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.

Scott McLemee
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End Large Conferences

I’ll play Marc Antony. I have not come to praise large conferences, but to bury them. It is my opinion that mega humanities conferences are way past their sell-by date. For senior faculty the only reason to go is to schmooze with old friends; for junior faculty they are an onerous duty, and for graduate students they are a rip-off for which professional organizations ought to be collectively ashamed.

First codicil: I speak exclusively of humanities conferences, as they are the only ones I know firsthand. Friends in computing and the sciences tell me that collaborative efforts arise from their conferences. I’m willing to believe them. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Most humanities people find it so hard to collaborate that their wills stipulate that their notes go with them to the grave.

Second codicil: I have only myself to blame for recent travails. I didn't need to go to my unnamed conference, but I got it into my head that it would be fun. I was wrong. It serves me right for violating my principles.

Five years ago I concluded that humanities conferences were out of touch with the times and vowed to attend only smaller regional meetings with less cachet, but more satisfaction. But I didn’t listen to me. Instead I spent four days and a considerable wad of cash jostling among a throng of over three thousand. I returned home more akin to Ponce de Leon, who sought the Fountain of Youth and found mostly dismal swampland. Sound harsh? See if any of these observations resonate with your own.

Problem One: Outmoded Presentations

We live in the communications age, but the memo apparently never circulated among those studying the liberal arts. For reasons arcane and mysterious, humanities scholars still read papers. That’s tedious enough at a small conference where one might attend six three-paper presentations. At my recent conference, sessions commenced at 8 a.m. and ran past 10 p.m. One could have conceivably attended 30 sessions and heard 90 or more papers, though the only ones with the stamina to attend more than six or seven sessions were either posturing or desperate.

I wanted my four-day sojourn to introduce me to new ideas, concepts, and teaching modules, but the reality of such a grueling schedule is that I was running on fumes by the end of day one. It would have helped if presenters took advantage of new technology, but things seldom got more flash than PowerPoint, a program that, alas, seems to encourage more reading. Let me reiterate something I’ve said for years: the death penalty should apply to those who read anything from a PowerPoint slide other than a direct quote. It's an academic conference, for crying out loud; assume your audience is reasonably proficient at reading! Seriously, does anyone need to fly across the country to listen to a paper? Why not do as science conferences have done for years: post papers online and gather to have a serious discussion of those papers?

The mind-numbing tedium of being read to for four days is exacerbated by the fact that many humanities scholars have little idea about the differences between hearing and reading. If you construct a paper that’s so highly nuanced that understanding it rests upon subtle turns of phrase or complicated linguistic shifts, do not look up from your paper with a wan smile indicating you are enamored of your own cleverness; go back to your room and rewrite the damn thing. Audience, clarity, and coherence are pretty much the Big Three for speech and composition, unless one's audience is the International Mindreaders' Society. By the way, is there something wrong with using a map, providing a chart, or summarizing a work that few in the room are likely to have read? And do bother to tell me why your paper matters.

I actually heard several very exciting papers, but most of the offerings were dreadful. Note to young scholars: stop relying on the Internet and check out journals that predate 1995 before you proclaim a “discovery.” And if you really want to stand out, work on your shtick. Guess which papers I remember? Yep -- those in which the presenter did more than read to me.

Critical note to young scholars: Want to turn off everyone in the room? Be the person who doesn’t think that the 20-minute limit applies to you. Nothing says "non-collegial" more clearly.

Problem Two: Expense

Another reason to rethink conferences is that they cost an arm and a leg to attend. I had partial funding from my university because I was presenting -- and no, I bloody well did not read my paper -- but I was still out of pocket for quite a hunk of cash. If you attend a humanities conference and want to stay anywhere near the actual site of the event, plan on $150 per night for lodging in a soulless franchise hotel with windowless conference rooms and quirky technology, $20 per day for Internet access, another $200 for conference fees, roughly $500 for airfare, at least $50 for taxis to and from the airport -- almost no U.S. city has a convenient shuttle service anymore -- and money for whatever you plan on eating.

Budget plenty for the latter if your conference is in what is glibly called a Destination City. That’s shorthand for a theme area marketing itself as unique, though it’s actually a slice of Generica surrounded by shops and restaurants identical to those found in suburban malls in every way except one: captive audiences equal higher prices. (One small example: the Starbucks inside the pedestrian precinct at my hotel charged a buck more per cup than the one on the street 100 yards away.) Do the math and you can see that you can easily drop a few grand on a megaconference. (That’s what some adjuncts are paid per course!)

An immediate cost-saving adjustment would be to confine conferences to airline hub cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston. The moment the conference locates to a (not my term) "second-tier" city, allot another few hundred dollars for "connecting flights," a term used by the airline industry because it sounds nicer than saying you’ll spend six hours waiting in a hub, after you’ve sprinted through the airport like Usain Bolt for your next flight, found the gate closed, and retreated to the rebooking counter.

