Lost Translations.

Terena Bell writes for The Outline about a situation that has bothered me:

When it comes to literary translation, American publishers have a pipeline problem. But not in the way that tech companies use the phrase — saying they don’t hire diverse array of job candidates because there aren’t enough female and minority applicants. Publishing’s problem isn’t one of supply — real or imagined. This pipeline problem comes from flaws in the industry’s acquisitions system that make it nearly impossible for non-Western authors and U.S. publishers to connect.

In 2018, for the second year in a row, American publishers released fewer translated titles: 609 books were published, down from 650 in 2017 and the industry high in 2016 of 666. These books were largely translated from European languages, with roughly 42 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. […] Why do some countries’ books get over-translated for the U.S. 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 told me publishers actually make more money per translated title than they do from books originally in English. […] Less than three percent of U.S. titles are works in translation, but the category accounts for seven to eight percent of sales. […]

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 that runs on algorithms, AmazonCrossing Editorial Director Gabriella Page-Fort said 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 non-English writers, the process isn’t that different. Instead of selling a book to a publisher in their country, though, an agent sells foreign publishing rights to a U.S. company, working 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 said you won’t see much Arabic-language writing at these fairs, or Farsi either — but not because books aren’t written in those languages. […]

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 statistics 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. Despite these efforts, Amazon’s stats still linguistically adhere to norms. […] “Think about how many people and decision makers exist between a book and reader,” [Page-Fort] said. “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.”

It’s one of those infuriating situations that it’s not easy to see how to fix. Thanks, Jack!

Comments

  1. If <3% of US titles are works in translation accounting for 7-8% of sales, one assumes this 3% is skimmed from the top bestsellers in the source language.
    There is also most probably a steep curve consisting of a few bestsellers, and a much larger number of books that sell in the source language market but are not bestsellers.
    Assuming that a million copies sold in, say, Spanish-language markets would reliably translate to 300,000 copies of an English translation sold (is this a possible metric? I don't know), there would be an algorithm to decide, per language, what is worth translating from a business viewpoint. And this curve might also have some non-linear break points in it.
    So it may well be that translating 3% produces 8% of sales, but that translating 8% would also produce 8% of sales.

    Perhaps we should be discussing public (as in taxpayer) support for translating worthwhile literary works, perhaps through publicly-funded universities, instead of relying on business merchants to solve the problem.

  2. Ordinary readers scanning the bookshelves have no idea of the arcane goings-on behind the choice of books they are presented with. It’s a pity because it is not only unfair, it also skews the way we see the world.

    It goes without saying that books are published for a market — people who will part with hard cash to buy them. Unfortunately, the entrenchment of existing markets can stand in the way of new ones opening up, ultimately giving rise to an impoverishment of choice.

  3. Exactly.

  4. I imagine most Fooian immigrants will prefer to read Fooian literature in the original Fooian rather than in English translation. Younger generations no longer fully fluent are an obvious market, notwithstanding assimilationist cultural cringe on the one hand and shame on the other hand at being disconnected from the source.

    How much demand for African literature is there among African Americans?

  5. Bathrobe says:

    To what extent does the market for translated literature rely on generations of immigrants who have lost their ancestral language? Very little, I should think. Are translations of Goethe, for instance, mainly read by German-Americans? Are translations of Arabic literature mostly read by descendants of Arabic-speaking immigrants? Surely these are an almost insignificant segment of the market.

    The Millennium Series (detective stories translated from the Swedish) were surely snapped up by the general reading public, not by the descendants of Swedish immigrants.

  6. John Cowan says:

    There’s also another problem with the trade in information in general: the buyer doesn’t know what they’re getting until they’ve gotten it, and so the seller doesn’t know what the information is worth. Here’s Eric Raymond [pre-9/11] on the subject. He’s talking about software, but the principle is the same for books:

    [T]he putative market value of small patches to a common source base is hard to capture. Supposing I write a fix for an irritating bug, and suppose many people realize the fix has money value; how do I collect from all those people? Conventional payment systems have high enough overheads to make this a real problem for the sorts of micropayments that would usually be appropriate.

    It may be more to the point that this value is not merely hard to capture, in the general case it’s hard to even assign. As a thought experiment let us suppose that the Internet came equipped with the theoretically ideal micropayment system — secure, universally accessible, zero-overhead. Now let’s say you have written a patch labeled “Miscellaneous Fixes to the Linux Kernel”. How do you know what price to ask? How would a potential buyer, not having seen the patch yet, know what is reasonable to pay for it?

    What we have here is almost like a funhouse-mirror image of F. A. Hayek’s calculation problem — it would take a superbeing, both able to evaluate the functional worth of patches and trusted to set prices accordingly, to lubricate trade.

    Unfortunately, there’s a serious superbeing shortage, so patch author J. Random Hacker is left with two choices: sit on the patch, or throw it into the pool for free. The first choice gains nothing. The second choice may gain nothing, or it may encourage reciprocal giving from others that will address some of J. Random’s problems in the future. The second choice, apparently altruistic, is actually optimally selfish in a game-theoretic sense.

