The translation theorist Lawrence Venuti (whom I’ve quoted before) has a new essay in Words Without Borders called “Translations on the Market.” Overall it’s a rather bizarre effort that seems almost a parody of academic lack of interest in what the rest of us call the real world; Venuti thinks publishers are doing a cultural disservice by publishing occasional translations and insisting on their making money before taking on more books by the same author, and suggests they “must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture.” I guess they must also go bankrupt for the greater good, eh? But he does address the issue: “The initiative I am recommending cannot be pursued by one publisher alone without a significant outlay of capital and probably not without the funding and advice of a cultural ministry or institute in a foreign country. But publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success. But in the long run chances are that it will pay off…” Uh-huh. You do the theorizing, professor, and let the publishers take care of the publishing.
However, he does have an intriguing paragraph full of actual facts:
The exceptional cases are remarkable because they involve the great works of modern literature. In translation these works were commercial failures initially, according to the standards in place then and now, and it is only because some of the publishers involved were willing to add the titles to their backlists or to sell off reprint rights that the translations achieved canonical status in the US and the UK. In 1922 Chatto and Windus published C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s version of Proust’s Swann’s Way in two volumes, and within a year 3000 copies were in print. Yet five years later volume one had sold only 1773 copies and volume two only 1663. In 1928 Martin Secker published his first translation of a novel by Thomas Mann, Helen Lowe-Porter’s version of The Magic Mountain, but it took seven years to sell 4,641 copies, helped no doubt by the translations of seven other books by Mann that Secker had issued in the interval. In 1929 the Hogarth Press published Beryl de Zoete’s version of Italo Svevo’s novella The Hoax, but after selling 500 copies in the first year the book showed a loss, and publisher Leonard Woolf was soon looking to remainder 300 copies. In 1930 Woolf also published Svevo’s collection of stories, The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl, which met the same fate. He attempted to sell the translation of the stories to Alfred Knopf, who had published Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno in 1930. But the editor at Knopf declined. “I am afraid there is no question,” he replied, “but that he has been a failure, although we made immense efforts to put him across.”
What’s amazing is not that publishers don’t put out more translations, but that they do any at all.