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.)


  1. well, denmark subsidizes translation of other languages to danish. I suppose that it is probable that these other countries subsidize translations of other languages to their language. But the U.S perhaps doesn’t do this? Does England, Canada?
    At any rate it does seem somewhat odd that a country should subsidize for translation both to and from their language.
    Especially when it sounds like some countries don’t seem to do either.

  2. Odd, perhaps. Unfair, definitely. But the point he’s making is that it’s the only way more translation is going to happen.

  3. I don’t think “fairness” is relevant. The United States is such a huge cultural (and thereby linguistic) force in the world–in addition to being notoriously monolingual–that without subsidies from elsewhere, non-translated texts will only become more and more marginalized as time goes on. It’s the non-Anglophone countries who have the most to lose from ignoring translating into English (and other languages), especially the European ones who lack the economic growth potential of less-developed countries elsewhere in the world. For example, it is not inconceivable that in a few more decades, Chinese culture and literature will have a wider global market than those of Spain or even France.
    “Pride” is a silly reason to hold a country back from allowing a larger share of the global populace to access its cultural treasures through translation programs. In our age of economic consolidation, the corresponding cultural and linguistic ones are already in progress. I don’t see how translated texts can possibly be worse for the native speakers of the source language than ignored or forgotten texts.

  4. dungbeattle says:

    ’tis called Monopoly {at its ‘best’} And so self defeating. It prevents growth in the long term, Back to the dark ages when one outlet for all thought. Just Look at the news service (AP et al) Pravda had nothing on todays verbage control.

  5. I have an inkling that 15-25k is a high estimate. The Poles subsidise translations, and the entire Greek Kedros Modern Writers series is paid for with government money. But Dungbeatle is right, you just have to look at the poor translations and unimaginative book design which can result from large programmes like this, not to mention issues of how books get selected.
    As the entire book market is always increasing, niches will eventually develop, if somebody develops them.

  6. well one could argue that translation into language x of texts is of benefit to the readers of language x as they can find information in language y without having to know it.
    If such translation is not immediately forthcoming I can of course see that it would be detrimental to language y speakers, but also to language x speakers. The argument that language x is important so that it can afford to ignore other languages whereas other languages must accomodate themselves to language x is of course of great interest, and similar arguments in other fields have a long and varied history, generally showing ever-increasing returns and benefits to the conceited demanders of accomodation.
    There have been arguments lately that the preponderance of english is a historical abnormality, and that its assumed ascendancy to universality sometime in this century is far from assured, that it may in fact begin to dwindle soon (I don’t agree with these arguments but I must take them into consideration).
    If this ascendancy of the language is predicated on the predominance of the U.S as a nation then I am actually betting on that predominance going ‘south of the border’ (say down Argentine way) fairly soon, so arguments that one should take actions to subsidize translations into english because of U.S greatness are in no way likely to win me over (note that this presumes cultural prominence depends on economic prominence).

  7. I’m not saying that Americans shouldn’t bother translating texts in other languages, by the way. I’m saying that given the lack of economic incentives for Americans to encourage translation and the dwindling cultural capital of many European countries relative to the growth of non-European countries, it is in the best interest of European countries to provide quality subsidization programs for translations to keep their languages and cultures as relevant as possible, relative to other emerging cultural forces.
    If the Europeans don’t leverage the advantage they have in American minds through their mutual cultural and intellectual traditions, they’re going to lose out in the America-dominated global market as it grows more competitve and American “cultural imports” increasingly come from South American, Africa, and especially Asia. The overall book market may be expanding, but that does not necessitate that the American appetite for European books will enjoy concomitant growth. Attention is a finite resource. It doesn’t matter how cheap books are if nobody bothers to read them.

  8. This old story offers some perspective.
    All arguments involving the word “should” are intensely suspect when, as is usually the case, it is the “I have no influence but I must whine” flavour of “should”. (“Feel the compelling moral force of my irrelevance!”)
    As for the argument “there may never be an enormous readership for foreign literature in the United States,” it is surely somewhat at odds with history if “never” is intended to encompass also the past – wasn’t the point made last time round that The Magic Mountain _owned_ the NYT best-sellers list for, like, yonks?
    The annual moster-bookfair in Frankfurt (the main clearing-house for literary translations in Yoorp and quite possibly the world, although I reserve the right not to pay America’s travelling expenses to it) happened recently, and Libération had a feature on the horse-trading of international translation. Tellingly, Penguin (which is UKish, but staffed by persons who could probably find France on a map if they had too) was selling but not buying.
    I must admit, I wouldn’t have expected to hear the argument that the way to secure the future of a product nobody seems to want is to prop it up with government subsidies from an American, and it is far from being a view that I share.
    What needs to be, and has not been, explained (with intent, ideally, to fix) is why a well-established writer of proven appeal in their own language is so disastrously worse a prospect for American publishers than an unknown American writer – presumably it is not the case that there are disastrously few of these being published? I can see more expensive, but the non-transferability of appeal that doesn’t more than compensate for this is surely the crux.
    (Bonus points for anyone who can do this without degenerating into the traditional Yoorpeans are unreasonable business-hating snobs/Merkins are unreasonable culture-hating slobs, which rules out both me and Mr O Brien, I would say.)

  9. In my college library I once found a book of Portuguese translations of Rumanian poetry. My college has never taught Rumanian and only occasionally teaches Portuguese.
    I suspect a subsidised translation which was donated to the library by someone who didn’t want it much. I even have a suspect for the donor — an occasional Portuguese teacher there who gave herself a Portuguese name by translating it from German. I may be the only person who ever tried to read this book except the donor.

  10. Alice Grainger says:

    How can I determine if some of the Portuguese literature I studied as part of my B.A. degree in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey, U.S. in the 1980′s has been translated into English? (Other than attempting to “purchase” an English version of it online). I would like also to translate forgotten Portuguese literary texts into English – any suggestions – other than, “Just do it”? Alice in Florida.

  11. All I can suggest is googling and checking online used-book sites; if nothing turns up, the likelihood is that it hasn’t been translated, but I don’t know how one could find out for sure. I’ve wondered the same thing about Russian books, and I’d be curious to see if anyone knows a better way.

  12. And don’t forget to check the collections of large libraries, such as that of the Library of Congress.

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