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Judith Gurewich on Why Americans Don’t Read Translated Fiction

In News by Dennis Abrams

The Daily Beast revisits the question of why translations are not popular in the US. Among the answers: “America is a puzzle of very complicated groups.”

By Dennis Abrams

flags of the worldAt The Daily Beast, author Bill Morris (author of the novels Motor City, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City Burning, to be published by Pegasus Books in July) examined the age-old topic: “Why Americans Don’t Read Foreign Fiction.”

Like many of us after Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature last fall, Morris was struck by the scarcity of his books to be found in English translation – only a few of his thirty some works. David R. Godine, he noted, had published two of his novels along with one children’s books, which had “sold fewer than 8,000 copies total. An additional printing of 15,000 was ordered after the Nobel announcement. Hardly breath-taking numbers.”

The question this raised with Morris is of the basic chicken and the egg variety: “Are so few translated books available because American readers don’t read them, or do American readers read so little foreign fiction and poetry because so little of it is available in translation? Or is it a bit of both?”

Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, acknowledged that “it’s complicated.” She told Morris, “I think it’s getting easier to get books in translation into the hands of reviewers. They’re excited – not only receptive, but very kind. But the reading public? That’s the million dollar question.”

There are, Morris writes, no shortage of theories. Are Americans too physically isolated and culturally insulated? If that’s the case, though, why are some writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Stieg Larsson, Roberto Bolaño, Haruki Murakami, and Knausgaard able to break through?

Or is it that it can be difficult to get foreign books translated into English because “so few American editors speak foreign languages, while many foreign editors are fluent in English and any number of other languages?” Morris agrees that there is “some truth in this.” Also, he notes, many foreign publishers “have an in-house editor who specializes in acquiring foreign fiction for translation,” while American publishers depend largely on literary scouts.

Guerwich insisted to Morris that, “It’s not that Americans don’t want foreign fiction. But they’re intimidated. This is the difficulty. How does one cross that bridge?”

It’s a difficulty that Guerwich has not always been able to surmount. While she was unable to sell All Days Are Night by the German author Peter Stamm, despite reviews comparing him to Kafka and the book being a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, “a love story set largely in Burma by the German author Jan-Phillip Senker,” sold more than 300,000 copies.

“America is a puzzle of very complicated groups,” Guerwich told Morris. “Readers are receptive if it lands in their hands. What is the secret to putting books in their hands? How do you find people who want to find out how other people think?”

Morris also spoke with vice president and editor in chief at W.W. Norton, who remembered his first job in publishing where he found in a filing cabinet a typed rejection letter: “WHO IN HELL IS I.B. SINGER?”

Today, Glusman said, “There may be an increasing acceptance of translation…but there has always been resistance to it. There’s an initial resistance to foreign writers because many are unknown to American readers.”

Glusman, who has had success throughout his career bringing writers such as Josef Skvorecky, Ohran Pamuk and Czeslaw Milosz to American readers has his theories as to why translated literature remains a “tough sell” for American publishers.

One is that Americans simply “lag behind other nationalities in exposure to foreign cultures,” a fact which is reflected in “lack of foreign language instruction in American schools.”

And he has another particularly intriguing one, which he credits to the German writer Peter Schneider. “Germany,” he said, “is a homogenous culture, largely white Anglo-Saxons with a smattering of immigrants mostly from Turkey — and yet there is a voracious appetite for translated fiction in Germany.” Americans, a long-time home for immigrants from around the world, might work as an impediment towards an interest in foreign literature.

Schneider’s theory, says Glusman, “was that there’s an assumption that because of the heterogeneous nature of American society, we think we know more about foreign cultures than we actually do. And that breeds a certain insularity.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.