Small, Specialized Publishers Fill Book-Translation Niche

Lack of readership, financial concerns turn large publishers away

Pushed to the corners of American bookstores by brightly colored displays for popular home-grown novels, books in translation have been moved to less conspicuous locations for one simple reason.

''Translations are unprofitable,'' says Ashbel Green, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf publishing house. ''It is only the rare translated author whose books are successful in America.''

The statistics agree. In its June 5 issue, ''Publishers Weekly'' reported that 40,584 books were published in America in 1994. Of these, only 1,124, or 2.7 percent, were books in translation.

Mr. Green says ''a lack of readership'' has forced larger publishers away from translations. Even when the market peaked in the 1960s, he recalls, many translations did not sell well.

''I can look back and remember only selling 500 to 600 copies of a translation,'' he says. ''America is a very parochial country. We don't tend to read foreign writers all that much. People are mainly interested in American writers and American subjects.''

Only critically acclaimed works, such as those by Nobel Prize winners, tend to make a profit.

Smaller, more specialized publishers have had to fill the niche for translations, for example, David R. Godine Publisher Inc. in Lincoln, Mass. ''Fewer and fewer publishers are doing translations,'' says Mark Polizzotti, editorial director at Godine. ''To see translations as a living art, you have to look at the smaller publishers like Sun and Moon [in Los Angeles] and the Dalkey Archive [in Peoria, Ill.] where it is 50 percent of their output.''

John O'Brien, a publisher at the Dalkey Archive Press, says large houses are unwilling to make the financial sacrifices necessary to publish translations.

''To publish translations you have to be driven by a mission,'' Mr. O'Brien says. ''If everything is done the same, an American book will sell three to four times better than a translated book ... You must put in marketing money you don't expect to get out. You put in $20,000 and get out $7,000. As a business model, that's when you go out of business.''

The struggle to put out translations has become a crusade of sorts. Small publishers push themselves deeper into the red to publish translations.

''We see a cultural need to publish these books,'' O'Brien says. ''Certain groups interested in these books range from 1,500 to 20,000 people, which, for any other media would be insignificant.''

The Dalkey Archive Press stays afloat with grants from various sources. O'Brien says the best source for grants to help translate a new book is often the government of the author's native country.

''On a book-by-book basis, if the French ministry decides to support the book, it can give up to 50 percent of the translation costs,'' he says. ''Others give a token grant to say, 'You're doing a good job,' usually about $2,000 for a $7,000 job.''

Other sources include local, state, and federal agencies, and to a lesser extent, private benefactors. Sarah Meyer, managing director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), says that funding for literature is behind that of other arts because publishing is perceived as a profitable business, and because those who need funding the most don't have time to cultivate benefactors. The CLMP helps by finding these donors and distributing grants to different presses.

University presses have also been fertile ground for translations. The University of Pittsburgh Press's current series of Latin American novels is wholly subsidized by the university.

Senior editor Jane Flanders says university funding allows the press to publish academic books that do not often turn a profit. ''Trade presses [large houses] make money; academic presses lose money,'' she says.

O'Brien agrees that most translations must be funded: ''Translations need to be subsidized so the best translator will be matched with the best book.''

Every so often, a book finds a suitable translator without help from outside money. Edith Grossman, one of the foremost translators of Spanish prose, has been paired with Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She is, in many ways, the exception to the rules of the translation market. She makes her living as a translator, and her latest translation, Marquez's ''Of Love and Other Demons,'' recently an American bestseller.

''I've been very fortunate in that I almost always love the books I translate,'' she says.

For her, the process involves making a rough translation of a book, then revising her manuscript as many as 10 times.

''After that many revisions I try very hard not to look at the Spanish at all,'' she says. ''I try to make it sound like a book in English.''

Paraphrasing Ralph Manheim, a renowned translator in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, she says the translator's job is similar to that of the actor - playing out someone else's words without getting lost in them.

''Languages don't fit together,'' she says. ''What is important is that the ideas and concepts are in the same tone as if the writer could speak in English. If you're lucky, the artistry and the imitation are the same.''

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