I’m getting a bit fed up with the way people rabbit on about how uninterested in translations we are in the English-speaking world. French, German, Italian etc etc publishers all publish a much higher proportion of translation as against native-language books we are scolded. Here’s a recent example, coming from Publishing Perspectives. The eminent Michael Krüger, who is retiring from Carl Hanser Verlag, tells us “Of course I am unhappy with the fact that European publishers are translating a lot of the good, and a lot of the mediocre, and even a great deal of the bad books from the States into European languages, whereas our American friends are very reluctant.” Later on in the interview he also claims “Even a good publisher can’t read more than a hundred books a year, and because publishers should not publish more books than they can read, my sole explanation is: if they publish more books than that, they must not want to read them.”
Hang on a minute Michael — if we shouldn’t publish more than 100 books, why are we being criticized for not doing more translations? Let’s say a German publisher can get 50 books by German authors — the rest have got to be translations I guess. An American publisher might find all his 100 places being occupied by domestic authors: how to fit in the translations too? There are just more people writing in English. If you are a French publisher, wanting as all publishers do, to expand, you can’t really go out there are get more French people to write books. So you look overseas. In consequence, regrettable though it may be in world cultural terms, books by English-speaking authors are just more important to Europeans than vice versa. We’ve got enough culcha of our own — more than we can cope with!
Of course both of Michael Krüger’s assertions are nonsense. American and British publishers do publish translations: maybe not as many as French, German or Italian publishers do (though I have no idea of the numbers involved here) and of course the 100 title limit is really only there as a wry joke. The blog Three Percent tells us it’s “only 3%” of the books published in USA each year that are translations. (Of course 3% of a very large number is still a sizable number.) The Times Literary Supplement reviews several translated books in every (well maybe almost every) issue. Publishing is a funny business — like any business it’s main object is really to make money, and making money often seems to mean publishing too many meretricious books. Publishing does not exist to further culture or cultural exchange — the best we can hope to do is squeeze as much of that into the money-making program as we can get away with. So when English-language publishers publish translations it’s because they think they can make money by doing so. Ditto in reverse German or French publishers. Maybe because translations make up a higher proportion of the publishing output in say Germany, it is possible to make money more easily on a translated book than it is in America or Britain. This would explain too why it is that translations into English are published more often by smaller companies — they find it easier to show a profit on small books than do the big fish in our industry. So a) we publish plenty of translations and b) we can’t make much money publishing translations because the demand just isn’t there. But the higher demand for translated books in European countries does NOT derive from public virtue, from people’s greater cultural awareness. It derives from the relative lack of domestic product.
Here’s a different take, from Publishing Perspectives again.
A new wrinkle in the translation business is an ability given us by the evolution of the e-book. The original German-language publisher, say, can now (and in many cases is doing so) arrange for translations into English, French, whatever, and publish them themselves as e-books, without the traditional need to sell rights to an overseas publisher. This does of course involve an investment in the translation, but may make more foreign-language works available more easily in many markets.