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What’s the Best Way to Promote Literature in Translation?

26 February 2018

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.

Big Publishing, Non-US, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

19 Comments to “What’s the Best Way to Promote Literature in Translation?”

  1. There’s also the issue that translation is very expensive — more expensive than audiobooks.

    The professional-organization rates can run you to $14K for a novel, but even at basic freelance rates, about the best you can do for non-mechanical translation runs circa $0.025/word. That’s circa $3K for a novel.

    The royalty-split alternatives (Babelcube) have lots of issues, and low-quality translations just muddy the water with bad representations of your work.

    I’m commissioning my first translation (a fantasy, into German), but this is a very non-trivial cost if you have several books in a series and multiple languages in mind.

    OTOH, I don’t see why every Nordic Noir series isn’t already out there in English to take advantage of current popularity. Trad publishers have much deeper pockets than indies do.

    • Thanks for the details, Karen.

    • I think PG answered the “why” of your last paragraph. A while back several media people had a meltdown on Twitter when a journalist asked them if they knew anyone who drove a pickup truck. This was because one of them was insistently skeptical that pickup trucks could truly be the most popular vehicle in America, as a car magazine had said. Oh the conniptions!

      I thought it was funny, because if you don’t live in a bubble you can see for yourself if pickups are everywhere or not, but the chattering chatterati pundits acted as if you’d have to be Dian Fossey in search of gorillas in the mist to see one.

      • https://www.mediaite.com/online/media-twitter-and-conservatives-argued-about-pickup-trucks-for-some-reason/

        There are some valid points made further down in the article, namely

        “the idea that pickups are the most popular type of car in America is flawed; it’s just that there are less [sic] models of trucks, so truck sales are heavily concentrated.”

        With a further response

        “Thats because there only like 3 good puckups dipshit. Pickups make up 15% of US autosales. Back to both-sided clown college with you.”

        I don’t personally know anyone who owns a pickup truck. What does that prove? Nothing.

        • I don’t personally know anyone who owns a pickup truck. What does that prove? Nothing.

          Question: Are you a guy who makes your living opinionating on America, Americans, and whether or not people “vote against their interests”? Because if you’re not, you’re correct: it means nothing.

          But if you are: It means something.

        • Further to this, in another web forum, there was a social scientist or anthropologist. She mentioned being skeptical that Americans actually like cars or driving, that cars are strictly a chore that we put up with. Another member of the group called her out on her foolishness:

          1) Fun, fun, fun until Daddy takes the T-bird away,

          2) Drive the Chevy to the levee, and countless other songs,

          3) Are you a Ford man or a Chevy man?

          3) The sheer number of people who photograph themselves next to their cars (Mercedes Benz USA once had a commercial about exactly that habit).

          5) The number of TV shows and movies with plots / episodes about racing cars, hot rodding cars, getting the first car, taking road trips in cars, etc. Route 66?

          So, what did it mean? It meant, as the guy pointed out, that she didn’t understand her own culture, which she grew up in. It meant she had no credibility to explain other cultures when she only visited them or lived there for a few years. It meant, honestly, that she sucked at her own profession.

          If a journalist of the pundit stripe does not know anyone who owns a truck, that journalist is not qualified to opine on what’s “best” for the country in general.

          • Knight Rider.
            Hot rods.
            Parking at lover’s lane.
            The first car/driver’s license rite of passage.
            On and on.

            A good chunk of modern American culture revolves around or developed from automobiles.

            But that is mostly a matter of suburbanites (a product of the car) and smaller towns not big city types used to subways and taxis.

            Another symptom of the divide.

        • Know anyone who drives a Prius?

          • no
            my Ram eats prius on occasion when out at one of those fancy dancy resta-rants

          • Nope.
            But I know somebody who bought a first gen Tesla roadster from day one. ($110K.)
            Electric blue, of course. Sweet ride.
            Zoom zoom.
            (But softly.)

          • I know several!

