If every culture has a story to tell, why are we only reading Europeans?
When it comes to literary translation, American publishers have a pipeline problem. Not a pipeline problem in the way that tech companies use the phrase, blaming low diverse hiring numbers on their purported lack of female and minority applicants. Publishing’s problem is not one of supply — rather flaws in the acquisitions system that make it nearly impossible for non-Western authors and US publishers to connect.
In 2018, for the second year in a row, American publishers released fewer titles in translation, publishing 609 books, compared to 666 in 2016. By and large, these books were also translated from the exact same languages they always have been, with 41.87 percent originally written in Spanish, German, or French. In comparison, only one book was translated from Bosnian. Some languages, like Somali and Burmese, had no representation at all.
While French, German, and other European voices also matter, when you look at the fact that more than 150,000 Somalis live in the United States and that last year welcomed our first Somali-American Congressperson, that’s a literature that maybe publishers shouldn’t be leaving out.
So why do they? Why do some countries’ books get over-translated for the US market and others not at all?
It’s definitely not because Americans don’t want to read their stories. Statistically, American Literary Translators Association executive director Elisabeth Jaquette suggests that publishers actually make more per translated title than they do from books originally in English. As general rule, publishing revenues tend to directly correlate to the percentage of annual titles in that genre. If 30 percent of a publisher’s offerings are biographies, for example, biographies will make up 30 percent of its sales. But according to Jaquette, “Literary translation tends to punch above its weight.” In other words, translated books sell at a higher revenue percentage than they’re supposed to. Less than three percent of US titles are works in translation, but the category accounts for seven to eight percent of sales.
In the US, AmazonCrossing publishes more books in translation than anyone else, which is noteworthy considering the imprint only opened in 2010 — a relative newcomer, Jaquette explains, in an industry where others have published for decades.
Indeed, publishing is an old business replete with tradition: To publish, authors must first find an agent; that agent convinces an editor to acquire the book; the editor then convinces colleagues — each decision made in a fairly subjective way. Even at Amazon, a tech company with an algorithm for everything, editorial director Gabriella Page-Fort says acquisition decisions are human-made. Typically, a yes is linked to a book’s potential to make money — the same as in any business. In publishing, that comes down to writing quality, past success with comparable titles (or “comps”), and what agents call “platform” — an author’s personal marketing reach. For writers who can afford it, self-publication is an option, but those who want to be traditionally published have to play the game.
For non-English writers, the process isn’t that different. Instead of selling a book to an in-country publisher, though, the agent sells foreign publishing rights to a US company, working her personal connections to make the deal or finding buyers at international book fairs — the most popular held annually in London, England and Frankfurt, Germany.
Jaquette says you won’t see much Arabic-language writing at these fairs, or Farsi either. Since both are in Europe, attendees tend to market books originally written in European languages. “Countries like France and Germany have a much more elaborate infrastructure of publishers, of agents, of people who are at the international book fairs doing the rights sales,” she explains. These countries also work on a federal level to disseminate their literature around the world: According to Jaquette, writers in France and Germany can apply for grants from government culture agencies that fund getting their book in front of American buyers. Holland’s government even sends publishers a catalog listing titles released in the Netherlands that year with English-language summaries, proposed contract terms, and reasons each book would sell well here. And there’s evidence to show this government backing works: In South Korea, for example, Page-Fort says a 2008 state-sponsored push led to a 275 percent increase in US-Korean translation over the next ten years.
In other words, be it through government or industry, some countries have found systematic ways to sell their stories through the American pipeline. “It’s going to be much easier for a publisher sitting in the United States to say, ‘Okay, I could pick up this pamphlet from the Netherlands or I could go to London and meet with a rights agent from a French publisher who I’ve heard of,’” says Jaquette, “Those are much easier than saying, ‘Okay,’ scratching my head, ‘who do I know who might know about a Chinese book or a book from Sudan?”
For cultures falling outside the pipeline, publishers have to make a concerted effort.
At AmazonCrossing, this means attending lesser-known fairs in the Middle East and looking at sales stats from Amazon stores in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, China, and Japan. If a book sells well in one country, AmazonCrossing is more likely to translate it for the others. Page-Fort’s team has also designed a request page for translators who read a book in the original language, loved it, and now want to translate it into English. This upload form is available in 14 languages. Yet despite this work, Amazon’s stats still linguistically adhere to norms.
“There’s for me an obviousness to the culture that we’re living in and that we’re watching evolve before our very eyes requiring us to have more of a sense of who else is alive on this planet and what is their world like,” says Page-Fort, explaining that reader desire is there — just not industry infrastructure. “Think about how many people and decision makers exist between a book and reader,” she says, “It’s convincing each and every one of those decision points to make a new decision today that breaks the rule they made up about the past.”
In other words, to fix diversity in publishing, we have to fix the pipeline.