Translated Literature

Of the nearly 200,000 books published in the United States each year, about 3% are translated. When you consider the category of literary fiction and poetry, that number shrinks to about 0.7%. That sliver of a pie graph was firmly placed in the back of Chad Post’s mind when he joined the University of Rochester to help them develop their new literary imprint in 2006. The imprint, Open Letter, manages to be a press started by a university that is not quite a university press. It publishes twelve translated fiction titles a year, with funding from grants, donations, and the university.

“We are a cross between a nonprofit and a university press, the main difference being that we wanted something much broader than a scholarly or academic library,” Post says. “The University of Rochester hired me with the specific intent of creating a press, and at that point it was unclear what it would look like, but I was hired as the director of this imaginary press.”

That same year, Rochester initiated an academic program for literary translation, which works in collaboration with Open Letter. The program accepts a range of undergraduate and graduate students with advanced study in another language, who are majoring in English or World Literature and related areas, and gives them the opportunity to earn an additional Certificate Degree in Literary Translation. An MA in Literary Translation is currently in the final stages of approval and should become official in the coming months.

According to Thomas DiPiero, Senior Associate Dean of Humanities and a member of Open Letter’s executive committee, participants enter the program with distinct but overlapping career interests in literary translation and international publishing. They leave with advanced knowledge and unique insight into what it takes to translate and publish a title. “We have them think from the very beginning, in the broadest possible way, about the art of translation,” says DiPiero. “It is a vast and complicated field of translating ideas and cultural values at the same time, not a comparatively simple practice that Google can do.”

For Post and the university, they are producing a group of people with a type of training that does not usually exist in literary translation. The courses emphasize writing and literature and include an independent study for which students must translate a piece of literature of their choice. The students hold internships with Open Letter or with publishers in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. For those interested in the publishing industry, the experience working at a small press combined with foreign and cultural studies makes them uniquely qualified to work in foreign and subsidiary rights. Although there are other teaching programs like the Center for the Art of Literary Translation’s program for elementary and middle school children, the University of Rochester’s is the first of its kind.

Rhea Lyons, currently working in subsidiary rights at Random House, was the first person to join the translation program and is its first official graduate. “I was one of two Translation Interns at the press, and my job included reading books in Spanish and writing reader’s reports recommending whether or not the book was Open Letter–caliber,” says Lyons. One of the books she read and recommended while interning at the press, Macedonio Fernandez’s Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, will be published by Open Letter in Fall 2009.

Esther Allen, a literary translator who heads Columbia’s Center for Literary Translation and is on the translation committee for the PEN American Center, believes the University of Rochester’s program could be the first step toward changing both the way books are translated and the way translators themselves are viewed. “What Chad and I are talking about is a different order of things,” she says. “It is a translator with an artistic vision bringing a text that they have chosen, that they care about. It is the synthesizing of two cultures.”

The PEN program seeks translators who have chosen texts for translations and offers grants of $2,000–$3,000 towards the work. Of the 30 applicants Allen recently reviewed, only four or five had any professional training as translators. “There were many grad students, a Pilates instructor, an interpreter, a magazine editor in Beijing, a language teacher, freelancers, and one person who said only that he was a member of a Swedish translation society,” says Allen.

The lack of training means translation is difficult to turn into an actual career. Allen points out that the majority of writers don’t earn a living, and translation is even less lucrative. But writers often have other ways of making money, such as reading at universities. “Translators get lost in the cracks. The academic world doesn’t see it as scholarly,” Allen says. But with an academic program geared toward training literary translators and a university press allowing students to see the publishing perspective, the University of Rochester could be on the way to changing that viewpoint.

Similar to European publishing houses that concentrate on translated literature, Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, and Open Letter see themselves as filling a void in an industry that generally shies away from translated fiction. They do it for the passion of taking up a category that is otherwise ignored.

Jill Schoolman, Editor and Publisher of Archipelago, says that it has become ingrained in the heads of U.S. publishers that translated fiction, no matter the quality or potential marketability, just won’t sell. “It is more of a myth than a truth that translations don’t sell,” says Schoolman. “The gatekeepers shouldn’t be afraid of it. If everything is done right, the book will sell.”

And certainly there are such examples as Stieg Larsson, Paulo Coelho, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and any of the Nobel Laureates, from Naguib Mahfouz in 1988 to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio twenty years later.

Grove/Atlantic publishes about six to eight works in translation a year, according to Morgan Entrekin, President and Publisher. Entrekin says that the company is not slowing down; if anything, it is increasing the number of translations it does. Agents abroad with successful titles are beginning to translate somewhere around 30 to 100 pages into English in order to sell foreign rights. That can lessen the unease of signing a foreign title without the chance to read it in full. “It’s a challenge. You listen to your friends, you get readers reports, but there is always a bit of guesswork,” says Entrekin. “Wetlands [the globally bestselling sexy German novel by Charlotte Roche] was a very tricky one to figure out—some were horrified.”

