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Found in Translation

By Samantha Schnee

Words Without Borders and the reach of literature   

“Not knowing what the rest of the world is thinking and writing is both dangerous and boring.” 
– Alane Salierno Mason, Founder, Words Without Borders

When Alane Salierno Mason founded Words Without Borders (WWB), in 2003, approximately three percent of books published annually in the United States were translated from other languages. In the intervening two decades, this number has grown, but it still falls far short of other countries. Germany, for example, publishes 8,703 translated books each year, nearly 14 percent of total books published.

The Translation Database, launched in 2008 and bought in 2019 by Publisher’s Weekly, aims to log all original publications of fiction and poetry published in the US in English translation. For the last 15 years, French has been the top language for translated literature in the US, with 1,804 translated titles published between 2008 and 2022. This includes titles not only from France but also from former French colonies. This holds true for Spanish, which comes in second, with 1,300 titles. German takes third with 1,121 titles translated into English during the same 15-year period. There were also 593 titles translated from Italian; 503 from Japanese; 384 from  Swedish; 344 from Chinese; and 322 from Arabic, not to mention smaller numbers of books translated from other languages.

The top three—French, Spanish, and German—all enjoy the benefit of government support for the export of their literature, with Germany arguably the most active. The German Book Office (an outpost of the Frankfurt  Buchmesse) organizes an annual festival of German literature in New York City, publishes New Books in German twice a year to promote new German titles, and offers a translation prize for aspiring translators. The Frankfurt Buchmesse has also supported a program that brings editors to Germany to attend the book fair and meet German authors and editors. Less wealthy nations—and language groups within nations—do not enjoy such largesse. Authors not published in the Anglophone world, the lingua franca of the entire industry, have a much harder time accessing other foreign markets.

This is where Words Without Borders enters the picture. Over the years, we have published seven  anthologies—the majority of them themed collections of works appearing in English for the first time. Online, WWB has published over 4,400 authors, translated into English from 136 languages, ranging from Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia) to Chavacano Zambagueño (a Spanish creole spoken in the Philippines). Over the past twenty years, thirty WWB authors have received book contracts from Anglophone publishers, who discovered these authors through WWB. Most of these are available primarily in the US market, but our website is, of course, accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. Over the past two decades, the international readership of WWB’s website has outpaced the readership in the US; today, American readers make up only 40 percent of unique annual visitors.

Over the past two decades, the international readership of WWB’s website has outpaced the readership in the US; today, American readers make up only 40 percent of unique annual visitors.

Which publishers are seeking out these authors? They are both few and identifiable. Emeritus Temple University translation-studies scholar Lawrence Venuti wrote in Lit Hub in April 2023 that over the past several years “twenty new presses have been  launched, vastly different in size, scope, and resources, some nonprofit, others trade—[among them] And Other Stories, Archipelago, Fitzcarraldo Editions, New York Review Books, Open Letter, Pushkin Press, Tilted Axis. They join small literary presses that have been publishing translations from earlier in the previous century, such as New Directions (founded  in 1936), Carcanet (1969), and Dalkey  Archive (1984) [recently purchased by Dallas non-profit publisher Deep Vellum, founded in 2014].”

This flowering of small presses is in part a reaction to the corporatization of publishing over the past decade that has resulted in five mega-houses controlled by enormous media conglomerates, two of which are German: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette. Some of these new indies are registered nonprofits, which gives them an advantage over imprints that belong to for-profit enterprises, focused on the bottom line. In other words, there is a significant  incremental cost to publishing translations—paying for the translation  itself—which matters a lot in an  industry in which profit margins are already low.

Pay rates for translation range wildly from country to country, though translators working into English from any language seem to fare quite well, even in regard to their continental  European peers. Anti-trust laws in the US prevent entities such as the American Translators Association from publishing even an “observed” rate, but in the United Kingdom the Society of Authors’ Translators Association currently observes a rate of 100 GBP per 1,000 words. This seems to be the average, with some well-known translators earning much more. Suffice it to say that for a 50,000-word book an editor should expect to pay a translator 5,000 GBP. That’s a lot of money to spend when a publisher can’t expect to sell many books—even the best of them. Venuti’s Lithub article notes,

Apart from the rare bestseller, sales of translations have never been especially robust either. In 2004 Christopher MacLehose, who directed Harvill Press from 1978 to 1999, observed that “the  majority of even the finest books that are translated find their way to sales between 1,500 and 6,000 [copies].” In 2021 Adam Levy, co-director of Transit Books, which publishes six to eight books a year, said that “a more realistic sales range for a given title might be between 1,500 and 3,000, though we’ve had books that have sold well above and below.”

