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How foreign writers make it to US bookshelves

They have to fight to overcome one glaring statistic: Only 3 percent of the books published in the US each year are books in translation.

By / books editor / June 25, 2011



Boston

They call it "the 3 percent problem."

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Americans, publishing industry executives say, have never cared much about books from other cultures. That's why only about 3 percent of the books published in the United States each year are books in translation.

But it's hard to resist the drive of globalization in any sector these days and that includes books. "We're all becoming more aware of being global citizens," says Terry Hong, the BookDragon blogger for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. And that awareness may be forcing Americans to be less parochial in their reading habits.

Some say it has already happened. The wild success of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson has US book agents poring over even the most obscure Scandinavian detective writers to find the next big book.

Within the past eight years, virtually everything written by the late Chilean novelist/poet/essayist Roberto Bolaño seems to be coveted by American readers. And young African writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila may not yet be household names, but you could walk into most mainstream independent bookstores in the US and find their books on the shelf.

Yet it's still a difficult journey for young literary voices from foreign shores to make their way to the US, still the world's largest book market. In the past 20 years, English and Irish universities have been nourishing more US-style writers' programs. (The best known, the 40-year-old master's degree in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, is modeled directly on the Iowa Writers' Workshop.)

But for the most part, says Gerry Feehily, author and arts critic on French national radio station France Culture, you "don't hear much about young [European] authors emerging out of a workshop or creative writing class." In fact, he says, "in France a writers' workshop would be considered 'Anglo-Saxon' – something shameful and commercially oriented."

The best way for European writers to reach a global audience, he says, is to win one of the growing number of big-ticket English-language literary prizes, such as the Man Booker, the Orange, or the Costa Prize.

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