From The Omnivore:
You may have heard that the National Book Foundation is launching a new annual award for best work of translated fiction or non-fiction. It’s welcome recognition for an area of publishing that’s exploded in recent years, and a return to form, since the NBA gave out a translation for sixteen years, before stopping in 1984.
. . . .
How much has changed for the fortunes of international writers since 1984! For one thing, in the US, there are a lot more translations, by a lot more translators. That writers from all over the world are finding audiences is due in no small part to their craft, as well as the indefatigable publishers, periodicals, and university programs that give literature in translation consideration and focus.
Still, translations play the underdog, because America’s reading habits, compared with those of other countries, are notoriously provincial. An often-cited statistic is that, while in most countries between thirty and sixty percent of books published are translations, here it’s only three percent. This is popularly known among translation advocates as the “Three Percent Problem.”
. . . .
To get a handle on the issue, we reached out to Esther Allen, a professor, writer, and the translator of many books, including Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama. “The three percent figure was drawn from a fairly impressionistic 1999 NEA study that covered only literary fiction and poetry — roughly 3% of which (300 books out of roughly 10,000 literary titles that year) was translated from another language,” she said in an email. Allen was part of the research team. But that sampling, she suggests, can hardly have been representative, since literature and poetry make up a sizeable majority of translations. “It was never accurate as a total percentage of all books published, but that has been what it’s taken to mean. If you just look at all books published in 1999 (roughly 100,000) the figure should be more like .03%.”
. . . .
So what about a challenge to address what I’ll call the Zero Percent Problem — that is, finding, translating, and accounting for literature from countries that have otherwise been overlooked by translators, and totally inaccessible to English-language readers?
Three notable examples (and believe me, there are more): Honduras, Thailand, and Vanuatu. Honduran literature, despite being written primarily in Spanish, a language that is well-translated, remains untranslated. Thailand because its language isn’t widely spoken or studied outside of the country — in fact, the first Thai work of literature by a living writer to appear in an English translation officially only did so last year, despite all signs indicating a thriving Thai literary culture. Vanuatu because reportedly only one novel has ever been published by a native Vanuatan, a work that only appeared a decade ago, meaning if you’ve read it, you’ve read all of Vanuatan literature. Crazy.
Link to the rest at The Omnivore
PG cannot resist pointing out that, in the United States, the publishers that make decisions about which books in translation to publish are virtually all located in New York City and mostly staffed by people who grew up and/or went to college within 300 miles or so from New York City.
Thus, the statement made in the OP, “America’s reading habits, compared with those of other countries, are notoriously provincial,” is definitely reflective of parts of NYC, and NYC’s opinions (often based on rumors and stereotypes) of the rest of the United States.
PG suggests that if a person grew up near NYC, went to college in Massachusetts or Connecticut and has taken a couple of trips to the West Coast, he/she is less than an expert on the United States and its reading tastes.
PG has been interested in the East Coast reactions to Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, an author whose family (per the cover description on the book) lived poor in the Appalachian parts of Kentucky, then moved north to Ohio, but were never able to fully escape “the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.”
Here are a collection of excerpts from reviews written by people from pretty much the same background as those who staff New York publishers:
“[A] compassionate, discerning sociological analysis…Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans. Imagine that.” (Jennifer Senior, New York Times)
“[Hillbilly Elegy] is a beautiful memoir but it is equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America….[Vance] offers a compelling explanation for why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to make it…a riveting book.” (Wall Street Journal)
“[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.” (David Brooks, New York Times)
“[Hillbilly Elegy] couldn’t have been better timed…a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations…an honest look at the dysfunction that afflicts too many working-class Americans.” (National Review)
[A]n American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… [T]he most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. (Rod Dreher,The American Conservative)
“J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy”, offers a starkly honest look at what that shattering of faith feels like for a family who lived through it. You will not read a more important book about America this year.” (The Economist)
“[A] frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir…a superb book…” (New York Post)
PG is substantially less startled and amazed by Vance’s story, because variations of that story can be found in hundreds of different parts of the United States of which the reviewers were apparently unaware prior to reading Vance’s book. He suggests a visitor to a welfare services or public defender or Legal Aid office in virtually every state would encounter people with the same sort of problems Vance describes.
On the other hand, should a visitor to the middle-class neighborhoods in the same communities where those welfare services, offices were located would find successful and intelligent people with successes, experiences and aspirations equally alien and unknown to the publishing class.
PG suggests that part of the success of many indie authors and their books arises from the substantially deeper and more nuanced understanding those authors have of enormous swaths of readers and their communities that are terra incognita for the acquisition editors working for publishers in New York City who regard themselves as taste-makers for American readers.