February 22, 2020

Why Don't Americans Read International Fiction?

“In May 2018, Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft won the Man Booker International Prize for Flights, a novel that was published in Poland in 2007. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, for which Tokarczuk is a Booker finalist again this year, was translated a bit faster; it only took a decade. One of the biggest stars in translation of this century, Roberto Bolaño, author of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, fared no better. Back in 2003, when New Directions put out his first translated book, By Night in Chile, Bolaño had already passed away; he was a famous writer by then, at least in Spanish.

The process of literary translation takes time, obviously, but there’s something else at play when it takes a decade or more for incredibly renowned authors to reach our shores. This is part of a much larger problem, frequently referred to as the “3 percent problem” by publishers of translation (like myself), which should be troublesome to anyone who believes the world is better off when cultures are in conversation with one another.

In an industry — publishing — that loves data about as much as a vegan digs barbecues, numbers are not normally dwelled upon. Whereas we can know to the dollar how much money Avengers: Endgame has made, almost in real time, book sales are guesstimates based on Nielsen BookScan’s admittedly incomplete reporting. So it was a big deal when a study back in 2005 — initiated by PEN World Voices — announced that less than 3 percent of all the books published in English were originally written in another language. Here was a number that was not only verifiable, but dire, and it raised a lot of questions about how broad and deep American book culture really is.”

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