Occasionally translations do hit the sales midlist; a few even become bestsellers, propelled sometimes by film and video adaptations. New Directions has built readerships for contemporary fiction writers such as Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Tawada, whose new books in translation might sell upwards of 15,000 copies. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels, translated between 2012 and 2014, have sold over three million copies for Europa Editions, according to editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds, who calls the figure “an anomaly.”

So, how do we at WWB develop and grow readerships for translated works? The answer is a multipronged approach: through events that attract international audiences; attendance at literary festivals and conferences; an active social media presence; and via book reviews, interviews, and reading lists that provide the sort of scaffolding needed to support the exploration and appreciation of literature.

Perhaps the most significant initiative, however, is WWB Campus, a program that repackages content from the website into lesson plans for advanced high-school and beginning college students and that connects classrooms and teachers with writers. Since its 2017 founding, WWB Campus has reached more than 40,000 students and educators worldwide and has trained more than 750 educators, providing more than 120 pieces of global literature along with teaching prompts and rich contextualizing materials. We talk increasingly about “training educators to teach with global literature,” and this is how we’ve been most effective at getting teachers to adopt the program.

The WWB Campus program has received incredibly positive feedback from both students and teachers, primarily because translated literature can be both a mirror and a window: a mirror in that it offers students a connection to heritage cultures and languages in the curriculum; a window in that if proffers a connection with the wider world. Given this momentum, I predict that the use of Campus content will eventually outpace the content  accessed by our regular readers. When WWB was founded, conventional wisdom held that the average US reader was not interested in translations because they were perceived as too highbrow or difficult. This attitude has changed, particularly among younger readers but also among the agents and editors who act as gatekeepers. Today, many translated books now proudly feature the translator’s name on the cover.

When WWB was founded, conventional wisdom held that the average US reader was not interested in translations because they were perceived as too highbrow or difficult. This attitude has changed.

Not only has WWB helped to create new readers of international literature and launched the careers of writers around the globe in the Anglophone market, it has also launched careers of talented translators, such as Anton Hur (from Korean). Venuti again: “In the Anglophone world, the start of  the new millennium brought changes in publishing and award-giving that moved literary translation from the shadows, closer to the center of cultural and political debates. As a result, a more public role has been created for translators.” In fact, WWB prides itself on being an incubator of literary talent both on our website and behind the scenes, where we have worked with talented writers and editors such as Noor Naga (If an Egyptian Cannot  Speak English, winner of the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize) and Megha Majumdar (author of New York Times bestseller A Burning). Former WWB staffers are now editors acquiring literature in translation at publishers such as FSG and Melville House.

Finally, Words Without Borders has highlighted gender bias in Englishlanguage publishing and translation, a longstanding problem documented since 2010 in the US by VIDA : Women in Literary Arts. WWB published an article in 2013 by writer and translator Alison Anderson that asked, “Where Are the Women in Translation?” In response, a number of global initiatives were launched, such as Women in Translation Month—founded in 2013 by Meytal Radzinski and recurring each August—which  sees participating bookstores around the world and literary  organizations such as PEN America highlight the work of women writers working in languages other than English.

The times are changing, and though this change is not rapid enough for many, WWB is proud to have been a catalyst for that change. As we celebrate our twentieth anniversary and embark upon the next twenty years, we will  launch a capital campaign to raise one million dollars to support literature in translation. We will  also raise our payments to both authors and translators. In so doing, WWB continues to see itself as a stepping stone to a more global identity for readers everywhere. We will continue to expand our reach to include more endangered and indigenous languages and writers, while continuing to present the world’s most exciting authors to an Anglophone audience. Not long after WWB was founded, writer Randall Kenan said that WWB, over time, “will be recognized as a powerful and  important archive which will have a vast impact upon literature and upon international relations.” Ultimately, that is our goal.

I live in a part of the United States where some people look askance when you point out that the  US has an enormous cultural-trade surplus, as if to say, What’s wrong with that? Or, Of course; that’s the  birthright of a global superpower. It is at these times I like to mention an important 2018 Washington Post op-ed by Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellow Viet Thanh Nguyen, entitled “Canon Fodder”:

We must read Shakespeare and authors who are women, Arab, Muslim, queer. Most of the  world is neither white nor European. . . . As for literature, the mind-set that turns the canon  into a bunker in order to defend one dialect of English is the same mind-set that closes borders, enacts tariffs, and declares trade wars to protect its precious commodities and its besieged  whiteness. But literature, like the economy, withers when it closes itself off from the world. The world is coming anyway. It demands that we know ourselves and the Other.

This essay first appeared in the Berlin Journal 37 (2023-24).

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