Saturday, May 03, 2008

Publishers Weekly: On Translation (Part II)

You can find a summary of the first part of this panel here. The second half of the panel was dedicated to questions from the audience, which I inevitably find to be less interesting than the moderated section but at least it's better than going to these things in a University setting where there is inevitably some douche who makes a five minute argument and tacks a question mark on the end. Anyway...

The first question asked was whether or not it was generally less difficult to make money publishing in Europe. Krüger said that it is also difficult in Europe. The book market is overcrowded just as it is in the US. They then brought the discussion back to translation specifically. Frank explained that most publishers in the US look at translation as a dead loss and also said that he doesn't think the problem is American provincialism but American triumphalism. He quoted Madeleine Albright describing the US as the world's "indispensable nation" and said that he thinks there is a feeling that if the US is the indispensable nation then so too must our literature be the indispensable literature. Entrekin pointed out that US publishers are in a difficult position because sales are much smaller for non-Anglo-Saxon writers. Maybe 2,000-3,000 copies in hardcover and you have to factor in the need to pay the translation costs. Freihow added that what is successful in one nation may not be successful in another and it is important for publishers to know their market.

The next question asked was one I didn't quite understand. It was something about how books published in translation or otherwise in Spain are then sold in Latin America and it doesn't seem to be the case that books translated in the UK are then sold in the US. Krüger was fairly dismissive of this saying that in the past Latin America had imported 80% of its literature from Spain but that happily seemed to be changing. He described it as a ridiculous post-colonial situation. It sounded like the issue was not a lack of exchange between the UK and the US in comparison to Spain and Latin America but the fact that there had been no real publishing industry in Latin America so even authors from there had to go to Spain to be published. Nelson added that in the 70s many Latin American poets were actually published in the US first, before they were even published in Spain.

There was also something about António Lobo Antunes. The fact that he is not popular in the English speaking world perhaps? That not enough copies are put out and this results in small sales? Krüger said that Antunes is actually very hard to sell in Germany as well. His company used to publish him and he was frustrated by his small sales so he went to a different company where his sales continue to be small. He then said something about him waiting to win the Nobel Prize now so that his sales will take off. But, he added, the ideas of the Swedish committee are bizarre (this is very true). This led to a conversation about making money off publishing in translation.

Entrekin said that winning the Nobel Prize does jump sales and used Kenzaburo Oe and sales of A Personal Matter as an example. It sounded like winning the prize can bring a writer to another level in status and then sales remain at a higher level because they are then considered a more important writer. That's my own interpretation though as opposed to anything that was said. Entrekin also returned to the subject of Antunes and said that his company also used to publish Antunes and he thinks that the difficulty in selling his books stems from the subject matter not the availability. Freihow than said that he expects novels in translation, particularly novels translated from English, to do better than a first novel by a Norwegian author, for example. So rather different than what you would expect in the US. Krüger said something to the effect of making money off the trash to put into good novels which seems a more general strategy to me then one just relevant to translation. Frank then said that it is possible to make money off books in translation but you have to expect to sell relatively few copies and know the market you are selling to, which is a niche one. I was glad he made a point of this since a high percentage of what NYRB Classics sells--particularly for a US company--is books in translation and they've been doing so for 10 years so I assume they have a business model that enables them to make money.

A question was then asked about the marketing of translated books. Nelson added that there are 300,000 books published per year in the US (this number seems high since in 2004 it was about 190,000 but I assume she knows better than I do) and asked how many are published in other countries. Krüger said that there are 10,000-20,000 fiction books published per year in Germany. I wish Nelson had provided the fiction numbers for the US or Krüger had provided the total numbers for Germany. Anyway, Krüger went on to say that readership is not growing. He also stated that the public imagination is constantly changing and used the popularity of crime novels in the US and not in Germany as an example of this. Freihow then jumped in to say that the market for crime novels is rising in all of Scandinavia. This led Krüger to note that the literary imagination is not popular right now. But Freihow, who seemed generally more optimistic to me, pointed out that The God of Small Things sold 70,000 copies in Norway so it seemed to him that we shouldn't say literature is failing. Krüger countered that there are more options now and that literature bestsellers are the exception. He also talked about how translating poetry is one of the oldest literary genres but doesn't sell.

After all this Frank actually addressed the question of marketing to an extent, in terms of different cultural complexions. He talked about the way in which books are arranged in a bookstore. In the US that is divided by genre and then alphabetically by author. But he said that in France books are arranged by country of origin and in Italy by publisher. So there is a difference in presentation--the expectation of a more literate public that is interested in reading literature from different parts of the world or the editorial curatorship that one sees from various publishers.

The next question was whether or not publishing trash in translation in the US could help to make works in translation more popular. Entrekin said that it's something that's happening now with Scandinavian crime fiction and Freihow added that it's better to read trash than not read at all (a view to which I subscribe). Frank then said that there's a lot worse trash than crime fiction. Another view to which I subscribe; I don't like the dismissal of entire genres as trash because I think it's simply not the case.

Someone then asked if non-fiction was different since the focus of the evening had been on fiction. Krüger said that in Europe publishers don't distinguish between academic and general non-fiction but he thinks in the future there will be academic presses/supported systems as there are in the US. Freihow said that smaller countries like the Scandinavian ones are actually losing their academic literature because the authors write and publish directly in English. I thought these were interesting answers but wasn't convinced that they really addressed the question.

The final question of the evening was whether or not it was difficult to find good translators in the US. Entrekin said that it is easy to find translators for the major languages but a bit more difficult to find translators for smaller languages. Overall though, he thinks it is not that hard. What is hard, he said, is to make a living as a translator, and most of them work in academia. Frank agreed, and that ended the evening.

1 comment:

tonya said...

Fascinating posts, Meg! Thank you for the detailed reviews of the evening!