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On Books in Translation in the American Market

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

The German Book Office’s Riky Stock spoke to editors and publishers about the factors at play when considering publishing a translation in the US market.

By Katharina Rapp

flags of the worldWhich foreign books are interesting to American publishers? How do they find these books and who is involved in the translation process? What role does translation funding play and how do the sales and marketing departments deal with translated books?

The process of a foreign book being published in the American market is quite complex. Riky Stock, Director of the German Book Office New York, asked 20 U.S. publishers who work with translated books for the inside scoop and got some very interesting answers.

All of the American editors who were asked how they find foreign books for acquisition agreed on one thing: the preferred source is their network of contacts. They do sometimes consult rights catalogs and newsletters, literary magazines, foreign shortlists, and different print or online publications such as New Books in German or Words Without Borders, but most acquisitions are the result of in-person meetings and word-of-mouth recommendations. Book Fairs, such as Frankfurt and London, provide a great opportunity for these meetings and often trigger acquisitions.

After receiving suggestions, it’s time for the publishers to decide which books they want to acquire. If the book is in a foreign language they cannot read, however, they have to rely on their colleagues (many publishers have a multilingual team), on readers’ reports, and on sample translations. The quality of the translation is crucial here – a bad translation can give the wrong impression of the original and prevent the editor from pursuing it further.

What Makes a Translation Work in America

Snow White Must DieBut what is it that makes a book in translation work on the American market? Of course, the book’s topicality, style, and overall quality are important, as is how well it fits into the publishing house’s program.

Fiona McCrae, publisher at Graywolf Press, reveals what she is looking for in a foreign book: “What you want is a work that travels, with a flavor of where it is coming from.” Comparable titles that work well on the American market are always very helpful, as Daniela Rapp of St. Martin’s Press explains: “I need to be able to compare the book to other successful titles in that genre and have to find recent comp titles. I was able to do so with Nele Neuhaus, and we have done really well with her in translation. Approximately 35,000 copies of Snow White Must Die have already been sold.”

Funding Helps

Another factor to consider during acquisition is translation funding. About one third of the editors polled claimed that funding can play a role but that it is rarely the decisive factor; receiving funding would not make them acquire a book they do not like and not receiving it would not prevent them from acquiring a book they truly believe in. A majority of the publishers, however, admitted that getting a grant can often seal a deal.

Riky Stock

Riky Stock

Declan Spring (Vice President, Senior Editor, and Director of Foreign Rights at New Directions) quotes an example: “For Jenny Erpenbeck, we have been able to count not only on translation funding from the Goethe-Institut, but also invitations bringing the author over here. That has made a huge difference in our decision to publish Jenny’s works and continue publishing her.” At smaller publishing houses with small margins, a grant might be the deciding factor for an acquisition, because the number of books expected to sell in order to cover the expenses can be lower.

Sales and Marketing

Riky Stock also asked the editors whether it is hard to convince their sales and marketing department of a translation project. In fact, it always seems to be a bigger effort to convince the acquisition team of a translation project because of the costs and the potential of the author not being able to help market the book in the US.

Christie Henry (The University of Chicago Press) confirms the importance of the author: “If the author profile is global and if the subject matter has a global interest, marketing is supportive. Social media helps, as authors can have or can establish a higher visibility independent of geographic location.” Apart from the author being active in marketing his or her book, good sales numbers in the book’s home country are always a very convincing argument.

Michael Reynolds, Editor in Chief at Europa Editions, says that their sales team works very well with translated titles and convincing them is only difficult in particular cases: “We have to work harder when factors like positive sales figures abroad, positive track on previous titles, awards, strong original hook, heavy investment in marketing, etc. are not present.”

As soon as the translation is commissioned, the translator’s work starts. Most editors are in close contact with the translator when editing the text, but sometimes the author also takes part in the conversation – more easily, of course, when he or she speaks English. It varies from book to book and also depends on how involved the author wants to be.

Good Network of Trusted Translators

A good network of trusted translators is very important to most editors; sometimes the submissions for the acquisitions even come directly from those translators. An American children’s book editor explains how the collaboration with a translator usually begins: “I typically just get in touch with translators when I’m looking for someone to create a sample translation pre-acquisition (and of course I’m hoping they’ll be the right person to create the complete translation). I’ve never had a translator pitch a project to me, though. I think most translators doing pitching are more interested in adult fiction/non-fiction or academic works. Which is a shame – they should seek out children’s projects, too!”

Publishing books in translation, just like every other field in the publishing business, has been changing over the last few years. Riky Stock, however, does not think these changes are reasons to be pessimistic: “I remember an established German publisher telling me twelve years ago that they would never sell to a small US publishing house. But with the smaller houses focusing on translations while some of the larger ones shy away from them, that of course has changed and this particular conservative German publisher now even sells translation rights to an eBook-only publisher focusing on literary books. On the other side of the spectrum there is AmazonCrossing and I think in between there is room for many more and we’ll see more literary as well as commercial books translated and published through unconventional channels within the next few years.”

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.