Last Call for a New Blood: The disinterest of UK and US publishers towards books in translation and its implications
Oxford Brookes University
Publishing and Language Issues
‘I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides, and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’
Despite the importance of diversity alongside globalisation, English-speaking publishers have shown disinterest in publishing books in translation. 2–6% of all books published in US and UK are translations [(2) and (3)]; though no definite statistics are available to prove this statement, as Britain is ‘the only country in Europe that doesn’t produce any statistics on translation’, a fact that further proves the disinterest in translated literature (4). These estimations leave small space for any doubt about the situation, especially when compared to the rate in other European countries (Germany: 12.4%, Spain: 24–28%, France: 15–27% and Turkey: 40%) (5) and (6). Translations form a significant part of publishing and addressing this lack of interest in US and UK publishing seems important. There have been several surveys exploring this tendency, trying to emphasis on the significant differences between English-speaking publishers and other countries. Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel Academy has said, ‘the US is too isolated, too insular, they don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature’ (7). Esther Allen, the executive director of Columbia University’s Centre for Literary Translation, calls this proportion ‘absurd’ (4).
However, there has not been a comprehensive study on the reasons and consequences of this attitude. In this critical review, the situation is addressed on two aspects: First, an effort to identify the underlying reasons that have led to this disinterest and secondly, exploring the necessity of translation and the consequences of ignoring it in the publishing industry.
1. Xenophobia and parochialism: translations don’t sell
Many sources claim that American and British readers are not eager to read translated books and translations don’t sell (8) and (7); the readers need works not ‘so specific to the place and culture in which it was written’ (3); or the ‘unpleasantly fetishist ring’ about the term literary translation (9) and the common dislike among Americans for things that are ‘too foreign’(10). Some refer to this as ‘cultural insularity’, ‘little England-ism’ or ‘cultural parochialism’(11). This leads to considering translations as ‘niche, which naturally results in low sales’(9). Others believe that the publishing environment ‘tends towards repetition and safety’ (12).
However, if this was the case, no foreign author, especially unfamiliar names like Khalid Hosseini, Marjan Satrapi, Azar Nafisi, Haruki Murakami or Aravind Adiga would have ended up on the bestseller lists. If the dazzling sales of these and many other works similar works has not changed this preconception, it doesn’t alter the truth that the English-speaking readership is curious and interested to read the literature from other cultures. It has been calculated that the success ratio of translations in US is ‘similar to, or better than, English-language titles’, and among those authors who are translated, there is a higher probability of becoming ‘household names’ than the American authors (8). Donald Keene, Columbia University professor, agrees, ‘American resistance to translations doesn’t mean they don’t sell’ (13). Some have attributed this disinterest to the ‘fundamental conservative’ attitude of the ‘buyers and booksellers’ (9). Furthermore, some authorities such as Suzie Dooré, fiction buyer at Waterstone’s, believe that nationality is not a big issue and people do not go into a bookshop ‘with the view that they don’t want translated fiction, they just want a good book’ (14).
2. High cost, low return
The higher costs include the following:
a. Translation costs and rarity of qualified translators (14) and (4),
b. Editorial costs (3),
c. Costs involved in acquiring rights(9),
d. Opportunity cost (3),
e. Time cost (15).
These expenses make publishing translations a ‘high-cost, low-return’ project (3) and (16) which means lower profitability and the need for ‘higher print runs that usually don’t sell’(11).
It is a face that translators are underpaid in US and UK (14) and ‘suffer from a lack of status’ (4). Therefore, the rarity and expense of qualified translators is natural (15). A job is created in response to a need. If the need is addressed, the qualified people will appear. Furthermore, part of this problem can be diluted in ‘relatively low advances’ paid for the rights of books in translation(11). Also, recently, more foreign publishers are willing to provide English-language publishers with translations of their offered titles, which can be improved by the efforts of a qualified editor. There are also a variety of grants, funding and subsidies available (11) provided by different organisations and embassies to support translations (17). Having said that, many of large publishers in US and UK are willing to accept extremely high origination costs for several projects and the small proportion of translation costs cannot be considered a financial burden, as it is not the case in the rest of the world.
3. Cultural imperialism and popularity of English
UNESCO quotes several writers who claim there is ‘a certain arrogance on the part of British and American publishing Houses which consider anything published in another language to be automatically inferior’ (3) and ‘fundamental arrogance of English as a language — and a lack of curiosity — when dealing with other countries’ (12).
Dominance of English language as the international communication language and also the ‘patronising’ attitude of English-speaking publishers toward foreigners and their culture were identified as another background factor (17). Publishers do not need translations to be considered international publishers, ‘they just have to bring authors from Canada, Australia and South Africa’ (3).
