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.


  1. Does anyone have figures on how likely a book is to be translated into English compared to another language?
    Are book publishers more likely to translate a book from one language into Dutch, for instance, than they are English?
    And on the topic of filthy lucre and translation, Borges has been done a gross disservice.
    As is well known, Borges collaborated extensively with Norman Thomas di Giovanni on the translation of much of his work into English. In fact, I think Borges actually wrote some of his later stories in English with di Giovanni.
    Borges had organised a generous deal on these works, splitting the royalties 50/50 with di Giovanni. But after Borges passed away, Maria Kodama, his wife at the time of his death, took control of his estate and was offered a complete share of the royalties from a new set of English translations which she took up.
    Sadly, Andrew Hurley was commissioned to complete the new translations and butchered them. Even more sadly, it’s now reasonably difficult to find the di Giovanni translations, and most people are now introduced to Borges through Hurley.
    Thankfully, no one has had the temerity to translate the original Spanish into another Spanish.

  2. “Are book publishers more likely to translate a book from one language into Dutch, for instance, than they are English?”
    I’m pretty sure that’s the case, Antonios.
    One of the reasons I like giving when people ask why I study languages is that English, though it has plenty of great literature of its own, is the worst of the major languages when it comes to translated literature.
    Take the Captain Alatriste novels, for example. They’re pretty much the best-selling novels in Spanish history, but if I want to read them (and I do), I can do it in Spanish or French or any other major European language, but not English.

  3. Paul D – they are indeed available in English:
    It would be nice to read a ‘state of translation’ piece which doesn’t
    a) look down on the few successful translated authors (although I see Serao is not too ‘melodramatic’ for Northwestern’s European Classics series)
    b) end with a plea for massive foreign government subsidy

  4. I tend to agree that high cultural activity is often intrinsically money-losing. Translation is just one example. Many of my favorite nineteenth century French poets were virtually destitute and earned little from their writing, and my favorite composers (Satie and Musorgsky) were also very poor. The best plan seems to be have a private income or a professional career outside the art (for example in teaching). Being good at self-presentation and shrewd and monetization of talent helps too, but a lot of these guys weren’t.
    So I’d just fold translators into the avant-garde starving-artist group, with the uderstanding that they’re less vivid than the others.

  5. “So I’d just fold translators into the avant-garde starving-artist group, with the uderstanding that they’re less vivid than the others.”
    Yikes! Condemned to penury and deemed boring besides…. oh you are a hard man, John Emerson, a hard, hard man…

  6. I wonder how many copies Svevo sold of his books in the original Italian? He had to self-publish Zeno after all, and if weren’t for James Joyce helping get it translated into French and finding an audience in Paris, Svevo would probably have never been discovered. Even to this day it seems to me he is fairly unappreciated by Italian literaturnye deyateli. (useful term that).

  7. Well you know, his real name was Schmitz and he was an Austrian subject.

  8. Cut off your ear and give it to your lover or become a drug addict, Mab, and I’ll transfer you to the vivid group.

  9. Gabriel: only 3 (of 6 so far) books in that series are available in English, and only the first one was available the previous time I checked.

  10. Gosh, you run a hard bargain, JE. Can’t I just dress extravagantly and occassionally dance on the table?
    In any case, I’ve got to read Venutti’s article more carefully, but I think he ignores some books that would disprove his case. Pamuk has surely made the US publisher lots of money, and no one has been providing a “context” of loads of translated Turkish literature. And then Oprah’s inclusion of the P/V Anna Karenina sent that old classic in translation to the bestseller lists. So I think there are more paths to more translations than just having foreign governments pay out grants.

  11. In my college library I once found a book of poetry translated from Romanian into Portuguese. My college didn’t teach Romanian and didn’t really teach Portuguese either. It was a Unesco project.

  12. Stefan Lewicki says

    I’d like to know how decisions are made about what gets translated into English. My experience travelling abroad suggests that there are far more translations into other languages than there are from those languages into English – the picture being that other nations are, or seem to be, far more interested in reading literature from other countries and cultures. My suspicion is that this is another facet of English-language cultural imperialism: we don’t even get a chance to find out what’s being written in other languages. Multi-national English-language publishers are increasingly only interested in blockbusters, and we are all culturally poorer for it.

