Anglophone, Anyone?

The unusual tactics publishers in lesser-spoken languages are using to sell some rights, already.

The Millennium Trilogy may be on English-language bestseller lists all over the world, but that doesn’t mean translated literature has “arrived” quite yet. The famous 3 percent of translated books on the US market, according to (who else?) Three Percent at the University of Rochester, holds relatively firm. That 3 percent includes books from countries with robust publishing infrastructures and thousands of titles released every year. But for lesser-spoken language (LSL) publishers, the challenge of gaining visibility—let alone selling rights—is nearly impossible. Governments eager to attract interest have long offered translation subsidies, but even these often aren’t incentive enough for English-language publishers to take the extra effort and risk.

Uncharted Places

Magveto's translated anthology commissioned for Frankfurt 2011

Remarkably, one way to get attention in a world otherwise obsessed with ebooks is with a real, bound and printed book (you remember the sort). Every publisher with whom we spoke, domestic and foreign, pointed out that it’s always been standard practice to give prospective buyers a translated sample chapter along with a copy of the original edition. But sample chapters, whether PDFs or photocopies, pile up unread. Desperate to get even a second look, some LSL publishers are trying something both unusual and low-tech: Send an international publisher the kind of book you want them to imagine produc-ing. Instead of sample chapters, a handful of LSL publishers are commissioning their own high-quality English translations of an entire book. A sample book is then produced—designed, typeset, printed, and bound in itsnew English cover.

There are several ways of using these new English-language editions. Mladinska Knjiga in Slovenia and Croatia translates a few children’s titles every year, and Geopoetika in Serbia recently translated 6 literary novels (read a detailed profile of their project at http://bit.ly/czdXGV). These publishers stay up to date on deals and trends among potential international rights-buyers, Anglophone and otherwise, and submit copies of translated editions.

According to Miha Kovač at Mladinska Knjiga, the physical book seems to matter more than the full translation itself. They found that even their picture books sold better when a publisher received an English edition instead of a Slovenian original and a PDF of the full translation. A title may be also be reserved for a more specific purpose, as in the case of Magvető Publishing in Hungary, which commissioned translations of their bestselling authors’ short stories, essays, and poems, and produced a book, Uncharted Places (pictured here), to give out at Frankfurt 2010. Once again, the first purpose of the printed book was to stay visible in the sea of major world-language publishers. In the words of Magvető’s Rights Correspondent, Mátyás Dunajcsik:“you usually throw out catalogues a few days after a book fair, but you are more likely to keep a book.” He reports a “very positive response” to the anthology at Frankfurt. And rights have indeed been selling. As of May 2011, Geopoetika’s authors have signed in over 10 territories (Serbian publishers don’t hold rights; they are retained by the authors), and a film of one title, The Box, is being produced in Germany.

Another emerging channel for a publisher’s own English translations is to sell books in the home territory. People anxious to learn and practice English buy enough of Mladinska Knjiga’s translated children’s books to cover the cost of production profile. There are some peculiar side-effects of sending some finished books out internationally and selling others domestically. Mladinska Knjiga’s best-selling author, Lila Prap, has three slightly different English-language editions of one title available on Amazon: a Slovenian one, a US, and an Australian (more on Amazon and translation below).

Another effect of interest in English editions is, at least in Albania, a preponderance of—and willingness to publish—amateur translations that Dr. Robert Elsie calls “monstrosities.” Elsie is one of three professional Albanian literary trans-lators in the world, and reports that almost every Albanian publisher does both traditional and self-publishing, meaning that anyone who presents a “translation” and enough mon-ey can get their “unreadable” book published. Elsie recalls a woman enthusiastically saying, “‘My daughter has done four years of English in highschool, so she’s going to translate my novel.’” Alondside shoddy English editions, though, Elsie has published several English and German-language books dis-tributed in Albania/Kosovo with Dukagjini Press in Peja, Kosovo. Titles include Tales from Old Shkodra: Early Albanian Short Stories; The Highland Lute: The Albanian National Epic; and Albanian Folktales and Legends. Although the hope was that these could be distributed globally (only one title sold to Germany), Elsie’s translations of Albanian classics did find a market in Albania and Kosovo. Leaving Paper BehindBut are printed books truly the final answer to gaining international attention?

Shocked scouts, major-language pub-lishers, and even two Polish literary organizations, expressed how distasteful the expense of this approach would be unless as a last resort. The question for LSL publishers (and countless others) is how to utilize digital without disappearing in the crowd again. AmazonCrossings has been praised by no less than Esther Allen of the PEN Translation Fund and Chad Post and is an unprecedentedly large platform for translated literature. And with a growing staff (including the addition of Philip Patrick earlier this year), Crossing’s influence will only grow wider.

But when presented with the Amazon model, many small publishers who champion ebooks nevertheless insist upon the value of a highly selective and carefully curated imprint. One such proponent is Jean Harris of Observator Cultural in Romania. Until its funding ran out in July 2009, Observator, an online weekly, published translations of Romanian literature in up to ten languages at a time. The site was vigorously promoted to international publishers and media. Nevertheless, Harris, who was Observator’s Director, says the digital platform provided better international visibility than those running it made use of: “We should have done some literary agenting…should have collaborated with Romanian agents…should have carefully selected a few ebooks to publish under our imprint.”

Other translation “Davids” stepping out even in the face of the Amazon Goliath think they have a fighting chance because of the lowered financial risk of ebooks. Harris is currently envisioning new, digitally driven models for translation and rights purchase. In her hypothetical scenario, a LSL publisher with a reputable track-record would enter an agreement with a foreign publisher. In this arrangement, the LSL publisher would bear the cost of translation and production of an ebook. The contract would dictate that ebook sales over a given num-ber would trigger simultaneous a) purchase of rights by the foreign house and b) cessation of ebook distribution by the originating publisher. In this scenario, the purchaser’s risks are lowered through the “trial run,” and the original publisher isn’t making too high a gamble because of low-cost options.

On this side of the Atlantic, Joshua Ellison, editor of Habitus, a journal of translated Jewish Diaspora writing, and Ilan Stavans, a scholar, translator, and editor, are preparing to launch Restless Books, a digital-only literature-in-translation publisher. They are particularly interested in abandoned projects whose rights have reverted to the translator, and in trans-lating books that have no English print edition. Ellison ex-plains, “while we’re still learning the full risk-profile of digital publishing, what seems clear is a lower financial risk in trans-lating an unknown author than we would have with print books.”

Ellison and Stavans both raise the question, though, of whether a literature-in-translation audience is or can be converted into an ereading audience. They reference the “fine production quality” of a Europa or Archipelago edition as an indicator of “literary” readers’ devotion to “book as bibelot.” ( PT would add to that list the unusually lovely galleys AmazonCrossing had at BEA). But expanding ownership of ereaders, and new avenues for ebooks, gives Restless Books’ founders hope that they may yet create new—and perhaps even more adventurous—audiences for translated literature.

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One Trackback

  1. [...] Publishing Trends ran an interesting piece about the methods and measures that foreign publishers take to pitch their books to US publishers and the potentials (and hazards) of using e-books and digital-only literary sites to reach a larger audience. The piece also mentions Restless Books, a digital-only publisher of literature in translation, which Joshua Ellison and Ilan Stavans will be launching. [...]

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