Three Percent and Rising?

An oft-cited statistic in literary and publishing circles is that only 3 percent of all books published in the United States are translations from another language. In contrast, translations occupy 30-60 percent of the European book market. Industry professionals (as well as a recent Daily Beast article) typically provide several reasons for this paucity, most falling into the “difficult to sell” category: consumers are hesitant to take a chance on an unknown author; international authors are often unable to actively participate in publicity campaigns; not enough editors are sufficiently multilingual to acquire work that has not yet been translated, and the cost of hiring a translator ups the risk factor of international acquisition . . . the list goes on. Additionally, many readers and reviewers share the opinion that translated literature is impure, since it is the translator’s writing that they are reading rather than the author’s, and something of the author’s merit will inevitably be lost in that translation. Indeed, many publishers elect not to print the translator’s name on the cover of a book for fear that it will turn readers away.

But perhaps this reluctance to publish translations is in the process of changing. Along with a rise in academic translation programs, the past decade or so has seen an increase in international literature organizations and publishing houses, such as Words Without Borders, the University of Rochester’s Three Percent and it’s publishing operation, Open Letter Books, and many others. This year’s AWP conference featured several translation-related panels and events, which suggested to Susan Bernofsky of the excellent Translationista blog that “interest in literary translation is continuing to grow among the charmingly bookish.”

One particularly exciting development is Words Without Borders’ educational initiative, WWB Campus, which launched last summer. The site features not only works of international literature in translation, but also country-specific contextual materials to allow for a deeper understanding of the readings. In tandem with the launch of their Campus project, Words Without Borders also produced an issue dedicated to international YA. New York Public Library hosted an international YA panel coinciding with the WWB issue, and according to the WWB panelist at the event, the YA issue was already breaking readership records. With the current boom in YA literature, it seems like a smart move to target translated literature at a younger audience; this approach could help foster a new generation of voracious international literature aficionados.

You may be aware that Ooligan Press also offers a handful of translated titles, all originally written in Croatian: American Scream: Palindrome Apocalypse, Do Angels Cry?, Zagreb, Exit South, and The Survival League. Palindrome Apocalypse, as the title suggests, features over six hundred lines of deeply expressive palindrome—a stunning feat that is simply impossible in English. Although the form cannot be replicated, the translator skillfully conveyed the content and spirit of this epic poem. We elected to publish the original Croatian text alongside the translation, allowing readers to appreciate the nearly magical potential of the Croatian language to convey such deep meaning in such a restrictive form.

If any of you readers have a favorite work of translated literature, we would love to hear your recommendations.

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