Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Missing Translations

Why are so few literary translations published in English-speaking countries?

As the
article mentioned in the last post pointed out, only about 3% of the books published each year in the U.S. are translations, and those are primarily from Spanish, French, and German. The article says that the figure for Italy is 27%. And here in Sweden, not a week goes by when the culture pages of the newspapers don’t review at least one, and usually more, books that have been translated to Swedish. Sure, Sweden’s population is much smaller than the U.S.’s, but I don’t believe the percentages of writers and of readers are that different. Logically, the percentage of literary translations should be about the same. So why are English-speaking countries less interested in foreign literature?

Are there so many more authors in English-speaking countries so that there is no need for work translated from other languages? It seems as though a lot of non-fiction work, including course literature, is published in English and then translated to other languages, but that doesn’t explain the lack of foreign literary fiction translated to English.

Do more people in English-speaking countries write? Even in Sweden, where the
“Jantelagen” still reigns and people don’t necessarily want to stand out or be different from others, creative writing seems to be thriving.

Is it easier to get published in the U.S. or England than in other countries? I find that hard to believe, too. Anyone who’s worked in publishing or attempted to get their own writing published knows that many great books are rejected because there are simply too many writers and too few publishing companies, too little money, and too little interest in literary writing.

So has publishing become so much about the bottom line that publishing companies are not willing to spend the money on more literary works? This may be true, since publishing companies are always looking for the next big blockbuster and seem to focus their publishing and marketing efforts on genre books. That’s why thrillers by Swedish writer Henning Mankell are published in English, but more creative works only get a Swedish audience.

Is there simply a lack of interest in foreign cultures? It’s the stereotype of the United States –powerful and self-centered, with no need to study other languages or learn anything about other cultures. But how much truth is in this stereotype? And what is the situation like in other English-speaking countries?

I have no answer to the question posed in this post, but I’m interested in exploring this issue more, and in changing it.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Sure, Sweden’s population is much smaller than the U.S.’s, but I don’t believe the percentages of writers and of readers are that different. Logically, the percentage of literary translations should be about the same."

I'm not so sure about that. This is a pretty involved problem. Suppose that the number books published in the original language is proportional to the number of people who are literate in that language. Suppose also that there is a bias towards translating books from another language so that only a proportion b of them are actually translated. This bias could be in the form of lack of interest in foreign cultures, costs of translation, the fact that any potential translations have to be published in their original langauge first before the publisher will find the author, and so on. Let N be the number of literate people in the world (approximately 2 billion) and let x be the number of literate people of a particular language (for example English or Italian). Then the percentage of books published that will be in the original language is equal to x/(x+b(N-x)). If you plug in x for Italian and English, and ask what percentage of published books would be translations if the US had the same bias b as Italy, you end up with something around 5%, which is not so far from 3%. This is of course a very simplified model. It's an interesting question whether the number of published books is actually proportional to the population of the country. You cannot just argue that since there are more people available to write books that more books will be published. It also has to do with what publishers find is worth publishing. For them, it is a trade-off between pushing that best-seller or spending the money on a book that may not sell as many copies. It only makes sense to push the best-seller up to a certain point. Once a publisher has convinced a certain number of people, it will get out more of pushing another book than to convince those remaining people who were difficult to convince to buy the best-seller. In terms of potential best-sellers, there are probably more of them around in a populous country, so there the publishers will publish more books (but if there is not so much bias against translations, publishers in different countries are essentially selecting from the same pool of possible books, so that this argument does not apply). Then there is also the issue of how many publishers exist, because since they cannot publish the same books, this affects matters. If this is the dominant effect, then the number of different books that are published will be proportional to the number of publishers, which in turn is not necessarily easily related to the number of available potential books or best-sellers, but also depends on the general economical climate. Finally, people probably write more in a country like the US than in a third world country.
So these considerations quickly get quite involved. It would be interesting to dig up some figures on the actual number of published books, published translations, number of publishers, and so on for a few countries to compare. But I do not think that we can expect the actual percentages of translated books in different countries to be the same. Consider a world with two countries, one with a population of a billion and one with a population of a hundred persons. Even if there was no bias against translated books at all, one would still find only about 100/(10^9+100) (very small number) of the good writers among the hundred, and the populous country would therefore mostly publish writers from its own country.

Anonymous said...

Gee, that turned out to be very long! Sorry. ;-)

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you for your detailed response! With equations, too!
You wrote: "It would be interesting to dig up some figures on the actual number of published books, published translations, number of publishers, and so on for a few countries to compare." I agree, but I am not sure where to look. A short article from last year (see http://www.svb.se/SvB_papper/2005/Nummer_6/85001?searchString=statistik if you can read Swedish) says that there is a lack of "useful statistics" in the book industry in Sweden. The article mainly refers to figures on sales and such, but it does seem to imply that there are not many statistics on what is published, either.
I can not find good statistics on English-speaking countries. Any other readers have info, or know where to find it, on publishing in various countries?
It would be great to look at this issue in more depth. Thank you for your engagement!

Best wishes,
Brett