Language Matters January 2011: U.S. Translations

Dear Language Friend,

Brrr, it is getting cold in B.C.!!! Winter is coming and it’s getting dark very early these days… So what’s better than sitting down at the fire with a nice hot drink and a good book?! Enjoy your reading and remember: very often a translator has had his or her share in making your reading pleasureable…

In this newsletter we have a look at the U.S. translation market and invite you to follow us into the world of fiction…

Contributed by Doris Anne Heidemann. Thanks for reading.


Dwindling Translations in the U.S.: Why Many Foreign Authors Do Not Find their Way into the American Market

Hardly any Translations of Foreign Works in the United States

Are the United States regressing into cultural isolation? This is what American writers and linguists are afraid of, with hardly any translations from foreign authors being published in the U.S. According to the former Nobel Prize winner, Portuguese Jose Saramago “world literature is made by translators”. However, only 3% of the books that appear in the United States are translations from foreign languages. This figure also includes non-fiction books. Overall 340 foreign fiction books are published by American publishing companies every year: an appallingly low number! It was as far back as the Cold War when the last boom of published translations in America occurred, with the public wanting to understand issues beyond the Iron Curtain. Nowadays critics such as the famous Spanish translator Edith Grossman, speak of a “linguistic apartheid” in the U.S., while others such as the British author Tim Parks consider the lack of translations to be a new form of internationalism.


Prevalence of English on the International Market

Most linguists regard the lack of translations in the USA as a serious phenomenon. According to them the English language can no longer be regarded as a lingua franca integrating literature from other languages. It has a clear prevalence on the international market. For years English fiction has been translated into multiple languages, a cultural phenomenon which can be compared to the U.S. predominance of the worldwide film industry. The rising success of U.S. books abroad is, generally speaking, in accordance with the rise of American culture. Thus, in Germany for example, more than eighty percent of translated fiction can be traced back to an English original version. The world over, many authors avoid using their mother tongues and attend classes of creative writing in English instead. A vicious circle arises: The difficulty of placing books in the U.S. market makes foreign publishers and agents less interested in submitting their authors’ work there, which makes it more difficult for U.S. editors to develop an idea of foreign markets and to develop an expertise in knowing which authors would be popular with their audiences.


The Publication of Foreign Books in the U.S. – a Risky Undertaking

But what makes it so tricky to place a book in the U.S. market? First of all it has to be said that most editors in the large publishing houses are under extreme pressure to make profits of ten to twelve per cent and so are not willing to adopt a new, unknown author into their program at risk of damaging their own careers. Established authors such as Stieg Larsson, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Muriel Barbery and Roberto Bolaño have sold as well in the U.S. as abroad. Charismatic writers such as French speaking Marek Halter or the Portuguese Luis Miguel Rocha have come to the U.S. for publicity campaigns and have given editors the impetus to continue looking for great authors from overseas. Sometimes though, the American publishing houses even show their reserve where renowned foreign authors are concerned. The European bestseller Les bienveillantes by the Russian-French author Jonathan Littell for example, failed on the American market with Harper Collins selling only 17000 out of 150000 copies within the first six months. Examples such as this discourage other publishers from taking a chance in supporting foreign works.


80 % of Foreign Literature Published in Small Independent Publishing Houses

Apart from this, foreign literature has to overcome some structural difficulties in the United States. Many American editors do not know how to read the original version of a foreign work so that many good novels from abroad are not even taken into account. Quite simply it depends on chance and a network of good connections as to which foreign authors end up on an American editor’s desk. Having a U.S. agent is one of the prerequisites for the access of a foreign author to the American market and, at the same time, facilitates his or her entry into the international literary scene. Another difficulty is that most critics do prefer national authors. Moreover, literary prizes such as the Pulitzer Prize are exclusively awarded to American authors so that foreign authors do not ever receive the attention they merit. As a consequence eighty per cent of foreign literature is published in small, independent publishing houses that have, as their aim, literary and cultural exchange. These companies rely on outside support and have a stronger identity than commercial publishing houses, which gives them a permanent audience. The number of readers though, remains alarmingly low.