Nonprofit publishers like Open Letter and Archipelago often have no choice when it comes to marketing their books. The grants from organizations like PEN America, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council for the Arts (before it had its funds frozen and had to revoke grants) have specific rules how the money can be spent, and marketing is not generally covered.

Kent Carroll, Publisher of Europa Editions, where about two-thirds of the titles published are translated, agrees that a bias against translation exists, but says, “Most of the best books find their way into the English language at some point. Authors complain that they can’t get an agent, but agents are looking for good authors too and the same goes for good books.”

Disappearing professional book review coverage is being replaced by bloggers. When Chad Post first started a blog for Open Letter, it was more of a place for students to write reviews of foreign titles they read than a marketing tool, and Post has tried to stay true to that idea. The blog’s name, Three Percent, recognizes the tiny number of translated books published in the U.S.

Besides reviews, Three Percent covers and comments on news on translated titles. It recently made some news of its own when Open Letter teamed up with Melville House to select the best translated fiction and best translated poetry of 2008. Eight judges chose 10 works of poetry and 10 works of fiction to be shortlisted for the prize, before announcing the winner on February 19 at an event hosted by author and critic Francisco Goldman at Melville House’s bookstore. This year’s winner for best translated fiction is For the Fighting Spirit of the Walnut by Takashi Hiraide, published by New Directions and translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu. For best translated poetry,
Archipelago’s Tranquility, written by Attila Bartis and translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein, took home the prize.

Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, says Open Letter and Three Percent are major steps toward coordinating and synchronizing the world of translated literature. “America has been criticized across the board for a lack of translated word, but it is not a cultural deficiency. We actually have our own diverse culture with a first generation of immigrants,” says Augenbraum. “And there is certainly a movement afoot among literary people to pick up the slack.”

Leave a Comment


  1. Mar 19, 20128:14 pm
    Svetlana Fotinov

    I believe that translated works (books) will generate more interest when more people in North America start learning foreign languages. A desire to master a foreign language will naturally create an interest in translated literature, and in translation. Students of foreign languages often start translating newspaper articles, etc. Then someone will try literary translation. And then, before you know it, a club is created where students discuss translated books, share their ideas and approaches to translation.

    But before that a solid linguistic foundation must be built. If you do not have any idea how to translate, say, Infinitive Constructions or Participle Constructions from English into Russian, Ukranian, French or Italian, the quality of translation will inevitably suffer. And then… everyone will say that the original and the translated text are worlds apart.

    I do believe that a good translation is an art form in itself. I also believe that a good translator must have solid kbnowledge of all aspects of the language pair he or she is working with. Thorough knowledge of a foreign language, the ability to see the difference in structure of the languages one is working with (the foreign language and one’s first language), good knowledge of the country’s cultural traditions, its history and its literature, excelent writing skills pave the road to success. The books that are translated well are remembered, and the art of translation is apreciated. But let’s begin at the beginning: let’s build the foundation first.
    Unfortunately, in North America, in Canada and in the US, the foundation is not solid enough yet. The result: 3%…

    In order to build strong Literary Translation Industry in North America it is necessary to work with universities, and to attract to universities talented, knowlegeble, and experienced teachers. Europe, with its diversity of languages, cultures, and literatures, and well-developed Literary Translation Industry is far ahead in this respect. True, approaches to teaching foreign languages and all aspects of translation and interpretation are very different in Europe. For Europeans, studying foreign languages is natural. In North America, it is “a melting pot approach”, and everything boils down to English only, to one culture only. Translation Industry has no chance to thrive under these conditions: the majority of North Americans are interested only in their North American culture. How can you sell somebody a translated novel in this environment? Interest and Respect to other cultures has to be cultivated first. Universities could and should play a key role in creating Respect to and Appreciation of “other” cultures. Only then there will be a market for Transalted Literature in North America.

    Svetlana Fotinov,

    Translator/Editor (English to Russian)
    Foreign Languages Teacher,
    Graduate of the Moscow State Linguistic University (Russia)

  2. Apr 19, 20125:09 am

    There is a lot to be said for community translations, especially in areas where companies do not deem it necessary to localize for other markets (such as fansubs of Japanese anime etc.) or there simply isn’t a company behind a product (open source software anyone?). But if you are running a business and trying to make the most out of the opportunities presnted by globalization, using professional translation services is the only way to go.
    Luckily, I can’t see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions (remember telephone operators?)

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