Beyond the Three Percent
In 2007, before releasing its first title, Open Letter Books, a literary press based at the University of Rochester, began running a blog called Three Percent. The title comes from an estimate of how large a share of the annual U.S. book output consists of translations. If anything, that figure may have been a little high even at the time. Given the continuing surge in the number of new titles published each year (up 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, thanks in part to print-on-demand), the portion of books in translation is almost certainly shrinking. Whether or not globalization is an irresistible force, provincialism is an immovable object. But Open Letter, for its part, is dedicated to doing what it can. The press brings 10 foreign-language books into English each year (most of them novels) and Three Percent tracks what is happening in the world of literary translation. The blog also sponsors the annual Best Translated Book Award, now in its fifth year.
As it turns out, the latest work from Open Letter was originally written in English. The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading is an e-book consisting of material that Chad W. Post, who is OL's publisher, has culled from his blogging over the past four years. (“Some were speeches that I had to give and wrote them first for Three Percent,” Post said by e-mail. “Two birds and all that.”) It can be downloaded from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99 -- with all of the profit going to pay translators. You could read all this material for free online, of course, but that would be miserly.
So cough up the three bucks, is what I’m trying to say. It goes for a good cause -- and besides, the book is a good deal, even apart from the low price. The pieces have been revised somewhat, and arranged by topic and theme, so that the whole thing now reads like a reasonably cohesive attempt to come to terms with the developments in book culture during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. As John B. Thompson showed in his study Merchants of Culture (Polity, 2010), dealing with any particular change in publishing requires you to grapple with the whole system -- the vast apparatus of production and distribution that connects writer and public. Translation is one aspect of it, of course, but it links up in various ways with the rest of publishing. While Post was making his running assessment of the state of literary translation, he also had to think about the new ways we buy and consume texts. One of essays is called “Reading in the Age of Screens,” which indeed could be an alternative title for the whole book.
Notification that the book was available came to me last week via Facebook, which is amusing given Post's definite ambivalence about the "all digital, all the time" tendency of contemporary life. "In the digital world," he said in a note, "we tend to stick to what we already know we want, reinforcing certain patterns, and losing some of the serendipity that a lot of readers point to as a huge influence on their life." True, and yet I did buy the book and start reading it (on a screen) within a few minutes, and was able to ask the author questions later that afternoon. The lack of serendipity was not a big problem.
One of the things I wanted to ask Post about was the peculiar role of academe in regard to translation. University presses undoubtedly account for a larger share of each year’s crop of translations than trade publishers do. At the same time, the actual work of bridging language barriers has long been undervalued as a form of scholarship. An uninspired monograph generates more institutional credit than a much-needed translation. The Modern Language Association began taking steps in a more encouraging direction a couple of years ago, when Catherine Porter (a prolific translator of books from French) was its president. And this spring, MLA issued guidelines for evaluating translations as part of peer review. But without stronger institutional recognition of the value of translation, the American tendency toward literary isolationism will only get worse -- apart from the occasional surge of interest in, say, Swedish mystery fiction.
According to a database kept by Three Percent, academic presses bring out roughly 15 percent of the translated fiction and poetry appearing each year. “I suspect this figure would be much higher if we tracked nonfiction works as well,” Post told me. “As it stands, nonprofits, university presses, and independents account for 80-85 percent of the published translations.” He mentioned the presses of Columbia University, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska as examples of imprints bringing out excellent books in translation. But talking with literary translators working in academe means hearing “a bunch of terrifying stories about their translation work interfering with getting tenure, etc.”
Even so, there are young professors interested in the study of translation -- “and surprisingly,” Post said, “I know at least a few who are being urged (and evaluated) by their departments to continue translating." At the same time, the classroom is a front line in the effort to overcome resistance or indifference to the rest of the world’s literature. “It always shocks me at how few books from France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, etc., that students read during their studies,” he says. “It's as if American and British authors exist in a bubble, or as if students are just supposed to find out about the rich history of world literature in their spare time.... I think it would be ideal if more international works were taught in classes, giving students a chance to explore the issues of translation and helping defuse the trepidation some readers have when approaching a translated book.”
Open Letter works with the program in literary translation studies at the University of Rochester. Students “take a theory class, produce a portfolio of their own translations, and intern with the press.” Post admits that the trends in the publishing world do not point to a future in which translation will be a booming field. Thanks to "depletion in the number of bookstores (especially independents), increased focus on the bottom line, [and] the immense increases in the number of published titles," the portion of translated books "will remain around 3 percent, or even decrease when you start counting self-published titles.” At the same time, a number of small presses with a commitment to publishing translations have emerged over the past decade or so, besides Open Letter. They include Archipelago Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Europa Editions, Melville House, PEN World Voices, and Words Without Borders.
Calling it an issue “as fraught as it could be,” Post notes that Amazon is not only “funding a lot of organizations involved in translation, but they've started AmazonCross, a publishing enterprise focused exclusively on literature in translation.” In 2010, the online bookseller gave $25,000 to the University of Rochester so that the Best Translated Book Awards could begin offering a cash prize to the winning authors and translators.
Someone willing and able to spend the money “could make a huge difference in the landscape for international literature in a short period of time,” Post told me. “This doesn't have to be a corporation at all.… I think that over the next decade, as more small presses come into existence thanks to advances in technology, changes in distribution methods, and general dissatisfaction with a lot of the stuff coming out from corporate presses, the audience for international literature will continue to increase. There may not be that many more titles being published, but the publishers doing this work will get more and more savvy at getting their titles into the hands of interested readers, academics, reviewers, etc. -- people who aren't put off by the idea of reading a translation.”
That last part is, in the final analysis, the real crux of the matter. Even when books do get translated, they are sometimes promoted very poorly. In The Three Percent Problem, Post refers to one university press that seems committed to describing the foreign novels it publishes in terms that are strangely unappealing. Without naming the press I can confirm that the complaint is all too valid: the publisher's catalog always makes the books sound desiccated, lugubrious, and inaction-packed.
It's the kind of thing that reinforces what Post calls "the overriding prejudice" about books in translation: "that they won't sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc." The only cure is for enthusiastic readers to communicate among themselves, to strike a spark of interest.