Friday, May 02, 2008

Publishers Weekly: On Translation (Part I)

The PEN World Voices festival fills me with glee. Writers from all over the world talking about books and literature on panel after panel...what's not to like? There are a lot of events that overlap or take place during the workday, but I'm going to attend a bunch of panels and such in the next few days so I'm looking forward to that.

The panel I went to Thursday centered on translation which is, of course, a topic that one practically has to consider during a festival that features writers from all over the world who write in a multitude of different languages. This particular panel was not about the act of translating itself but the business of publishing literature in translation. Something we don't do much of in the United States.

The panel was comprised of Edwin Frank, the editorial director of NYRB Classics; Morgan Entrekin, the president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic; Michael Krüger, the head of German publishing house Hanser Verlag; and Halfdan Freihow, who founded his own publishing house, Font Forlag, in Norway. Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly moderated.

The panelists all began by talking a bit about their involvement with translation and the amount of their publishing output that is literature in translation, with the American publishers speaking specifically of their companies and the European publishers more generally of publishing in translation in their countries.

NYRB Classics publishes 25 books a year and has been doing so for 10 years. They began as a reprint house, publishing books that were out of print in English, but they now also publish books that have never been translated into English before. As a side note, I love the NYRB Classics imprint: its ambition in terms of publishing choices, its list, its uniformity of design, pretty much everything about it.

Krüger said that Germany, "came late into civilization," and that German literature begins with Martin Luther's translation of the Bible. Translations have always been a big part of German publishing with over 50% of books published in Germany originating in foreign countries, and 60-70% being translations from Anglo-Saxon languages. He stated that the translation business is a prestigious one and the concept of the translator is highly regarded with translators now being treated like an author to a large extent.

Freihow said that at least half the books he publishes are in translation which he described as normal for Norwegian publishers. He then went on to make three points:
  1. Translation and the importation of voices is invaluable, particularly in a small country like Norway, to insure that the country does not become linguistically or intellectually isolated. Books that have been translated should be treated as part of the literature of the language they have been translated into.
  2. Translators are at the forefront of linguistic development due to their need to search for metaphors, etc.
  3. He feels that it is important to pay above the going rate for translation.

Entrekin described the backlist of Grove as the engine that allows the publisher to run and mentioned that it has a great core of literature in translation and that is a tradition he attempts to continue. At the same time, he explained, it is extremely difficult to sell literature in translation in the United States. Grove publishes 10-15 translated books per year. He explained that he thinks of publishing these books, as it was once described to him, as a kind of "psychic equity." The company is contributing to the conversation in a way that will improve perception of and support for the imprint.

Nelson then mentioned that only 3% of the books published in the United States are in translation and asked the European publishers where the books they publish originate. Both Krüger and Freihow said that around 50% are from the United States and England and Freihow also said that half of those are the big bestsellers. Freihow then went on to speculate as to why translated work doesn't sell in the US. He feels that it can't be the subject matter, which is the same regardless of where the work is from, nor can it be the foreign names since the US has such a diverse population that we're used to unusual names. It seems to me though that the problem starts before the readers even make a choice on what to buy though as Entrekin said the booksellers don't order books in translation and the reviewers don't review them. They say they don't have space on their shelves or inches in their columns. He also pointed out that in the post-WWII era, many of the books that did get translated were very intellectual, non-narrative, and difficult to read, which could have turned readers off. He said that he does think it's getting easier to sell translated books and that this is in part because of the sort of books that are being written and published.

The next question related to funding for translations and the fact that an agent had recently told Nelson that it was difficult to sell American books in Europe due to current politics. Krüger answered that he doesn't find any anti-Americanism in publishing and feels that American books have more influence in Germany than they did, say, 50 years ago. Entrekin said that it is more difficult to sell books in Europe than it was in the 80s but he thinks it is partially a market correction after the very high number of books that were being sold there at the time and partially the result of an influx of writers from all over the world. So basically that the American books are now being drawn from a bigger pool than they were previously. Freihow said that part of the issue is "greedy agents" driving prices up and a lack of translation support from the US. Krüger pointed out that even small European countries provide 3 or 4 million dollars a year to support translations and many of the translations published are funded largely by the government. He doesn't understand why the US can't do this. Frank ascribed it to that eternal sore spot: the lack of government funding for the arts in the United States.

On a slight tangent, Krüger said that he feels we need to translate contemporary work because translating old thinking means going back. Freihow then spoke about the export business as a threat to translation because people read the books in English instead of waiting for the translation to be published and then local publishers lose out. This is something I actually was aware of because I've heard the foreign sales people at my company speak about it. Apparently this is particularly the case in some of the Scandinavian countries so it wasn't surprising to hear Freihow mention it. Personally I tend to think this is a good thing, because it seems to me that it is always better to read something in the language in which it was originally written if it is possible to do so. I can understand why publishers wouldn't love it though. This led to a brief discussion of global publishing and of titles being released in multiple countries/languages at roughly the same time. Krüger said that trash travels extraordinarily fast while non-trash is very slow. Freihow then added that the publishing business tends to overestimate the importance of time. The interested reader doesn't care if a book is brand new.

The audience was then invited to ask questions. I'll write about that a bit later, because this is long and I'm tired with a long Friday stretching out before me: I've got work, another panel I'd like to go to, and then the ballet in the evening.

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