Back in November 2011, I wrote about the popularity of translations in English. In my next two posts, I’ll look in greater depth into whether they really are unpopular, and what can be done to increase the number of translations published in English. So…

Where is all the translated fiction? Well, the short answer is, it’s in non-English-speaking countries!

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the dearth of translated fiction in English-speaking countries. A recent article on the wonderful Publishing Perspectives website gave the following figures for percentage of books published that are translations in the respective countries*:

  • Poland 46%
  • Spain 24%
  • France 15%
  • Germany 12%
  • USA 3%
  • UK 2.5%

*The percentages given relate to all books, not just fiction.

So I’m curious to get to the bottom of this – what are the obstacles that need to be cleared away if we in the English-speaking world are going to get access to foreign books? How will I ever expand my reading horizons??

I love reading, but after university I pretty much stopped. I think maybe all the German and Spanish literature classes took a toll! Anyway, a few years ago I set out to change this. First I set myself a challenge to read 25 classics. Then I decided I’d like to read more foreign authors (if you are wondering, the 25 classics challenge is still ongoing, 3 years later!). Though I can read German and Spanish originals, it feels a little too much like work, so I wanted to read English translations. I also didn’t want to be limited only to German and Spanish authors. But I found that Isabel Allende is pretty much the extent of the foreign authors available in my local area.

I had always assumed this was because there was (almost) no market for translated books. I didn’t know why, but that seemed to be what the problem was. But lately I’ve read that the difficulty is that English-speaking publishers can’t read foreign languages, and so they can’t tell whether they should publish them or not. I’ve also read that publishing translations is too expensive. When I recovered from my laughing fit, I figured I must be missing something. Apparently not, although this post from Three Percent shows that the “expense” of translations is only part of the answer – actually all three of the above reasons contribute to the lack of foreign authors in British and North American bookstores.

So how might a foreign book turn into an English translation and get into an enthusiastic reader’s hands? There are several parties involved – the author, the publisher/editor, the agent, the translator, the bookseller and the reader.

I can’t see what the reader could do to obtain translations themselves. If you know of anything, please tell me, and I will go do it right now!

How about authors? My aunt is an author (check out her books for older kids/young adults here!), so I checked with her for an author’s point of view. She said typically authors do not retain the foreign language rights to their books. So while in theory it might be possible for them to negotiate for these rights and thus arrange for the publication of translations themselves, this probably isn’t too feasible in reality.

Booksellers would surely have the negotiating power to oblige publishers to put out translations, but would only use this power if there was something in it for them. If translations don’t sell well, there’s no incentive to stock them.

In part 2 I’ll look at what publishers, agents and translators can do to get more foreign authors translated, and reveal the real reason we can’t find any translated fiction in our English-speaking world. (If you can’t wait until next time, you can cheat by reading the Three Percent article linked above. It’s loooong though!)

Oh, and if I may do a double teaser, we just finished up an extended vacation in the Cayman Islands, so stay tuned as I will be posting about working with a temporary office setup soon!

As always, questions, opinions, or corrections are all very welcome. :)


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