Monday, June 1, 2009

BEA Recap: Translation Troubles

Every year BEA chooses an international focus area, and this year’s focus was books and publishing in “the Arab world.” As part of this focus, a panel composed of Arab and US editors discussed the dilemma of getting non-English books, particularly Arabic books, into the US market. Panel participants included Mark Linz from the American University of Cairo Press, Chad Post from Open Letter at the University of Rochester, Rana Idris from Dar al Adab in Beirut, and Erroll McDonald, Vice President and Executive Editor of Pantheon Books (a Random House imprint).

As expected, the panel discussed the ideological barriers faced by Arabic books attempting to break into the US market, the built-in handicap of translation costs imposed on all non-English books in the US market, and the importance of proactive institutions (e.g., the German Book Office) and assertive translators to the success of translated works. All the panelists agreed on these points, but the debate turned lively when the topic shifted to the relative dearth of translated works in the US market. McDonald argued that books can only be published in the US if they have a “platform,” such as a large expected reader base or a prior track record (arising out of the author’s previous books or the book’s success in other countries). McDonald thinks translations are dead on arrival in the US because “Americans are breathtaking provincial.” Just as world music is relegated to a small section in the back of music stores and foreign files are restricted to art houses, books in translation, in McDonald’s view, are destined to be marginalized in American culture.

Fortunately, Post stepped up to McDonald’s challenge with a valiant and admirable defense of American culture. In Post’s view, the fault lies with the business models of the large publishing houses rather than with the provincialism of Americans. Large publishers like Random House require huge audiences for their books, essentially forcing such publishers to direct their efforts towards the lowest common denominator. Post believes there’s a significant US audience for translations, but the large houses aren’t willing to make the effort required to find worthy foreign works, translate them into English, and then support them in the marketplace with all the fanfare that generally surrounds the release of Dan Brown’s latest. Post stated, “This is a publisher problem, not a cultural problem.” Not surprisingly, approximately 80% of translations published in the US come from small presses like Open Letter.

3 comments:

An Anonymous Child said...

Well, okay then. This sounds like utter nonsense. Take into account that when an international non-English bestseller finally breaks through, it can get hyped up wonderfully ("Shadow of the Wind"). But somehow properly publishing foreign literature is because readers don't want it.

This is another example of publishers not understanding what their consumers want and getting away with it. I think it's a pity and a shame that few foreign books are translated into English, especially when publishers rush to sell foreign rights for almost all of their books, even those that are clearly sub-par. Perhaps American publishers could put a halt to all their bad publications and focus on finding good foreign ones and giving them the attention they deserve...

Serena said...

I have to agree here. I would love some great works by foreign authors. I think its a shame that large publishers do little with translation. Foreign workers are just as good and sometimes better than American work.

I for one would love to see more translated works.

chadwpost said...

I wouldn't look to corporate publishers for logical business plans . . .

But seriously, I agree completely with Gwen and both other comments. Thing is, until one corporate press fails spectacularly, they're going to keep on publishing in the way they have for the past couple decades--pushing titles they believe have the largest reach without really caring about what readers really want or what's best for book culture as a whole.

BTW, I wrote a long, varied response to this over at Three Percent: http://tinyurl.com/lkwmhs