the fair. Maria Campbell, president of Maria B. Campbell Associates, has observed that sample translations are getting better and the mechanisms for discovering work in translation have improved, along with publishers and readers being more adventurous, looking “everywhere from Portugal to Zambia” for new voices. Campbell seen an increase in submissions from Taiwan and asserted that it’s key for authors to participate in finding a good translator for their work. She cited the recently announced merger of Spanish-language super agent Carmen Balcells’s agency with The Wiley Agency as showing that there is a “real belief in having an international base.” “Now everyone in literary circles is talking about Knausgaard,” she said.

Author Marcos Giralt Torrente, author of The End of Love who now has three books out in English after years of having none echoed Campbell’s note about the business being about people. “I don’t think often of digital things, I think of physical translators. [Authors and translators] need time [to do our work], and time is bought with money,” he said.

Anthony Shugaar, translator, co-founder of Paraculture Inc, and critic, said that he still sees an amazing resistance to stories that don’t fit into the cliches of a country and identifies a tidal shift in interest in translation around 2007 when he started working for Europa Editions.

Penguin editor John Siciliano noted popular media’s rising interest in translation as well. He’s recently received two interview requests from Entertainment Weekly about translated work: around the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and on Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. He noted that the first Turkish classic that he published received a full-page review in the New York Times Book Review, the first time in his eight years at Penguin that this has happened. Returning to the question of whether translated literature is commercially viable, Siciliano said that almost all of his books have made money, and he’s watching Dicker’s Quebert Affair to see how it will do. He feels it has strong commercial potential.

Steps to Success: Nurturing Talent, Meeting People, Finding Funding

Susan Bernofsky

Susan Bernofsky

In “What Editors Need to Know: Successful Translations in English,” Susan Bernofsky has noted a rise in incorporating translation into MFA programs in the US. In terms of a talent pool, editors should be seeing more capable translators appearing on their radars. Bernofksy noted that when she started translating 30 years ago, her high school German teacher was her main resource for translation education, and that teacher mostly was concerned with semantics. “Editors are in a great positions to train translators,” she added. “But they shouldn’t have to.” Hopefully, this will help resolve the kind of problem that al Amri expressed: they couldn’t find a translator to work on a translation between Arabic and Thai, and so they had to first have the book translated into English. “Translators and editors are what is most important in the future,” he said.

Marleen Seegers of 2 Seas Agency noted a rise in fellowships for editors and ensures that her agency isn’t only an agency, but a resource for all matters of translation including grant listings and international tax issues.

The day wrapped up with a informational session featuring representatives from Hispa Books, The Romanian Cultural Institute, Read Russia, Sharjah International Book Fair, the Italian Trade Commission, the NextPage Foundation in Sofia and the Spanish Ministry of Culture (whose new funding cycle will opens this month and is accepting application for two months), all outlining their current grant programs, information that can be accessed on their websites.

What each panel circled back to was the importance of people gathering, meeting, talking and serendipity in the discovery process. Nothing can replace the human element. Though translators may be early adopters of technology, polling their Facebook friends and forums to find the perfect solution to an elusive phrase, we are still figuring out where technology will take us, and that solution to pricing structures and more may unfold as the technologies evolve. And that moment we worried that Google Translate would take literary translators’ jobs? File that away with Y2K.

Looking ahead to 2015: BEA’s guest of honor will be China and they’re preparing a full showcase of seminars, dialogues between Chinese and American authors, and are exploring the ideas of exhibitions and films.

About the Author

Saskia Vogel


Saskia Vogel is a writer and a Swedish-to-English translator. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, The White Review, Sight&Sound, and The Offing. Her debut novel, I Am a Pornographyer, will be published in 2019 by Dialogue Books/Little, Brown (UK), Coach House Books (North America), Mondial (Sweden) and Alpha Decay (Spain).