4. Globalisation and commercialism
As Globalisation is a phenomenon ‘driven by money and business, not by culture and curiosity’ (5), therefore, the appearing of publishing and bookselling conglomerations leads to more interest in profitability than in culture (10) where ‘every single title has to make a profit’(11).
5. Lack of foreign language skills among the editors
Some sources refer to the inability of most English-speaking editors to read in several languages, a problem that makes judgment ‘tricky’ (9) and (7). Moreover, the ‘poor’ system of language teaching in UK leads to ‘less study of works by foreign authors’ which ends in less interest in other cultures (11).
However, it seems that language knowledge of inhabitants of other European countries has been over-estimated. Today, under commercial pressure, many Europeans seem to feel that learning English is quite enough (17) and not every editor in Europe knows all the languages that they are commissioning translations from.
6. Lack of appropriate structure within the publishing industry
No department or editor in US and UK publishing industry is ‘solely and exclusively in charge of the acquisition of foreign books’ (10) and most publishers do not invest in discovering the current literature in other languages. There are no ‘mainstream, generalist, British literary periodical which publishes poems, stories, novel-excerpts and literary essays in translation on a regular basis’ (18).
On the other hand, retailers do not support literature in translation (19).
7. Saturation of the market with English-language books
Richness of choices available for publishers in the English language has ‘spoilt’ the publishers and they have become ‘less adventurous than they might be’ (14). Some publishers believe that there are so many talented new UK authors waiting to be published, which makes it hard to justify spending budgets on translations (9). In certain market sectors, the publishers’ preference to English language books is completely justifiable; however, in books that involve artistic creation, this cannot be the case, as each work of literature is unique and unrepeatable; therefore, looking in other languages is as important as supporting local authors.
8. Marketing issues
Marketing departments of US and UK publishers claim that publishing books by foreign authors, makes it difficult for publishers to ‘raise the profile of authors’ through publicity (9) which in leads to marketers claiming that ‘there is no market for translations’ (10).
There also seems to be a certain lack of interest among the press and media in covering the publication of a foreign book (14). Nonetheless, Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign-rights director at Gallimard in France believes that ‘American publishers do not support translated books with marketing budgets and then complain when sales fail to dazzle’ (7).
A whole national literature is written off after the publishers ‘do’ a couple of its writers in translation (17), for example, despite the success of Japanese manga, two Nobel prizes for Japanese authors and the success of Murakami, no publisher shows any interest to discover and publish other renowned Japanese writers (13).
The necessity of translation and implications of ignoring it
Having studied all the reasons for not translating, the first thing that may spring into the mind is: Then why one should be concerned? Is this really to be considered a ‘problem’? These two countries create the largest power in the world of publishing, much stronger than many other countries which ‘do’ translate books from other languages.
This section tries to identify the necessity of translation in every given country and culture, and also address some of the consequences of ignoring this necessity.
1. Intercultural influences vs. cultural isolation
The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest written pieces of literature in the world (20). Ironically, it may well be one of the earliest literary translations too, as the standard version of this epic discovered in 1849, was a Babylonian translation compiled in 1300–1000 B.C. by am Akkadian scribe, based on of the Sumerian epic (2150-200 B.C.) (21).
The story reached Near East and was subsequently translated into other languages like Hittite and Hurrian, then reached Palestine and Anatolia and became available to the Ionian Greeks (22). This migration helped this epic influence several outstanding works composed later, ie. Iliad, Odyssey and Argonautica(23) and perhaps the story of the flood in Book of Genesis. Without the translation of this epic, perhaps many of the classical literary masterpieces would have not existed or would be completely different from what they are. Perhaps even the course of history would have changed and the western civilisation we know, based on two deep roots (classical Greco-Roman literature and Biblical lore) would be nonexistent.
It could be interesting if a research was performed to find out what would have happened if Alexander had not taken some of the scientific and literary works from the ruins of library of Estakhr in Persia to Greece and had them translated(24). Without adaptation, would Chaucer’s The Knight Tale (based on Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze di Emilia) or Roman de la Rose have been available to English world? Would Hamlet be created? Can ‘the impact’ Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Duras, Borges and Kafka be ignored (25)? Would English become such an influential language? How would British children have seen the world without reading the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Andersen? Patricia Billings, director of Milet Publishing asks, ‘why cut children off from stories and styles that they are eminently able to understand, interpret, appreciate and love? Why are the adults in the business acting as a barrier to this?’ (9). Philip Pullman (2005) believes that part of the ‘astonishing success’ of English language, is a result of growing out ‘of Latin and Anglo-Saxon and French and absorbing words from hundreds of other sources’ and Ye Weiqu, from the Chinese Institute of Social Studies describes literary translation as a ‘building of bridges’, that helps people of the world interact (26). Literature equips the reader with a ‘unique insight’ into the past and present of a culture, it is essential for intercultural and mutual understanding (Roche 2008) and ‘diminishes the risk of serious conflict based on prejudice’ (17). This is what Anne-Solange Noble called ‘the poverty of the rich’ when an American publisher in Frankfurt book fair 2008 described Jean-Marie Gustave LeClézio as an ‘unknown writer’ (7), while LeClézio’s book Désert, especially praised by the Nobel academy(27), had already been translated and published into 23 languages(28). It was translated into English in 2009, after the prize, while there are hundreds of other authors who have not had the privilege of winning the Nobel Prize and the English-speaking readers will remain deprived of their literature. Levisalles (2004) believes these countries to be ‘threatened by an extreme cultural isolation’.
