Translations, Part 4

Context N°17

by John O’Brien and M. A. Orthofer

M. A. Orthofer, managing editor of the Complete Review responds to John O’Brien’s continuing series of editorials, and John O’Brien replies.


How to foster the publication of more literature in translation in the United States? John O’Brien thinks he has the solution. The problem, as he sees it, stems in large part from the fact that publishing is a business, and literature in translation is simply not a good business proposition.

Regardless of literary merit, significance, or sales-success elsewhere, the chances of making any money (much less any real money) off of a work in translation are generally just too small for American publishers to risk it. Publishing translated works has to be made worth their while, and the way to do that, O’Brien suggests, is for foreign governments to pay to play. Governments “willing to subsidize the true costs of publishing a translation,” says O’Brien, “could greatly influence what gets published in the United States.”

No kidding.

Lower the risks enough—by having most or all of the costs of publication (including translation, production, and marketing) covered by an outside party (appealingly distant foreign governments, in this case)—and chances are indeed good that publishers will offer a lot more of these titles (Hell, if I could get one or more governments to cover the cost of publishing ten books a year, I’d set up shop tomorrow . . .)

O’Brien’s solution certainly has its appeal, but is it realistic? And supposing it is, is it one that should be embraced? If O’Brien is correct that this is the last, best hope, since there isn’t any hope elsewhere (i.e., from American foundations or the possibility of a sudden flurry of book review and then reader interest) then it would be worthwhile to focus attention on trying to convince governments to take up this suggestion. If he is wrong, then it would surely be wiser to turn our attention elsewhere. My vote is for elsewhere, entirely.

While the cash subsidies O’Brien proposes would make for strong incentives for publishers (especially smaller ones) to publish translations, they also have distorting effects. There are several major languages (certainly French, as well as, for example, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese) from which there are inevitably a number of translations annually, regardless of whether or not any financial aid is on offer. The availability of subsidies in the amounts O’Brien suggests would tempt all publishers, and they would surely try to get them allocated for titles that they would have published anyway, undermining the print runs in order to qualify for the cash windfalls, undermining the purpose of the subsidy. Other limitations—restricting subsidies to, for example, nonprofit publishers or those with a proven commitment to publishing books in translation (consistently devoting a certain percentage of their list to translations) would also have market-distorting effects, and might serve to shift publication from commercial presses to those that qualify for the subsidies, rather than appreciably increasing the total number of titles published.

O’Brien is amused (or shocked) that: “The French, for instance, try to decide whether the book will sell well in the United States (!!!!) and therefore whether the book should be in need of a subsidy; it has been my experience that the French have a very strange and uneven sense of what will sell well here.” But the question of what books should get a subsidy—especially one as large as he proposes—is significant. It is completely unrealistic to expect the French to subsidize all translations into English to the extent he proposes (and apparently also unnecessary, as surely some of them do offer a satisfactory return to publishers). (As to guessing what books will actually sell, American publishers often seem to have a similarly strange and uneven sense . . .)

Foreign sponsorship on this grand scale ($24,000 per book, O’Brien suggests) is also a luxury that very few nations could (or might be willing to) afford. O’Brien’s funding-scheme is a rich nations’ game: not surprisingly, the ten countries he suggests could ante up are all European. Realistically (insofar as any of this is realistic), a few non-European nations might be able to provide similar subsidies: Japan, Korea (guest of honor in Frankfurt in 2005, and thus trying desperately to foster translations, not just into English), China (though they have their own Foreign Language Press to handle their needs), and a few others. Several oil- and cash-rich Arab states could certainly afford the investment, but don’t seem inclined to. And elsewhere—including many areas with significant literary production—the idea of government sponsorship at anywhere near this level is simply impossible.

While the amounts called for are relatively small, even in countries that spend considerable sums to promote literature, the first point of comparison will surely be on domestic literature programs, it being hard to justify expenditures for making books available to foreign readers before attending to the needs of the local population. Though literature is better funded in many nations (especially in Western Europe) than in the United States, money always seems to be in too short a supply. Local authors and publishers are much more visible (and vociferous) than efforts abroad, and allocating funds (precious taxpayer monies) for foreign translations is a much harder sell all around.

The selection process—who decides what books to support—is also fraught with difficulties. Governments notoriously like to have their say, and few of the national literary agencies involved in making even the limited funds currently available for translations are truly independent. With higher stakes, it seems likely that the governments would want a greater say, politicizing the process and making it more likely that the most deserving books and projects would not be first in line to get funded.

The problem O’Brien addresses is specifically how to get more literature in translation published, but that, of course, is not the end-all. Merely getting books published serves little purpose if no one reads them. And, in fact, O’Brien’s arguments do go much further, as he believes that an audience could be found.