            (I work in academia. >.> )

          • I think one colleague did have a Prius. Someone had a Vespa in the parking lot, but I never learned who it was. I did see one editor roll past me one morning on a Ducati-style bike, but I’ve forgotten the name of the make.

            Plus, my old boss reviews cars for one of the business mags. He does it from a business angle, not a “how it handles” angle. At my old paper there’s a “how it handles” car review guy. When the economy crashed he was agonizing about whether he should continue to review sports cars. Three were left in his driveway that morning. One of the other reporters said he owed it to everyone who wants those cars, but can’t afford them, to let them live vicariously through him. You know, like Shirley Temple in the Great Depression.

            “Drive those babies and report back, sir.”

            I know a photo editor who got the photographers from the Associated Press et al to fall in line with her dictates that at the car show, you photograph the car. Not the girl presenting it. As Jay Leno said, “Get off the car!”

            Shoot, I had a hippy teacher who drove a Volkswagen Scooby Doo bus. He even painted it Scooby-Doo style. He rolled his own cigarettes. Came an hour late most mornings for the 90-minute class. Good times.

            I grew up in the Motor City, where cars are built. I may skew the data set about people who know people who drive X, Y, or Z 🙂

            The point to me is that one should not be in the business of opining about the best interests of the public, if one does not know people from all walks of life. One should not be in the business of telling people how to change the culture, if one does not even understand the culture in the first place. Living in homogeneous monocultures is harmless most of the time, but that kind of POV is a liability in the aforesaid professions. Humility is called for.

  2. As a resident of the not so great state of NY, I’ll argue with your most NYC folks don;t understand the rest of America by simply saying this:

    The average person in NYC doesn’t even understand people in the rest of the state let alone the country.

    Imagine the worst possible ignorance and then double it.

    Upstate and NYC are often said to be like two different states. It is more like 2 different planets.

    • There’s also the ridiculous snobbery about New Jersey. As a NJ native, I just couldn’t believe how silly New Yorkers were about the state across the river, especially considering how many New Jerseyans worked in NYC.

      What really shocked me, though, was finding out that some New Yorkers from the boroughs never went into the city. Wow. Just–wow.

      • And this gave me a smile. To anyone from the NYC area, “the city” = Manhattan, as your statement shows.

        Reminds me of a story my grandfather (born and bred in Queens, worked in Manhattan) used to tell as a joke on himself. He and my grandmother made a trip (by train) to Washington DC to see the sights. After a couple of days, he’d had enough and was eager to get back home. So they went to the train station and he asked, “What time is the next train back to town?”

        • And that made me laugh. I do miss a lot about NY and NJ, but not enough to do more than visit. Richmond is my home now.

          • I hear you. And I think I’m even done with visiting. The last time I was in Manhattan was three (?) years ago at Christmas. I decided that I’d done the whole Rockefeller Center/FAO Schwartz (it was the last year that store was open)/ et al enough times to last me a lifetime. Give me quiet Tucson now.

            • Living just outside of DMAFB, the “quiet” around here does rattle my windows every so often. But I admit that I don’t normally notice it until it does rattle the windows.

              I’m planning to stay here too. If I really, really, need, say, to see a first-rate play (with the original actors and sets even), LA is only a hop away. Probably less hassle than going into “The City” from southern New Hampshire used to be. Anything that I could buy in NYC (afford to buy, anyway) – can be dropped off at my front door. Maybe a day later than a Manhattanite can get it – but I’ve learned some patience in my older years.

  3. I should note that Rod Dreher, whose review of Vance’s book you quote, is a native of Louisiana, where he has lived most of his life.

    When he wrote the review, he was a resident of St. Francisville, the town (population 1,700) where his family was from and where he grew up. (He now lives in Baton Rouge.)

    Dreher’s background is not at all like those of people who staff New York publishing houses. He was impressed by Vance’s book because, he said, it equally told the story of much of the region in which he lived.

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