2. Innovation vs. decline in quality
It seems that English literature is suffering from a certain lack of innovation, with hundreds of novels following the same pattern based on safe and tested templates and books from different societies and cultures can offer alternatives to ‘the formulaic fiction that has dominated’ the bestseller lists(29). ‘Diversity encourages innovation’ and ‘competition stimulates quality’ (Watts, 2007).
The resistance of the publishers and booksellers literature in translation may result in serious decline in the quality of English literary fiction. In England’s Premier League, foreign players lifted the standards of the league and they improved the English footballers (30).
3. Gateway to the world vs. Obsolesce of minority languages
English is the ‘lingua franca of the contemporary world’ with about 1.3–1.5 billion people speaking it as their first or second language (Roche 2008). Many publishers in many countries only have English as their gateway to world’s literature and can only read books originaly published in or translated into English. Having more books translated into English means international access to global cultural heritage.
In 2005, Crime Writers’ Association limited the Golden Dagger prize to authors writing in English. The Bookseller published an article stating: ‘By not allowing translated titles, the CWA will weaken the crime genre’ (30). Esther Allen believes that the dominance of English-language publishing is ‘putting other languages and literary cultures at risk’ (4). If Khalid Hosseini had written Kite-runner in Persian or Dari, he would have never attracted the attention of American or British publishers, as there are several brilliant Iranian or Afghan authors who may never find a chance to be translated into English.
4. An essential tool for international success vs. losing in competition
Exactly because of globalisation, learning about the culture and other people’s way of life is vital for the success of UK and US. This understanding can be obtained, not through travel guides or history books, but from first-hand contemporary literature of a nation, as ‘literature, even in translation, brings you closer to the soul of any given country or ethnic group’ and ignoring it can create a handicap that may prevent a country ‘to learn from beyond’ their national borders (17).
Furthermore, with the arrival of the digital age, the new concept of intellectual property and the unknown future of territorial rights, in a few years, international publishers can directly publish their books in English, make them available online and directly compete for the UK and US market(11). Ignoring the international literature only deprives the publishers from exploiting a market segment that most probably will be exploited by international publishers.
Conclusion: The future
The necessity of translation for a healthy publishing industry has been discussed and the possible implications of ignoring this necessity, makes it justifiable to address this situation as a problem in publishing industry. A few solutions have been proposed by authorities; however, none of the solutions can be successful without raised awareness towards the problem and recognition of the need to change the situation, especially among large publishing houses in the private sector. The main obstacle is that although publishers already know the situation, they do not act accordingly due to the idea of publishing translations not being financially profitable. Twenty years ago, large industries reacted the same way to the warnings against climate change and delayed taking serious measures until the main damage was done. The same goes for publishing literature in translation. With all the diverse ethnicities already inhabiting US and UK, a broad knowledge sufficient to be incorporated into the well-established publishing industry at an affordable cost already exists. It only takes a change in attitude and a certain readiness to accept a percentage of risk – which cannot be higher than the risk taken when deciding to publish any book – to take the first step towards solving this problem. It is only by leaving the safe and tested paths that we can discover that the world is not flat and the only way to India is not east.
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Excellent article. I am an American working in the publishing industry in NYC. Your points are absolutely spot on. I work for a children’s publisher and increasingly foreign publishers come to our offices pitching books for reprint or translation that would have been bought instantly twenty-five years ago but now there is just no one who can “get it.” Picture Book of Dante from an Italian publisher? Incredible idea! Fabulous idea. We had to pass because it was too sophisticated and slick for the American children’s audience. How humiliating I found that! I read avidly and the overwhelming majority of the novels I read are in translation. One factor not covered in the article that bears reiteration. As education in the humanities and classical literature has dropped to almost nonexistence in US schools, the average American reader’s capacity for understanding contextual reference, literary references, historical references is almost nonexistent. American readers are now confined to cultural sound byte references that are easily and quickly recognizable. A word Starbucks is easier to grasp than the words Cicero, Agincourt, Kafka, Hafez, Doge’s Palace, Canaletto, Battle of Marathon, Battle of Badr, Tamujin, or any of a trillion other things they have never heard of and never will. I find it all thoroughly disgusting. This is why Interlinks Publishers is such a wonderful resource for readers of English.
Thanks for your comment Aaron.