Lost in Translation

Last month at the Frankfurt Book Fair, one of the largest international literary gatherings, guess what American publishers lined up to buy?

Work by other American, or at least British, authors.

Apparently, according to the New York Times, large American publishing houses are afraid to buy publishing rights for foreign-language books because they don’t think Americans are willing to purchase literature that has been translated from a foreign language. But are they being given a chance?

Out of 15,000 new book titles released in the US this year, only 330 were from authors that write in a foreign language.

That’s only about 2%!

Sure, a poorly done translation can turn off readers, but great literature is not just limited to the English language.

A good translation of a foreign novel can capture and communicate the essence of the original book, allowing English-speaking readers to enjoy reading books from all over the world even if we speak a different language than the writer.

Why are American publishers afraid of publishing translated books?

The conventional wisdom is that they don’t sell well. However, the New York Times article quoted Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign-rights director at Gallimard in France, as saying that translated books simply don’t get the same marketing and promotion as English-language books, so of course they don’t have strong sales.

However, even highly regarded international titles are usually much cheaper to purchase than work by American authors. Plus, many European governments will reimburse publishers for the translation costs.

With so much great foreign literature going un-translated and unpublished in America, what are Americans missing? In the Times article, Anne-Solange Noble has an answer:

“American publishers are depriving the American readership of the cultural diversity through translation to which they are entitled,”

Ms. Noble said.

“It is what I call the poverty of the rich.”

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