Bill Morris wrote an article titled “Why Americans Don’t Read Foreign Fiction” that was published earlier this month in The Daily Beast. Over at the Three Percent blog, there is a good comparison of Morris’ article with one written by Stephen Kinzer in 2003 for the New York Times entitled Americans Yawn at Foreign Fiction. Both articles are very similar and have the same premise — yep, you guessed it — that Americans are not reading enough from non-American authors. But what I found most intriguing in the Morris article are the comments regarding the selling or attempted selling of works of translation by publishers to the public:
“It’s complicated,” says Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, which is consistently among the top American publishers of foreign fiction in translation. “I think it’s getting easier to get books in translation into the hands of reviewers. They’re excited—not only receptive, but very kind. But the reading public? That’s the million-dollar question.”
It gets even more interesting with:
Whenever she thinks she has figured out how to cross that baffling bridge, Gurewich gets blind-sided. For instance, she published All Days Are Night by the German writer Peter Stamm. He has won comparisons to Kafka, his prose is clear and accessible, and the book got big reviews and was named a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize. “And I can’t sell it,” Gurewich says. “I have no idea why.”
Some surprises, on the other hand, are pleasant. Gurewich had modest hopes for Not I, the late Joachim Fest’s memoir of growing up in an anti-Nazi German household before, during and shortly after World War II. The book is “selling very well,” says Gurewich. Similarly, she did not have great expectations for The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a love story set largely in Burma by the German author Jan-Philipp Senker. It has sold more than 300,000 copies.
So even a publisher such as Other Press which deals consistently with translation, doesn’t know why these translated works sell like they do (at least according to this article). But let’s back up a little bit. According to the Three Percent website, “about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation.” And of those 3%, “only 0.7 percent are first-time translations of fiction and poetry” while the majority of books translated into English in the United States are “technical writings or reprints of literary classics.” Think about that for a minute.
Morris gives some general reasons (similar to those that Kinzer gave in his article 12 years ago) about why there is so little of the market dedicated to translated works. Those reasons range from “Americans are physically isolated and culturally insulated” to “it’s hard to get foreign books translated into English because so few American editors speak foreign languages.” I suppose it is true that those are things that are not helping translated books get read. But I don’t necessarily agree that Americans are “intimidated” by translated works.
What if it is much more simpler than that? What if a lot of it has to do with how books are labeled and publicized? I know there is value in telling what genre a book belongs to, such as poetry or fiction. But with translated books, many distributors use “Translation” as a label or category for translated books. There are already built in difficulties of publicizing and selling books from different genres, is adding one more thing on top of that like “Translation” really necessary, especially with this “intimidating” stigma attached to it?
Many book review(er)s also like to highlight the fact that a book has been translated. There are definitely times when this is helpful (when the review discusses technical issues such as quality of the translation), but maybe thinking about how translated works are reviewed is also something that needs to be done. What would happen if all translated books were just reviewed based on the content of the book, not on how famous the author was in their own country/region and not mentioning the translation process at all?
Anyone who has dealt with a picky eater knows that you cannot just introduce a new food once or twice and then be done with it. You need to introduce a new food 15-20 times in order for a picky eater to sometimes just become comfortable with the idea that it is something that they will even allow on their plate, let alone take a bite. And how you introduce that new food can have a large (and many times negative) impact on the picky eater as well. Maybe it all comes back to this — until we get that 3% number up, we are living in a country of picky readers.