Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Tough Condition of Literary Translation in the USA

Why is it so hard for foreign authors to get published in the US? It’s clear to anyone working in international rights that the sophisticated marketplace involving scouts, rights sellers and foreign publishers that exists to get American books out into the world does not exist to the same degree in the other direction.

There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon, very few of which have to do with stereotypes of American readers as being culturally insulated or lacking curiosity about the outside world.

(a) First, there are the unforgiving economic calculations that publishers face in taking a translation to market.

(b) Apart from economics, the often cited reason for the difficult of placing translations with American publishers is the limited number of US editors who speak a foreign language. It costs a lot to have something translated and get it gussied up and ready for the American market. They have to decide, is it really a book that’s likely to find a US publisher anyway?

(c) There is no mature translation market for any one language in the English speaking world, and the fact that books coming into the American market come from many different countries and languages makes it harder for editors here to develop the expertise in what any market has to offer, and which books from that country have the best shot of appealing to American readers. The books that are sold for translation here are more likely to come through the handful of US agents with close ties to one region or another, who are themselves usually working through professional relationships with particular agents or publishers abroad. What books by foreign authors that end up crossing an American editor’s desk, then, depends in no small part on chance and good connections.

(d) The "commercial mindset" versus "cultural mission mindset" that is progressively seeing the later outbeat the first. This difficulty restricts the number of translations Weil is able to take on, while he struggles with the fact that this leaves American readers without access to some excellent writers.

To read this article in full go here.

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