At that level of support and through marketing ingenuity made possible by that support, readership problems begin to diminish; there may never be an enormous readership for foreign literature in the United States, but five to ten thousand people starts to seem plausible, even if the books have to be given away to libraries and classrooms.

Neatly, the problem of why so little literature in translation is being read is also solved: there just needs to be more of it available for potential readers. However, the connection is nowhere near as clear as he suggests.

A variation on O’Brien’s solution has been put into practice for decades: numerous governments, most notably those of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, had or have English-language publishing houses which offer an often impressive variety of local literature in English translation. Foreign Languages Publishing House and Progress Publishers made Soviet (and some pre-revolutionary) fiction available, while the Chinese Foreign Language Press continues to offer contemporary and classical Chinese fiction in English. Though not printed in the U.S. (and apparently not counted towards the books-in-translation totals generally cited), these and other publishers appear to have had decent distribution: FLPH and Progress Publishers’ books can still be readily found in used bookstores, while the occasional Foreign Language Press titles even now make it into the stores of some national book chains.

These publishers (and their Eastern European equivalents) are tainted by the ideologies of the governments behind them, but nevertheless made a significant number of works of at least some literary merit available—and did so at what was generally a bargain-basement price. Consumer interest, however, seems hardly to have been piqued, and it appears they could barely give these things away (and that it didn’t help much when they did). The state imprint presumably proved particularly offputting to American readers, but such state influence would almost invariably rear its ugly head under O’Brien’s proposal (and in the current climate “Made in France” appears to be nearly as noxious a label— when applied to intellectual products—as “Made in the USSR” once was). Support for what might be considered subversive literature is unlikely to be able to muster government support, and a conservative, “don’t ruffle any feathers” approach would be the best one could hope for. European nations more secure in their literary traditions might show a bit more daring, but the experience of the Arab League as guests of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004 shows deep conservatism is the far more prevalent attitude. Books with official state stamps of approval don’t seem to meet with much success, but those are exactly the kinds that are most likely to be supported by O’Brien’s suggestion.

Mere (theoretical) availability also does not appear to have had much of an impact on readership, as there are, in fact, many (generally very small) publishers even beyond the university presses that offer literature in translation: from those focussing on specific cultures—such as Ardis (now part of Overlook) doing Russian-language literature, Ariadne (Austrian), Catbird (Czech), or Mage (Persian)—to some with more extensive ambits (Green Integer, Archipelago), as well as some English-language publishers outside the U.S. (including Aspasia Books with a tiny Finnish list and Twisted Spoon’s Central European offerings). Distribution and marketing are obviously an enormous problem for these publishers—but that too suggests that getting books translated isn’t the sole or possibly even the main problem: what is needed is to find readers (and to connect the readers with the books).

Literature in translation has an image-problem: as O’Brien notes, comparable texts that were originally written in English will almost invariably outsell works that were translated by a considerable margin. A question worth asking is whether or not American publishers’ attitudes have played a role in this marginalization of translated literature (and whether productive change is possible here).

O’Brien chides foreigners for not understanding that publishing is a business and that publishers can’t afford to just bring out books which they lose money on. Yet at the same time he writes about the Dalkey Archive Press’s experiences with Finnish representatives, noting that:

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.

Admirably, nonprofit publisher Dalkey is not primarily concerned with sales success, but there is an obvious problem with mixed messages here. O’Brien’s primary interest isn’t in reaching as many readers as possible, but in making worthy books available. His preference is clearly for works that are “literary” rather than popular. Dalkey Archive Press is far from alone in this. Other nonprofit publishers, especially university presses—major publishers of translated fiction—also appear to focus largely on literary merit over sales potential (the university assigned-reading text market seems the only one that is of major concern). So publishing isn’t exactly all business, after all, even in America, with the emphasis for many American publishers of literature in translation not on finding high-volume titles but rather on those that appeal to a limited audience (and one that is unlikely to grow). This then naturally reinforces public perception of translated literature as being difficult, demanding, elite—a circle that might be far more vicious than is generally acknowledged.

Even commercial publishers generally only risk publishing a translation if the book in question has had commercial success in more than one foreign country and language: the words “international best seller” are almost inevitably found in the publicitycopy, a seal of approval that—along with the Nobel Prize—is (occasionally) just enough to convince them to risk it. Among the most interesting publishing experiments in the U.S. at this time is Vertical, which publishes popular Japanese fiction (as well as some graphic novels) in translation. Whether it is viable remains to be seen, but it’s an all too rare attempt at reaching a different audience—which might be just the thing translated literature needs.

