Translations, Part 3: The Finnish Know How To Do It

Context N°16

by John O’Brien

One of the great obstacles facing a publisher who wants to publish more translations is the difficulty of discovering contemporary writers, especially if the publisher, such as Dalkey Archive Press, has a highly focused aesthetic and wants to find the writers in a country that belong to an innovative tradition. Even in the age of the Internet, information about such writers is not easy to obtain, nor is it easy to explain to publishers abroad via e-mail what exactly a press like Dalkey Archive is looking for. Attending conventions helps, but inevitably some publishers aren’t there, and those that do attend are usually ?pushing? their latest books and those that they think Americans will most relate to. All of which means that the only way of establishing clear lines of communication with other countries in order to find works to translate is to visit them, meet with editors, writers, and critics, get advice, and then begin the long process of reading and evaluating the books, making decisions about what to publish, finding the right translator for a particular book, beginning the seemingly endless process of editing the translation, and then trying to find the brave book review editors in the United States who believe that they should devote space to foreign literature rather than “giving the public what it wants” (or rather what the newspaper or magazine thinks the public wants). Travel to other countries is the first step in a series of what must happen for the translation process to start and, one hopes, succeed.

In March of 2004, a Finnish government agency (FILI) sponsored a trip to Helsinki for myself and another Dalkey Archive editor to meet with a number of Finnish editors and foreign rights directors, as well as critics, scholars, and government officials. FILI made all of the logistical arrangements, and paid for the airfare and hotel (and we had to shamelessly accede to the generous insistence of everyone there to pay for our lunches and dinners, as well as to the staff at FILI to guide us through Helsinki). In the course of five days, we were able to meet with eight publishers, three critics, the manager of the largest bookstore in Finland, Finnish government officials, and a professor of American studies. In addition, FILI provided us with anthologies of Finnish literature that are now out of print, as well as samples of translations of authors that they thought would be of interest to the Press.

As is usually the case both in the United States and abroad, the Finnish publishers at times had difficulty understanding that we were looking for unconventional fiction that probably had sold poorly even in its own country, never mind how it might sell in the United States. Therefore, we spent a fair amount of time explaining again and again the type of fiction we were looking for, that we were interested only in artistic value rather than potential sales, that we did not care whether the work was “too European” or “too Finnish,” and that we didn’t care whether the work was recently published or published thirty years earlier. All of these discussions took place amid the stark reality that no Finnish fiction has been published in the United States in the past forty years, though Grove/Atlantic has announced that it will issue a Finnish novel this fall.

Since our return from Finland, Dalkey Archive has purchased rights to two Finnish works of fiction, and will be signing on two more within the next few months. Further, we now have established the basis for communicating with Finnish publishers that, with some effort on both sides, will provide us with a stream of information and suggestions which will permit us to publish even more Finnish titles. The Finnish seem ready to set a pace that the rest of Europe should pay attention to. They are intent on removing as many obstacles as possible in order to have their country’s literature represented in English.

Why do the Finnish understand that they should support such efforts while so many other foreign countries don’t? Customarily, foreign governments only partially support the cost of the actual translation. From the American perspective, this constitutes minimal help that might not even be worth pursuing. Typically, the American publisher—for reasons I’ll explain shortly—may do a single foreign title (oftentimes one that won some prize or another), and then lose interest, especially in view of the stark financial realities of how translations sell in the United States. The foreign publisher, as well as the government agency, is baffled, and sometimes even resentful that there is no further interest.

I will offer two reasons for why the Finnish are “doing it right” and why American publishers do not see help with translation costs alone to be very helpful.

FILI is headed by a remarkable person, Dr. Iris Schwanck, who has a very pragmatic sense of how publishing works and what’s needed for translations. She was responsible for arranging this trip and itinerary, and she immediately understood the need to establish a network if Dalkey were to be serious about publishing Finnish literature. It was her passion and knowledge that made this “first step” possible.

But why isn’t partially paying for the cost of the translation enough to encourage more translations from other countries? Among American publishers, as I have said previously in this series on translations, it is common knowledge that translations do not sell as well as their English counterparts, and that they are usually overlooked by reviewers. At the same time, the hidden costs of doing a translation, especially in view of expected poor sales, are rather staggering. Since American publishing houses are typically monolingual and have no editor whose specialty is in a particular foreign country or region, the publisher ends up hoping that the sample translation he sees might bear some resemblance to the final work and to the reader’s report that recommended the book. On the day that translation arrives, more often than not it isn’t what the publisher was expecting. Nor is the translation quite finished, which means that an enormous amount of editorial time is spent trying to get it into an English that will make sense to a reader.

