Publishing's black hole: books in translation

Americans don't live in the United States anymore; they live in a global village. Or so they are constantly being told. And it certainly is true that it's become remarkably easy to buy parts for a Japanese car in Idaho or find tiramisu on the menu in Nebraska or e-mail a colleague in Germany from a desk in Ohio. At the same time, "multiculturalism" has become the flavor of the day on most US college campuses.

So with this new sense of connection to other cultures, it must follow that Americans are more open than ever to reading fiction from abroad, right? Wrong.

"Americans are very introverted at this point," says Richard Seaver, co-publisher with his wife, Jeannette, of Arcade Publishing in New York. Literary translations "just don't have that mystique for us." On the contrary, says Susan Harris, editor in chief of Northwestern University Press in Evanston, Ill., the most successful marketing strategy for a book in translation is often "to position it as a good story, with the foreignness leached out of it."

This big shrug on the part of American readers toward fiction from abroad is a point of increasing frustration for foreign publishers, especially as the majority import US fiction by the truckload. And while the cultural imbalance may trouble them, the economics are vexatious as well. Acceptance in the US has become the ultimate guarantee of financial success for most literary ventures.

"Every publishing official in the world is looking at what happens in New York," says Andrea Heyde, project director for the German Book Office in New York. "To have a book translated into English and released in the US makes it important."

An English translation "opens windows into other markets," she points out. "Suddenly, there's also interest in Indonesia, in Africa." And of course, she adds, if there's any hope of inspiring a blockbuster film, the book's got to be read by Hollywood.

But translating and promoting foreign fiction is something the big New York publishing houses are doing much less of these days.

With increasing pressure to churn out bestsellers, fewer and fewer of the big publishing houses are interested in taking a chance on the field of foreign fiction - an area where sales of 15,000 for a single volume are considered remarkable.

Some also blame fading interest in literary translations on the decline of the independent bookstore. The network of literary-minded owners who were once willing to take a chance on a lesser-known foreign writer just isn't there any more, lament some publishers.

Not that literary translations were ever a large part of the US market. It's hard to get exact numbers for the sales of these volumes, but most experts agree they've never made up more than a few percentage points of the total book market.

And while the number of such books being made available in this country is not necessarily shrinking, they are now more likely to be produced by smaller presses. As a result, for some smaller publishers and university presses, the trend has turned the 1990s into a golden era of publishing.

"We can now get rights to books we never could have gotten before," says Ms. Harris of Northwestern.

"We're able to find some of the best writers in the world and publish them," enthuses Chip Fleischer, publisher of newly established Steerforth Press in South Royalton, Vt. A small press such as his can make a profit on a volume that only sells a few thousand copies; a major trade house cannot.

But it's an odd sensation, he admits, when he sees a list of the cities in which some eminent works of fiction are published. "I'll be looking down the list," he says, "and it reads: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, and then, South Royalton, Vt. I have to wonder: Why don't we in America assign more importance to these works?"

It's a hard question to answer. Some say the US has always had an isolationist culture and that this current indifference represents nothing new. But the Seavers of Arcade Publishing disagree. After World War II, Dick Seaver points out, American readers were fascinated by the nouveau roman movement in France and eagerly read writers such as Marguerite Duras, Samuel Beckett, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. "But that has passed," he says.

When it comes to French literature, his wife says, to some extent the lack of US interest is due to the books themselves. "French literature has not evolved with the times," Mrs. Seaver says. "Today they write for themselves, not for others."

But, she adds, that still fails to explain why other top-notch foreign writers don't find audiences in the US. "There are gems out there, wonderful voices that should be heard," she says. About one-third of the list Arcade publishes includes literary translations, but Mrs. Seaver says selling the books remains an uphill battle.

"We get tremendous reviews and respect. But people still don't rush into book stores to buy these works."

Some view the problem as a cultural gap. Literary translations are often "works of philosophical inquiry and intellectual rigor," says Sybil Steinberg, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. "There are not a lot of intellectual readers in America." And yet, point out others, challenging English-language writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon manage to attract substantial US audiences.

Of course, there are occasional exceptions. "Dreams of My Russian Summer," by Andre Makine, a Russian author who writes in French, has sold about 50,000 copies in the US - a significant achievement for a book in translation. A few years ago, the Danish thriller "Smilla's Sense of Snw," by Peter Hoeg, hit the jackpot with a major Hollywood film, while a German novel, "The Reader," by Bernhard Schlink, scored big after being picked up by Oprah Winfrey on her show.

Yet why these books - all of which exude a distinctly "foreign" flavor - scored with the American public while many other excellent ones languish remains a mystery. "It's literary roulette," says Mrs. Seaver, of the process of deciding which foreign works to bring out in English.

It's also a slap in the face for many non-English-speaking governments who want to see their great writers receive global attention and who worry that their cultures will be marginalized if they don't find ways of attracting larger audiences.

For that reason, the French, German, Dutch, Israeli, and other governments all actively work to support the promotion of their best works in the US market. Many governments partially subsidize the cost of having a book translated into English and other languages; the Israelis even maintain an agency that will provide the translation free of charge. The French have maintained the French Publishers Agency in New York for 16 years.

German literature has never been an easy sell in the US, but Ms. Heyde of the German Book Office says she was heartened by the decision of Simon & Schuster this spring to publish "The Pollen Room," by Swiss-German author Jenny Zo. Other top German authors - like acclaimed short-story writer Judith Hermann and novelist and filmmaker Peter Weiss - have never been published in the US, she says.

Such omissions are not as surprising to Gary Durham, editor in chief of the University of Nebraska Press, which has published German, French, and Spanish works in translation for the past 15 years. "The genre is so different," he explains.

However, he adds, the richness of such works remains astonishing. Bringing out foreign fiction, he insists, "is really a wonderful business." His press, he affirms, "will stay in it as long as possible."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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