O’Brien complains about foreign governments and agencies and their moaning about the American market, but doesn’t note that many of those offering subsidies for translations into English also have the mission to foster translations into other languages, and to see foreign works translated into the local language(s), for which they provide similar subsidies. The success of those programs stands in marked contrast to the failures in the U.S., which might help explain their head-shaking frustration when dealing with Americans. In numerous countries and cultures translated literature (not just from English) has a solid readership. Getting a book published in English does make for greater opportunities—providing access to larger markets, and increasing the likelihood that it will be translated into other languages—but given the enormous barrier to entry in the U.S., and the comparatively small one in so many other nations which are so much more receptive to translated literature, the question of what the better use of funds is may not even be a very close call. It seems the $24,000 per book O’Brien suggests goes a lot farther (and the book it is spent on reaches many more readers) elsewhere.

In his three articles in CONTEXT, John O’Brien tackles the problem of there being so few translations of foreign literature published in the U.S. from the supply side, just slipping in the suggestion that increased selection and availability might also increase demand. Depending on how it is implemented, O’Brien’s suggestion might indeed increase the number of translations which are available—even significantly, if governments fork over enough money. However, the solution skews heavily towards the literature of nations that are willing and able to pay—inevitably leaving many developing cultures out in the cold—and likely would lead to considerable government involvement where it is not necessarily wanted (especially the selection of books to be supported).

Even if more titles are translated, the question remains as to whether the audience for translated literature in the U.S. would grow merely by making more titles available: while there’s something to be said for making worthy books available even if practically no one cares to read them, it is surely preferable to increase demand for translated literature (which would then also make translated literature a more appealing business risk for publishers to take).

Increased demand does not necessarily (or, in this case, even likely) follow from increased supply, but increased demand would almost certainly also lead to increased supply: if there’s a market for translated literature, if readers are clamoring for it, then publishers will respond by making more available. Clamoring crowds of readers seem unlikely, but the demand side is the one to focus attention on. The question of how best to do so (and where to obtain the financial support to do so) is also a vexed one, but I believe following this path would ultimately be more fruitful than trying to convince foreign governments to support translations in the manner (and to the extent) O’Brien envisions.


I am glad that someone out there is interested enough in translations to have responded to my latest installment, and I should have expected that it would be someone from the Complete Review.

And now my response to yours.

Most of what you say is given to fears of what will happen if foreign governments do provide such support—that some won’t be able to afford this support, that others will dictate which books will be published, and that publishers across America will rush to do translations (even you will get in the wonderful world of publishing!), though in fact this support would only allow for a publisher to approach breaking even financially.

I don’t want to spend time responding to these fears because, well, they represent the same kind of fears that people had and have about the National Endowment for the Arts funding literary publishing—fears that have proved unwarranted year after year.

I will jump to your “elsewhere” solution: sell more copies of translations, and then no outside help will be needed. The reason that the number of translations is decreasing is that publishers CAN’T sell more copies, even if they are willing to throw good money after bad via marketing and publicity. In other words, you are suggesting that—perhaps for the sake of bringing in a few thousand more dollars through intensive marketing efforts—publishers should be willing to lose even more money! Try telling this to Knopf, Farrar, or Viking.

But you wind up hinting that the readership for translations might be expanded if someone could figure out how to do this, and if someone else (foundations?) would provide financial support for such marketing endeavors. You seem to be suggesting that the solution for getting more books translated is to have, in true capitalistic tradition, a larger marketplace for them, and once the market exists, everyone will jump on board, thus solving both the problem of how to increase the number of translations and how to finance them. I applaud your belief in the American system (let the marketplace decide!), but I believe that your argument appears to go in a rather large circle. Namely, if what you are suggesting could be achieved (publishers, roll up your sleeves), then the solution all along was staring us in the face: just sell more copies! Ergo, your solution is a restatement of the problem, with this directive attached: JUST DO IT! No, the stark reality is that that even with expanded marketing and publicity, you might at best increase paid readership for literary translations from perhaps 1,500 to 2,500 copies (or, more likely, from 800 to 1,200). Or, I should say, maybe increase, on a good day, if the book has a human-interest story behind it. And you should also worry about the strings that can get attached by foundations in this country—they would want more influence than what you fear from foreign governments.

I’m afraid that where you are heading with your argument is where many people do: if there aren’t enough people out there in the marketplace to buy these things, then perhaps they shouldn’t be done. Let the marketplace decide! But where would that leave you and me? It would leave us with Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Like Water for Chocolate. These would represent what translated works will be available to us. Those books can sell! Are those, though, what you want? So, I will throw it back to you. With a typical literary work in translation, the approximate cost to the publisher is $35,000, with the expectation that $12,000 will come back (eventually) through sales. Which leaves a gap of $23,000. How does this gap get filled?


Click on the links below to read parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series:

. . . A Simple Question (Part 1) by John O’Brien
. . . And More on Translations (Part 2) by John O’Brien & Tim Wilkinson
The Finnish Know How To Do It (Part 3) by John O’Brien

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