in translation

Will Translated Fiction Ever Really Break Through?

Photo: Vulture

May kicks off with the 15th annual PEN World Voices Festival, when international authors take over New York for a week of panels and events, and ends with the announcement of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize. In celebration of a month replete with world literature, Vulture has a roundup of 15 recent translations you should definitely read; an encounter with one of the most exciting young novelists writing today; and, below, thoughts from Open Letter publisher Chad Post about “the 3 percent problem” — the challenge of publishing (and getting Americans to read) books from other places.

In May 2018, Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights, a novel that was published in Poland in 2007. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, for which Tokarczuk is a Booker finalist again this year, was translated a bit faster; it only took a decade. One of the biggest stars in translation of this century, Roberto Bolaño, author of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, fared no better. Back in 2003, when New Directions put out his first translated book, By Night in Chile, Bolaño had already passed away; he was a famous writer by then, at least in Spanish.

The process of literary translation takes time, obviously, but there’s something else at play when it takes a decade or more for incredibly renowned authors to reach our shores. This is part of a much larger problem, frequently referred to as the “3 percent problem” by publishers of translation (like myself), which should be troublesome to anyone who believes the world is better off when cultures are in conversation with one another.

In an industry — publishing — that loves data about as much as a vegan digs barbecues, numbers are not normally dwelled upon. Whereas we can know to the dollar how much money Avengers: Endgame has made, almost in real time, book sales are guesstimates based on Nielsen BookScan’s admittedly incomplete reporting. So it was a big deal when a study back in 2005 — initiated by PEN World Voices — announced that less than 3 percent of all the books published in English were originally written in another language. Here was a number that was not only verifiable, but dire, and it raised a lot of questions about how broad and deep American book culture really is.

For context, here’s a thought experiment: Let’s pretend that of the 195 countries in the world, 150 have developed functional publishing industries. Let’s say — conservatively — that ten fiction works a year from each of these countries are at least as good as half of the novels and story collections published in Anglophone nations. That’s some 1,500 titles a year, at a minimum, that publishers could (should?) be translating into English.

According to Publishers Weekly’s Translation Database (which I created and help maintain), the average number of new fiction translations published every year since 2008 is 421. That means that, as a culture, we are missing out on at least a thousand really good works of fiction every single year. This reality is what drove Horace Engdahl, former secretary for the Nobel Prize, to more or less write off Americans from the prize in 2008, telling the Associated Press, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”

It was a brash claim (and it didn’t forestall Bob Dylan’s strange win three years ago), but could you honestly dispute it? We’re all aware of the danger of filter bubbles but less actively conscious of a linguistic barrier that locks us out of global culture at the highest levels. Goethe is quoted as saying, “left to itself, every literature will exhaust its vitality if it is not refreshed by the interest and contributions of a foreign one.” Although American fiction is neither bad nor withering, there is a lurking suspicion among a lot of writers, readers, and professors that without international literature, we end up writing the same things in the same ways over and over again. Even worse is the effect of cultural isolation on our politics.

And yet, things have actually gotten better. In 2003, after the relatively unknown Hungarian Imre Kertész won the Nobel Prize, Stephen Kinzer wrote a piece for the New York Times under the attention-grabbing headline, “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction.” “Writers, publishers and cultural critics have long lamented the difficulty of interesting American readers in translated literature,” Kinzer proclaimed, “and now some say the market for these books is smaller than it has been in generations.”

Kinzer’s pronouncement turned out to be shortsighted. Here’s an incomplete list of presses, magazines, organizations, and prizes that started up since September 11, 2001, popped our filter bubble: Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, Open Letter (which I founded and run), Two Lines, Deep Vellum, Transit, InTranslation, Amazon Crossing, New Vessel Press, Words Without Borders, Asymptote Magazine, Arkansas International, Other Press, the Best Translated Book Award, and the National Book Award for Translation. Even more to the point, the number of original works of fiction and poetry published annually in the U.S. expanded from roughly 360 in 2008 to more than 600 in recent years. That may not seem like a lot, but a 67 percent increase over a decade is no fluke.

There are plenty of other signs of a growing culture, if not a thriving one, from new stars (Elena Ferrante, Stieg Larsson, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Édouard Louis) to specialized institutions, academic programs, and conferences. Booksellers, critics and other taste-makers are actively anticipating new works in translation, giving rise to a sense of cautious optimism in the field.

Well, maybe.

Those numbers? They peaked in 2016, and the past few years have seen a 10 percent decline in the number of published translated books. The conference of the American Literary Translators Association has seen its attendance plateau. We’ve reached a moment where it feels like everyone is doing all that they can, given the little amount of funding available and the perceived cap on possible sales. In fact, over the long term, things seem pretty static; according to Lawrence Venuti’s The Translator’s Invisibility, between 1950 and 1990 translations held steady at 2 to 4 percent of all books published in English. There are more translations being published today, but also more books in general. There has been neither a great decline, as Kinzer would have it, nor some inexorable rise. Some things just never actually change all that much.

Although efforts to understand and address “the 3 percent problem” tend to harp on economic censorship (translations don’t make profits, so corporations don’t bother with them), they spiral out to a host of intertwined cultural issues: Editors don’t read foreign languages; it doesn’t pay to fund a translator as well as an author; corporate consolidation has made it harder to publish books that sell modestly; indie presses can’t afford to market the foreign titles they do publish; American readers “yawn” at translations, and so bookstores don’t stock them and reviewers (or the handful that have survived the newspaper die-off) don’t review them. The more you look at it, the more the “problem” begins to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One way to try and break the impasse is to chase readers. If every translation sold like Elena Ferrante’s books, everyone would be doing them. Every publisher tries to replicate the last most successful thing. But does that mean that every nonprofit trying to bring news and culture to American readers should seek out the next A Man Called Ove or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? Maybe not. Publishing is a business, and even nonprofits have to sell books, but at the same time, there is a long-running faith in publishing that books are more than commodities — that Cervantes and Tokarczuk and Bolaño and Ferrante and Sebald generate something beyond profits. That numbers are important, but not the end goal. And if there are a few thousand above-average titles to choose from every year, why not choose the ones that people will be debating and discussing decades from now, instead of the immediate successes?

For better or worse, this is a viewpoint baked into the international literary scene. From translators to editors to small publishers who spend their free time on a mission-driven quest to bring “great art” to American readers, the cultural capital accrued by publishing important books from around the world is incredibly valuable for posterity. On that timeline, ten years doesn’t seem like such a long wait.

Will Translated Fiction Ever Really Break Through?