  7. David Marjanović says:
  8. January First-of-May says:

    Unfortunately, there’s a serious superbeing shortage, so patch author J. Random Hacker is left with two choices: sit on the patch, or throw it into the pool for free.

    These days the usual solution seems to be for J. Random Hacker to set up a virtual tip jar, for those who were pleased by their patches (or other work as the case may be), and might want more in the future, to micropay them into – lately usually via Patreon, though other options exist (my current favorite is the Dogecoin tip community on Reddit).

    Incidentally, what’s the relevance of “pre-9/11” here? Did something change then that made this obsolete?

  9. Yes, I too found that an odd qualifier.

  10. Bathrobe says:

    An article relevant to the topic:

    FINDING MONGOLIAN LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION

    Briefly, an American who was moving to Mongolia looked high and low for Mongolian literature in English translation, both before leaving the United States and after arriving in Mongolia. She found a lot of English literature in Mongolian translation on bookshelves in Mongolia but (apparently) nothing in the way of translations from Mongolian to English.

    After a lot of searching online, a novel by a Mongolian author that had been translated into English (from German by Katharina Rout) came to my attention. It’s from a small press in Minneapolis, Milkweed Editions, that is known for bringing works in translation from indigenous communities, and it took a bit of effort to get a copy here. But I did.

    The book she found was the first book in a trilogy about a young Tuvan boy learning what it is to be a man in his nomadic community in the Altai Mountains.

    There are, in fact, other works of literature translated from Mongolian to English, mostly published by local publishers, but they are very few in number. I’ve already mentioned The Green-eyed Lama, which was published in French but failed to find an English-language publisher and had to be self-published by the author and her husband on Amazon.

    This is sadly what happens to minor literatures outside the European-language mainstream and a few major languages in East Asia.

  11. Man, a solution has to be found for this. You’d think there would be more small presses like Milkweed Editions that would seek out such literature; it’s not like it’s guaranteed to lose money. You never know what people will decide to read if given the chance (and appropriate marketing).

  12. In fact, there is a certain amount of translation from Mongolian around, including a few Mongolian books translated into English by Simon Wickham-Smith (available in bookshops in Ulaanbaatar) and the literary journal GUNU, published by Mend-Oyoo in both Mongolian and English, which offers poetry, fiction and literary commentary in translation. But as I said, it’s pretty local and fails to make it to international markets.

    I’m sure that there is a lot more literature out there in smaller languages that simply fails to make it to Anglophone markets.

    Milkweed Editions

  13. AJP Crown says:

    What’s wrong with self-published on Amazon? Less prestigious possibly, but everything like that is changing; Amazon is the very definition of accessible and from the response publishers can see the potential demand.

  14. Nothing wrong with it as such, but it’s harder to get seen without any formalized publicity apparatus bringing it to the attention of reviewers, book clubs, etc.

  15. AJP Crown says:

    Maybe publicity needs working on, then. Because I like the idea of additional sources of reading matter, things that aren’t chosen by publishers & writers’ agents. Their criteria aren’t mine.

  16. If you’d ever seen a slush pile, you’d have more respect for the winnowing provided by publishers.

  17. AJP Crown says:

    What I’ve heard of slush piles is that – far from being used for weeding-out dreck – everything unsolicited is put there and thrown away. So let’s say 98% is indeed rubbish and half of the remainder might never make a profit, 2% is still a hell of a lot of good reading matter that’s not seeing the light of day. Let the public do some winnowing, as they do on Youtube with videos.

  18. Stu Clayton says:

    If you’d ever seen a slush pile, you’d have more respect for the winnowing provided by publishers.

    By “slush pile” you mean the internet ? There are enough winnows there to feed the 8 billion.

  19. What I’ve heard of slush piles is that – far from being used for weeding-out dreck – everything unsolicited is put there and thrown away.

    No, that’s not true. Actual humans read the manuscripts and have suffered accordingly. I know The Man is trying to keep us down, but let’s not overgeneralize.

  20. AJP Crown says:

    Well, not to overgeneralize, but I concede that you know far more about every aspect of publishing than I do.

  21. John Cowan says:

    Fortunately slush readers can usually apply Benchley’s Rule (“How can you review a play when you left after the first act?” “Because the author of the first act also wrote the rest.”) A page or two is usually plenty. On one well-reported occasion, a “half-caste” (that was the word used) actress had just uttered the deathless lines “Me Nubi. Me good girl. Me stay”. Benchley got up from his seat, announced “Me Benchley. Me bad boy. Me go.” And like Saki’s cook, he went.

    I would say that as of 2020 the bulk of publishers require agents, except for those that have a very narrow focus. In TV it is not uncommon for there to be two tiers of agents, those that deal with writers and those that deal with producers, so that there are two levels of winnowing.

  22. Yeah, that’s true. I guess the slush pile is an endangered species.

  23. John Cowan says:

    Incidentally, what’s the relevance of “pre-9/11” here?

    That is (approximately) when Eric Raymond started to use much of his very considerable intelligence in the service of madness rather than sanity. See the RationalWiki article for details, but note that RationalWiki articles are not NPOV. The article doesn’t yet mention how he (re)joined the Open Source Initiative mailing lists for a few weeks until he was kicked off for personal attacks: this is someone who very strongly believes in ⚠️☡ the right to be rude (personal blog post).

