Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Bleak Economics of Literature in Translation

Chad Post at Three Percent explains the several reasons why publishers generally don't like translations. First, there's the cost of the translation itself:
[I]n deciding to do a translation, a publisher is assuming the cost of paying a translator in addition to all normal expenses. The current going rate for a translation is $125/1000 words, so, for a 70,000 word novel, a translator should get paid $8,750. That’s not a huge amount ... [but] it is an additional cost that doesn’t exist for books originally written in English.
Then there're the abysmal sales figures:
[L]iterary fiction in translation sells poorly in the States. I’ve heard that even Saramago was selling in the low thousands (or high hundreds) before winning the Nobel Prize. It’s in no way unusual for a literary translation to sell in the 2,000 copy range. And publishers who sell 4-5,000 copies of a translation feel like they did an excellent job.

Finally, there's the absence of interest in marketing:

[I]f you’re only spending a few thousand dollars [on the rights], your sales and marketing department isn’t going to do much to help this book find its audience. They have to spend their time and energy on the million-dollar advance books—the ones that really matter. Sales, marketing, and publicity departments at big presses generally treat literary translations as red-headed stepchildren that they have to live with, but really don’t love. Advance sales to bookstores are paltry, not much effort goes into getting coverage for these books, and as a result, sales are wretched, the publisher loses $15-$20,000 on the book, and, in a world where profits have to keep increasing year in and out, the desire to publish more works in translation is quashed.
Dreary indeed.


Anna van Gelderen said...

There are some advantages in living in a small country like the Netherlands with an obscure language: there are lots of translated books to be had over here - although I have to admit that most of them are translated from the English. Nevertheless, the fiction sections of Dutch bookshops have a cosmopolitan feel that is lacking in most US bookshops.

Matt said...

I'm one of the few who scrupulously chases after translated fiction. The UK bookshops probably stock more translation than here. The Taiwanese booksellers carry pretty much a Chinese translation of all major US and UK bestsellers.