At Dalkey Archive, we have thirteen languages represented among our editorial staff—from Spanish and Vietnamese to Russian and Serbian—all for the sake of being able to read the dozens of books that arrive here each week from foreign publishers, provide reader’s reports on them, and then—when a translation is commissioned—to be able to edit the translation once it arrives. Needless to say, such a staff is a significant expense for the Press, and is a large part of the cost of doing translations. This begins to suggest the hidden costs that few want to recognize. In the past twelve months, in-house foreign language editors at the Press have read nearly 400 works of fiction from other countries, all in order to find the 21 that we have now signed on for publication.

When all expenses are taken into account, the cost of publishing a translation is over $30,000, and typically, the cost of the translation itself is only about 5–10% of that cost. When a foreign government offers to pay for only part of the translation fee, that means a grant of from $750 to $2,000 (though there are a few governments that are willing to pay translators rather significant sums, which still does not address the publisher’s expenses). That leaves about $28,000 unaccounted for. And makes for a publisher hesitant to take on yet another translation that will sell, on a good day, 1,500 to 2,000 copies within the first year of its publication.

Common Illusions about the American Marketplace for Translations

Publishers are able to make a profit on the sale of translated titles. The reality is that an American publisher—unless through some very strange series of coincidences (e.g., Umberto Eco)—will sell approximately 2,000 copies of a contemporary novel from a foreign country. This means that the publisher will receive about $12,000 through sales for a book that cost $30,000 to publish.

The United States is very wealthy and well-educated, and therefore there is a vast readership for literary novels. The reality is that there is a vast readership for popular novelists in the United States such as Stephen King, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, and Scott Turow. For a literary novel, especially an experimental one, there is a much smaller readership than there is in the country of origin.

American publishers have a duty to bring foreign literature to the United States. The reality is that all major publishers in the United States (Random House, Harper Collins, Farrar Straus) have profit as their primary responsibility and therefore translations are at odds with why an American publisher would undertake a title to publish.

Solutions (Once Again)

• Foreign governments could greatly influence what gets published in the United States, especially among such nonprofit literary publishers as Dalkey Archive Press, if they were willing to subsidize the true costs of publishing a translation.

• Foreign governments must decide whether getting their countries’ books published in the United States is important to them or not, and whether they are willing to do whatever they can to make sure that American publishers will be able to undertake translations.

• Foreign governments must realize that, by subsidizing a book at $30,000, most literary works of merit from their countries would be published in the United States.

• Foreign governments must come to understand publishing from the publisher’s point of view.

• Foreign countries must realize that, if they were willing to support translations at a realistic level with a publisher such as Dalkey Archive Press, many publishers in the United States would be willing to publish at least three literary books per year from these countries.

There is no point in talking on behalf of other publishers, because there aren’t other publishers like Dalkey (what other publisher devotes more than 70% of its list to translations?), but I can describe what three steps are necessary for a particular foreign country to undertake a serious translation program with Dalkey Achive:

1) Provide funding to bring two editors from Dalkey Archive to meet with publishers, editors, and critics in order to begin to establish a network by which Dalkey can have information and books readily available based upon the specific interests that Dalkey has; without such in-depth meetings, the publishers have no idea what kind of fiction Dalkey is interested in and there is little means by which we can find out what is being done;

2) Provide funding to support one to two graduate assistantships for students from their country to attend Illinois State University and serve as in-house readers for books from their countries, do sample translations of appropriate books, and help edit translations when they arrive; the cost for a graduate assistant per year is approximately $8,000–$11,000;

3) Provide 80% of the costs associated with the translation and publication of the book, which typically means a subsidy of approximately $24,000 per book to pay for the author advance, translation, editing, printing, and marketing of the book. For a typical book, the costs are the following:

Author advance: $3,000
Translation: $4,000
Editing: $4,000
Production, Design, Printing: $10,300
Marketing: $6,900
Operating: $2,700

With such funding in place, Dalkey Archive would be able to undertake two to three books per year from a particular country. Short of such funding, any publisher must face these two realities: 1) translations will lose money; and 2) even with the best of intentions, the translation and publication will not be done so as to ensure quality and the largest possible readership.

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