Lost translations

U.S. readers want books from around the world, so why can’t publishers deliver them?

Lost translations

U.S. readers want books from around the world, so why can’t publishers deliver them?

When it comes to literary translation, American publishers have a pipeline problem. But not in the way that tech companies use the phrase — saying they don’t hire diverse array of job candidates because there aren’t enough female and minority applicants. Publishing’s problem isn’t one of supply — real or imagined. This pipeline problem comes from flaws in the industry’s acquisitions system that make it nearly impossible for non-Western authors and U.S. publishers to connect.

In 2018, for the second year in a row, American publishers released fewer translated titles: 609 books were published, down from 650 in 2017 and the industry high in 2016 of 666. These books were largely translated from European languages, with roughly 42 percent originally written in Spanish, German, or French. In comparison, only one book was translated from Bosnian. Some languages, like Somali and Burmese, had no representation at all.

While French, German, and other European voices also matter, when you look at the fact that more than 150,000 Somalis live in the U.S. and that the last election welcomed our first Somali-American to Congress, that’s one culture that maybe publishers shouldn’t leave out.

So why do they? Why do some countries’ books get over-translated for the U.S. market and others not at all?

It’s definitely not because Americans don’t want to read their stories. Statistically, American Literary Translators Association Executive Director Elisabeth Jaquette told me publishers actually make more money per translated title than they do from books originally in English. As a general rule, publishing revenues tend to directly correlate to the percentage of annual titles in that genre. If 30 percent of a publisher’s offerings are biographies, for example, biographies will make up 30 percent of its sales. But according to Jaquette, “Literary translation tends to punch above its weight.” In other words, translated books sell at a higher revenue percentage than they’re supposed to. Less than three percent of U.S. titles are works in translation, but the category accounts for seven to eight percent of sales.

In the U.S., AmazonCrossing, Amazon Publishing’s translation-only imprint, publishes more translated titles than anyone else, which is noteworthy considering the imprint only opened in 2010 — a relative newcomer, Jaquette explained, in an industry in which smaller presses have published translations for decades.

Publishing is an old business replete with tradition: To publish, authors must first find an agent; that agent convinces an editor to acquire the book; the editor then convinces colleagues; each decision made in a fairly subjective way. Even at Amazon, a tech company that runs on algorithms, AmazonCrossing Editorial Director Gabriella Page-Fort said acquisition decisions are human-made. Typically, a “yes” is linked to a book’s potential to make money, the same as in any business. In publishing, that comes down to writing quality, past success with comparable titles (or “comps”), and what agents call “platform” — an author’s personal marketing reach. For writers who can afford it, self-publication is an option, but those who want to be traditionally published have to play the game.

For non-English writers, the process isn’t that different. Instead of selling a book to a publisher in their country, though, an agent sells foreign publishing rights to a U.S. company, working personal connections to make the deal or finding buyers at international book fairs, the most popular held annually in London, England and Frankfurt, Germany.

Less than three percent of U.S. titles are works in translation, but the category accounts for seven to eight percent of sales.

Jaquette said you won’t see much Arabic-language writing at these fairs, or Farsi either — but not because books aren’t written in those languages. While publishers can’t translate books that don’t exist, the corollary between the amount of literature written in a country and the number of translated U.S. titles isn’t as direct as one might think. Take China, for example where 580 state-sanctioned publishers released 156,000 new commercial titles in 2018, adding to centuries’ worth of existing literature. But U.S. publishers only translated 22 works from Chinese. More than number of titles available, Jaquette said, “Greater contributing factors are just the general publishing infrastructure that certain languages and countries have and how closely connected those are to the United States.”

“Certainly, Spanish is a larger language,” she continued, “so it's drawing from books published not only in Spain but also Latin America, also books being written in Spanish in the United States. But countries like France and Germany, for example, have a much more elaborate infrastructure of publishers, of agents, of people who are at the international book fairs doing the right sales.” Since the established fairsare in Europe, attendees tend to market books originally written in European languages.

European countries also work on an official level to disseminate their literature around the world. According to Jaquette, writers in France and Germany can apply for grants from government culture agencies that fund getting their book in front of American buyers. Holland’s government even sends publishers a catalog listing titles released in the Netherlands that year with English-language summaries, proposed contract terms, and reasons each book would sell well here. And there’s evidence to show this government backing works. In South Korea, for example, Page-Fort said a 2008 state-sponsored push led to a 275 percent increase in U.S.-Korean translation over the next ten years

The corollary between the amount of literature written in a country and the number of translated U.S. titles isn’t as direct as one might think.

In other words, be it through government or industry, some countries have found ways to sell their stories through the American pipeline. “It's going to be much easier for a publisher sitting in the United States to say, ‘Okay, I could pick up this pamphlet from the Netherlands or I could go to London and meet with a rights agent from a French publisher who I've heard of,’” Jaquette said. “Those are much easier than saying, ‘Okay,’ scratching my head, ‘who do I know who might know about a Chinese book or a book from Sudan?”

For cultures falling outside the pipeline, publishers have to make a concerted effort. At AmazonCrossing, this means attending lesser-known fairs in the Middle East and looking at sales statistics from Amazon stores in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, China, and Japan. If a book sells well in one country, AmazonCrossing is more likely to translate it for the others. Page-Fort’s team has also designed a request page for translators who read a book in the original language, loved it, and now want to translate it into English. This upload form is available in 14 languages. Despite these efforts, Amazon’s stats still linguistically adhere to norms.

“There's for me an obviousness to the culture that we're living in and that we're watching evolve before our very eyes requiring us to have more of a sense of who else is alive on this planet and what is their world like,” Page-Fort said, explaining that reader desire is there, just not industry infrastructure. “Think about how many people and decision makers exist between a book and reader,” she said. “It’s convincing each and every one of those decision points to make a new decision today that breaks the rule they made up about the past.”

Terena Bell is a journalist in New York City.