Problem Three: Victimized Grad Students

I'm a parsimonious Scot who resents spending money on boring hotels and lousy food, but I can afford it when I have to. Grad students can’t. A major way in which megaconferences have changed in the past several decades is that there’s considerably less balance between senior scholars, junior colleagues, and graduate students. (Senior scholars used to accompany the latter two in a mentor capacity.) Now there is just a smattering of senior and junior scholars, and they’re often holed up in hotel suites conducting interviews. Whenever they can, search committee members flee the conference and rendezvous with old friends. They might attend a session or two. Unless they have to be there, there aren’t many junior colleagues in attendance at all because they're busy getting material into publication and they can meet presentation expectations at cheaper regional meetings, or save their dough and go to prestigious (-sounding) international gatherings.

So who’s left? Graduate students. Lots of graduate students. So many that conservationists would recommend culling the herd if they were wild mustangs. Grad students have always gone to conferences in hopes of making their mark, attracting attention, and meeting people who can help them advance. That was the way it was done -- 20 years ago. Now network opportunities are slimmer. Whom do they meet? Mostly other grad students, often those massed outside of interview rooms.

Of all the antiquated things about large conferences, the "cattle call" interview is the most perverse. These were barbaric back in the days in which there were jobs; now they’re simply cruel. At least a third of attendees at my conference were grad students from a single discipline: English. As has been discussed many times on this site, most of them shouldn't be in grad school in the first place. How many of the thousand-plus English grad students can realistically hope to get an academic job of any sort?

The Modern Language Association predicts that only 900 English jobs will come open for all of 2011. That’s 900 in all specialties of English, the bulk of which will be in writing and rhetoric, not Austen and Proust. Will a fifth of those at the conference get a job? The odds are long. It's probably more like half of that, and if we're talking about a good job, slice it in half once more. So why ask strapped grad students to attend expensive conferences for 15-minute preliminary interviews? Do a telephone interview, for heaven’s sake; it’s kinder on both grad students and search committees.

As I did as a grad student, many young hopefuls pooled resources and economized where they could, but the sad truth is that the vast majority of attendees spent a small fortune on a gamble whose odds aren't much greater than buying lottery tickets. Are associations playing the role of enabler to grad student delusions? Yes. Here’s another thought: Instead of holding a big conference, sponsor a teleconference. Charge a fee for uploads, but give speakers one-year access to the URL, which they can make available to potential employers. Use the savings to the association to lobby for more tenure-track faculty.

Problem Four: No-Shows

You spend lots of money, you sit through desultory talks, and head off to the one or two sessions that made you want to attend the conference in the first place. What do you find? It’s been canceled because only one of the presenters showed up, and that paper was combined with several others of sessions that suffered the same fate. Didn’t you see the 3x5 card tacked to the conference bulletin board?

As noted above, I’m in favor of putting large conferences to rest. But If we insist on having them, let’s at least make sure they’re as advertised. O.K., things do happen, but in most cases missing presenters are simply AWOL. I know it smacks of McCarthyism, but I’ve come to support the idea of a data bank of no-shows that employers, conference planners, and deans can check.

Problem Five: Urban Sprawl

What’s the point of a conference that’s so big it’s inaccessible? I walked between two different hotels to attend sessions and pored over a Britannica-sized program to locate them. Conference attendees were housed in four "official" hotels and untold numbers of others. With round-the-clock sessions and decentralization, the few networking opportunities that did exist were logistically difficult. It took me two entire days to find my old friends, let alone new folks I wanted to engage. I met two interesting people at the airport. I never saw them again.

In Praise of Small Conferences

There are other problems I’ll leave for now, including the gnawing suspicion that some big conferences have become sinecures for "insiders" who have become "players" within associations. Let’s just say that there is a serious disconnect between how the big conferences operate and what makes sense in the changing world of academe.

Teleconferences with real-time discussion groups and online forums would be one good starting point for reform; providing more resources for regional and local conferences would be another. Small gatherings have issues of their own -- no-shows, sparsely attended sessions, overreliance on volunteers -- but they compensate by offering intimacy, good value, face-to-face feedback, and easier opportunities to network. It's time to give these the cachet they deserve. The big conference is like a one-size-fits-all t-shirt; it simply doesn’t accessorize most people. I’m done. For real. Unless I get funding for an exotic overseas meeting. (Just kidding!)

Rob Weir
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Rob Weir, who writes the "Instant Mentor" column for Inside Higher Ed's Career Advice section, has published six books and numerous articles on social and cultural history, and has been cited for excellence in teaching on numerous occasions during his 20 years in the college classroom.

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