U.S. Publishers shy away from literary translation

At the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, which took place October 14-18, 2008 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, publishers from over 100 countries displayed their newest publications. Turkey was the guest of honor this year, and special exhibitions on Turkish life, literature, and culture were held.

U.S. booksellers at the fair, however, were slow to browse non-English texts for possible translation and distribution in the United States. Even the Nobel prize winner in Literature, the French writer JMG Le Clézio, is all but our of print in English, let alone the top German or Turkish authors.

In an article published October 17, 2008 in the New York Times, Motoko Rich suggested that U.S. Publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair spent more time at English-language exhibits than at international ones. Quoting Chad Post from Open Letter Books, out of over 15,000 titles published in the United States this year, only 330, or less than 2 percent, are translations, reminding us of Larry Venuti’s thesis that translation is invisible in the United States. To read the full article, go to “Translation is Foreign to U.S. Publishers.”

Sometimes the economics of not publishing translations makes little sense. David Godine, publisher of Black Sparrow Books, a firm that brought out Le Clézio’s The Prospector in translation, says, “It is ridiculous that more people don’t invest in buying great literature.” He argued that the translation rights for many of the best books abroad can be bought for as little as $2,000. In addition, the publication of famous international writers brings prestige to  U.S. presses.

Often publishers are slow to acquire manuscripts that they cannot read themselves, or are nervous to publish authors they know little about. Here literary translators can be of help. When proposing literary translations, include not just sample chapters, but also help inform publishers about the market and the international prestige of the authors you are proposing. There are very good reasons why Le Clézio won the Nobel prize, and U.S. culture is poorer for not having more of his work, as well as many internationally distinguished writers, available.

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