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Historical linguistics is featured in the RationalWiki article!

    Be sure to read all the “notes” and “footnotes”, and follow the link in footnote 42.

  25. Stu Clayton says:

    From the RationalWiki article:

    Unfortunately, his work and expertise in computer technology[1][2] has been all but overshadowed by his batshit insane wingnut tendencies in the wake of 9/11 … Eric Raymond was one of those unfortunate souls who went completely nuts after 9/11. He has thus turned from a respected thinker with some good and some extreme ideas into a paranoid headcase

    I was not aware that this is a thing. One of my oldest friends from Austin, an AI honcho, caught that bug. He is one of the co-discoverers of a well-known string search algorithm named after them. For years I have hardly been able to get sense out of him on the phone.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not surprised. For years it seemed like half the US population was having PTSD.

  27. John Cowan says:

    Historical linguistics is featured in the RationalWiki article!<

    Eric on creoles here, there and everywhere (dependent on McWhorter); Eric on IE linguistics (dependent on Anthony).

    Another thing about Eric, even in his pre-9/11 days: he corrects errors when someone (often me) points them out, but never, never says he was wrong or otherwise retracts, even when the correction is purely factual. Check out my comment on an Eric post quoting Caligula on the merits of killing Muslim terrorists, and Eric’s response to it.

    In the above Anthony article is this highly revealing sentence: “Cochran also has the great virtue that he corrects himself in public on the infrequent occasions he turns out to have been wrong.” Eric can take it, but he can’t dish it out.

    He is one of the co-discoverers of a well-known string search algorithm named after them.

    Would that be K, M, P, B, M, or none of the above?

    For years it seemed like half the US population was having PTSD.

    Watching on TV the planes crashing into the towers over and over and over and over again is just the kind of experience that provokes that problem. I was wise for once and paid no attention after learning the facts. A few months later I went to the area and looked at the big hole in the ground for a while, and found it meaningless.

  28. Check out my comment on an Eric post quoting Caligula on the merits of killing Muslim terrorists, and Eric’s response to it.

    I see your comment, but I don’t see Eric’s response (he appears to have left two comments, neither responding to you, and then left the thread, provoking growing consternation among the assembled multitude).

  29. PlasticPaddy says:

    @jc
    Texas, so my money would be on M.

  30. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hmm. I always believed Oderint, dum metuant was Agrippina’s reply to Nero when he moaned to her that he seemed to be getting a bit unpopular.

    It could very well have been, I suppose, but if so that learned and ruthless matron was citing L Attius.

    LH is educational.

    [Actually, I think I’ve located the source of my false memory: She actually said: Occidat, dum imperet to the astrologer who predicted Nero would rule but kill his mother.]

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    While ESR’s bit on creoles is very frequently wrong it’s not off-the-wall crazy; however, his envoi

    So, hey, academic linguists, stop being such prudes about language hybridization, eh? It’s limiting your vision.

    is a classic crackpot trope. “These so-called experts, what do they know? OK, they have the accumulated small-scale knowledge and a certain technical ability, I guess … but they lack vision. Know what I mean? It takes a certain sort of person to have vision. Oh, modesty forbids …”

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    Would that be K, M, P, B, M, or none of the above?

    Probably not Dr Francis X Bubble. though. Or Randolph Quick.

  33. These so-called experts, what do they know?

    the Wake is not at all the mysterious text bourgeois scholars pretend it is so that they can explicate it with their drafts and their allusions and their hypotheses, not at all, it’s as plain as the nose on your face, if only you have an honest proletarian consciousness!

  34. John Cowan says:

    I see your comment, but I don’t see Eric’s response

    Exactly: neither did I.

    the Wake is not at all the mysterious text bourgeois scholars pretend it is so that they can explicate it with their drafts and their allusions and their hypotheses, not at all, it’s as plain as the nose on your face

    Or rather the conk on your gob. And hearing it read really does make things much easier, especially if it’s your father, who was born six months after Bloomsday, doing the reading.

  35. David Eddyshaw says:

    I have still to get any farther than the conversation between the Mute and the Jute (which I did, however, much enjoy.)

    Something for the forthcoming self-isolation perhaps. I like to consider the upside …

    (It’ll be like the Decameron. A bit.)

  36. Bathrobe says:

    For a moment I thought you were referring to Kingsley’s novel Hereward the Wake.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    Hereward Ho?

  38. Bathrobe says:

    There’s also another problem with the trade in information in general: the buyer doesn’t know what they’re getting until they’ve gotten it

    That goes with almost any book you buy off the shelf!

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Eric on creoles here, there and everywhere (dependent on McWhorter); Eric on IE linguistics (dependent on Anthony).

    Such an amazing breadth and such a shallow depth of knowledge, both from him and from the average of his commenters.

    And so much psychological speculation.

  40. John Cowan says:

    Absolutely, which is why book pricing is even more of a black art than ordinary pricing: an efficient market it is not.

  41. John Cowan says:

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