  13. Tomasz Kamusella says

    Living in Central Europe, I can see that, for instance, most fiction available at the Polish market are translations from other languages. Obvioulsy, translations from English predominate, though ones from German, French, and more rarely, Russian are represented, as well. One cause of this phenomenon is the extreme richness and variety of titles and genres available in English, perhaps, not parallelled in any other language. Also advertizing may play a role, as English-language titles, reviewed in a multitude of periodicals and other media venues across the world (and often offered as tie-ins with films based on them) are an instant news in foreign press and mass media. This channel of information on new (or old), however excellent, works in other languages is closed to them. The phenomenon of one-directional spread is even more pronounced in the film industry, the exigiences of which make non-English filmmakers to produce films in English.
    What I wonder is how come that despite all the expense of translation on the top of royalties paid to authors, publishers are still able to make a profit in Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic, though offering the books to much smaller markets, and in much smaller runs than the English originals were? Besides, trnaslated books like others in the three countries are much better produced than the English originals, when it comes to the size of print and quality of the paper. Well, and in the end the price of the average 300-pp paperback in Poland is c PLN40, which in the PPP terms equates to $40 per a paperback in the US or L40 in the UK.
    A partial explanation may be smaller royalties for authors. As to my knwledge after the recent demise of Ryszard Kapuscinski, Czeslaw Milosz and Stanislaw Lem (who got rich thanks to translations of their books into English), none of Polish authors lives solely on the income derived from the sale of their books, with the possible exception of the Noble Prize winner, Wieslawa Szymborska, and Stanislaw Mrozek, whose plays are produced all over the globe.

  14. Jaroslav Hasek (“Good Soldier Schweik”) made a living writing for the small Czech market by using several different pseudonyms and writing several short newspaper sketches a day. One of his specialties seems to have been blending truth and fiction so thoroughly that you never be sure which one you were reading. “Schweik” bankrupted his very-small-time publisher, IIRC.
    Hasek was an amazing character. He makes the Dadaists and Surrealists look like schoolteachers and accountants. Besides his drunken anarchist bum career, he also had a few years as a Bolshevik militant as far away as Mongolia — he has a small place in Mongol history.

  15. In Russia they make money off translated literature by paying the translators a pittance. Books are translated at $3-5/page. They also seem to have eschewed editors for both translated and native Russian literature. The quality of the language in a lot of trade books is appalling — all kinds of typos and grammatical mistakes. Authors are also paid very little. Translators make money by doing mostly commercial translation, which pays more, or by having another job or two.
    Well, it is tiresome to whine about this all the time, although it’s hard when few people understand what you do and even fewer want to pay you a decent wage to do it. The American Translators Association, of which I’m a member, has been cranking up its PR work lately in an attempt to stop whining and start affecting things. It will of course be awhile before the results show, and there are other things that should be done, but I have some (small) hope for some (minor) improvement.

  16. John,
    is Hašek’s “Politické a sociální dějiny Strany mírného pokroku v mezích zákona” available in translation? If not, it’s a crying shame. The book offers some very valuable insight into Hašek’s life and the political situation in Austria-Hungary at that time. And naturally, it’s goddamn funny, especially the travelogue parts.

  17. What I’ve seen besides Schweik is all short stories and sketches. I’d love to see that. If you have the time you could translate it?????? Please?????
    Hašek has become an icon for me. So much avant-garde literature seems fussy and pretentious, even though I still like it. So much of the madness of the mad geniuses seems predictable.
    Hasek was compared by a high school teacher to Mark Twain, and he has that lowbrow aspect (a good thing!). And he had three or four different lives.

  18. Perhaps the best way to harness the translation ability of the Internet at large would be to have a large-scale distributed translation project, though this would probably would be confined to those significant works regarded as occupying the public domain worldwide.

  19. John,
    actually, not a bad idea, not a bad idea at all…
    I’ll have a look once again at the edition I have. There were at least three books on the “Party of moderate progress within legal bounds” (I like that translation best, for an alternative one see here).
    Now that I’m no longer a full-time translator I might even enjoy it, especially with a proofreader / editor like you 🙂

  20. I’d be glad to pitch in. emersonj at gmail dot com.
    His party is described in Parrott’s biography “The Bad Bohemian”. The stories I have are “The Bachura Scandal” (tr. Menhennet) and “The Red Commissar” (tr. Parrott.) There’s a third collection I’ve seen called something like “A Drunkard’s Tales” which I suspect was produced in Prague for the drunken college kid market.

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