Monday, January 11, 2010

More Introverted Than We Knew!

The online site Three Percent, launched in 2007 with a focus on international literature and affiliated with the small press publisher Open Letter, maintains a database of books published (or distributed) in the US that are translations from other languages. If you remember I blogged a bit about Open Letter and Three Percent earlier this month…anyway.

The site named itself after the oft-cited statistic that 3% of books published in the US are in translation (which as we all agree is a pretty small number). If their database is as comprehensive as they say, well, 3% should be something US readership can only aspire to. Book industry tracker Bowker states that in 2008, 47,514 new (i.e., not reprints) works of fiction and another 10,538 works of poetry were published in the US. Three Percent notes only 280 newly-translated works of fiction and 82 newly-translated works of poetry published OR distributed in the US for the same year. This leads to the abysmal translation statistics of .59% and .78%, respectively. Less than 1%! Bowker hasn’t released 2009 stats, but Three Percent’s database only lists 283 works of fiction and another 65 works of poetry in translation for 2009, so, unless publishing experienced a tsunami-size drop in numbers, it’s hard to see how the stats changed much.

Perhaps I’m not comparing equally weighed apples to apples, but it does seem a really small number. I mean 65 poetry books for an entire year—that’s just a little over one a week!

And, not surprisingly, most translations are from Europe with France, Italy, Spain, and Germany dominating. I was kind of surprised to see so few translations from Russian, but then again, I’m hard pressed to think of a recent translation of new work (Valzhyna Mort is Belarussian!) I know, I know, does Turkey belong with the Middle East?

In case you were wondering the most prolific publishers of translation (at least in 2009) according to Three Percent are as follows (the numbers and percentages are of the total, fiction and poetry, translations for 2009):

Dalkey Archive   19   5.46%
New Directions   13   3.74%
American University at Cairo   11   3.16%
Europa Editions   11   3.16%
HarperCollins   10   2.87%
Green Integer   9   2.59%
Penguin   9   2.59%
Bitter Lemon   8   2.30%
Open Letter   8   2.30%
White Pine   8   2.30%
Archipelago   7   2.01%
Knopf   7   2.01%
Northwestern University Press   7   2.01%
Pushkin Press   7   2.01%
Aflame Books   6   1.72%
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt   6   1.72%

I really feel most of these publishers are doing a service. God knows US readers just don’t have a big appetite for ‘foreign’ literature. And big-house publishing is, for the most part, profit driven (are there still profits in publishing anything but Sarah Palin and Dan Brown?). I guess we should be thankful that the big publishing houses do manage to squeeze out a few translations given the miniscule chance that any will be bestsellers let alone profitable (OK, brand names like Orhan Pamuk and Roberto Bolano excluded). Not surprisingly, the biggest publishers of translated fiction and poetry are non-profit and small presses, which don't have to answer to shareholders.

Anyway, as an addendum to my 2010 reading list, I’m going to add some recent poetry translations. I need to do a bit of research, but at least a couple by poets who are still among us, put out by one of these small presses, and, definitely a couple by poets of whom I’ve never heard.

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