John O’Brien has an essay in Context 14 asking the question “Why are there so few literary translations published each year in the United States,and what can be done about this cultural travesty?” His answer (and as always I welcome comments from readers better able than I to evaluate it) is that translations wind up costing publishers a fair amount of money ($15,000 to $25,000 according to him), and the only realistic way to change things is for foreign governments to subsidize them:
Foreign governments should significantly subsidize the translation and publication of literary books from their languages into English. If France, for instance, designated as little as one million dollars annually for literary translations (translation costs, plus all the other expenses I’ve cited above), that would result in at least forty works—perhaps as many as sixty—of French literature being translated. And let’s assume the Germans, Italians, Swedes, Belgians, Spaniards (who have an interesting practice, I should point out, of awarding small translation subsidies that they then never pay for!), Portuguese, Austrians, Swiss, and Russians did the same; that would be 400 translations per year. And at that level of support and through marketing ingenuity made possible by that support, readership problems begin to diminish; there may never be an enormous readership for foreign literature in the United States, but five to ten thousand people starts to seem plausible, even if the books have to be given away to libraries and classrooms. And these numbers mean a total potential reading audience of two to four million each year.
But not only don’t foreign governments like this solution, they do not even like helping an American publisher or editor travel to their countries to find books to be translated. A strange national pride seems to emerge when such requests are made, and the national pride dictates that Americans should be humbled by the opportunity to spend a few thousand dollars to travel to their countries in order to find books on which they can then lose thousands and thousands of more dollars. In short, foreign government officials, as well as publishers, have made an art out of moaning, and this moan apparently for them takes the place of the literary art that never makes its way to the United States.
(Via Mildly Malevolent.)