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.