Book publishing has a long history of international collaboration. Publishers around the world are constantly exchanging manuscripts, translating them, and sharing their culture with others. Here in the US, publishers regularly sell rights to international markets and export manuscripts to foreign countries, but unfortunately, this process is currently a one-way street. We export significantly more manuscripts than we import; this is otherwise known as “the 3 percent problem.” According to the University of Rochester, only about 3 percent of books published in the US are works in translation, and “in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.”
Some readers might be wondering why we should care about translated fiction; after all, we publish hundreds of thousands of books here in the US every year. There is certainly not a lack of stories available to read when it comes to fiction. However, there are several reasons why we should be concerned that we are missing out on the exchange of literature that is happening around the rest of the world.
One reason why reading translated fiction is so important is because it allows us to experience other cultures from a firsthand perspective. While some of us may read books set in foreign countries, reading a book set in France written from an American writer’s perspective is a completely different experience than reading one written from a French writer’s perspective. As the blog Books & Bao states, “They’re not the world as described by English-speaking white people, but worlds brought to you through the imaginations and experiences of local people—their words travel across seas to those of us who cannot cross the seas ourselves.” Readers can gain valuable insight into a country and its culture through reading its books, even if the books have nothing to do with the setting itself.
Reading translated fiction can also have significant positive effects on us as individuals as well as a collective society. Empathy is a skill that is incredibly important to us as humans, but it can be hard for some to acquire. According to
Scientific American, “Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.” Reading fiction allows us to understand others’ emotions and perspectives, and reading translated fiction can help us do this with perspectives from all across the globe. Reading translated works is not just fun; it also helps us learn, grow, and become better humans with a larger capacity for empathy and compassion.
Some might argue that traveling is a better way to experience other cultures. While traveling is another great way to experience different lifestyles and settings, it isn’t realistic for many of us. Translated fiction is much more accessible in terms of expenses and time, and in my opinion, it can give even more insight than you would receive from traveling alone.
Right now, many large publishers in the US are making an effort to publish more diverse books that help expose us to new perspectives and give voices to underrepresented writers. This is an amazing transformation for this industry; however, big publishers are still avoiding translated fiction out of fear that there isn’t a market for these books. The best thing that we can do as readers is to make an effort to start reading more translated fiction, and to make our voices heard through social media or other platforms. The more demand there is for translated works, the more we will start to see them in mainstream publishing. Imagine a future where the New York Times Best Seller list includes fiction originally published in Japan, Germany, India, or Brazil? Readers would still be able to read great fiction, while also being exposed to new ideas and expanding their global perspective.
It is up to us as readers to seek out more of these books, and pressure publishers to make them more available. Here at Ooligan Press, we are currently making an effort to publish translated fiction and to spread awareness of its importance. As the Rights Coordinator at Ooligan, I am excited to see translated fiction become more popular and accessible, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the publishing industry can transform to include even more diverse literature for readers here in the US.