Monday, February 1, 2010

livre, boek, libro, книга, buch

Imagine if we had never read the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus, Jorge Luis Borges, Anton Chekhov, Naguib Mahfouz, Vladimir Nabokov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Isabel Allende, or Leo Tolstoy. These names are almost instantly recognizable by anyone who has graduated high school. Many of their books are considered "classics" of American literature, even though none of them were originally written in English or by Americans.

It is a sad fact that only 3% of all books published in the United States are translated from another language. The percentage for literary fiction and poetry is a fraction of that figure, though a few works in translation of been hitting the bestseller lists and their authors have been gaining national attention (Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson).

To increase the readership and profile of works in translation, the University of Rochester hosts a very smart and inspiring blog, appropriately titled Three Percent. Their mission is simple: introduce Americans to the exquisite and remarkable literature being created across the globe.

Three Percent's annual Best Translated Book Award is in it's baby years yet, but is quickly garnering recognition. Their longlist was announced January 5th, the shortlist will be announced February 16th and final awards given in March. Every day until the final awards are handed out, Three Percent will post reviews of and excerpts from each of the 25 finalists.

The books and authors range from the lost and forgotten to the fresh and contemporary. They come from 24 countries, and are translated from 17 different languages. They are published by 15 publishers, most of whom are independent or small press names.

We currently have a beautiful display of many titles from the BTBA 2010 longlist and encourage you to peruse them the next time you stop in to the store. You may just discover a new favorite!


  1. This is a pet peeve of mine. American readers--and authors--are too self-absorbed, as if nothing outside of the U.S. matters. Somewhere I read that this explains why there are relatively few translations of American works: people in other countries can't relate to our specific (non-universal) themes and concerns.

  2. Many bestsellers are novels NOT set in the US(Kite Runner, for example)so I don't think that you can say that translated works don't sell because American writers and readers are not interested in stories about the rest of the world. I think that much of a book's success has to do with the quality of the translation and good translators are few and far between.

  3. "Many bestsellers are novels NOT set in the US"

    According to the NYT Best Sellers (the most popular go-to list) and the top 10 in each of the major 4 categories (Hardcover/Paperback, Fiction/Non-Fiction), there are only 3 titles that are truly stories about the rest of the world. Two (non-fiction) are by the same author (an American) about the same region (Pakistan/Afghanistan) and one (fiction) is a translation (Swedish).

    If we expand to the complete lists in each of the 4 major categories, the numbers increase to 6 total. Three (non-fiction) by two authors (American) about two regions (Pak/Afgh and Haiti). Three (fiction) are translations (2 Swedish, 1 French) by two authors.

    "much of a book's success has to do with the quality of the translation and good translators are few and far between"

    It would be wonderful if the quality of the translation or the number of good translators was what made a book successful, but unfortunately that is not the case. There are many excellent translators working today (off the top of my head: Edith Grossman, Thomas Cleary, Margaret Jull Costa, Tiina Nunnally, Anne Born, Larissa V./Richard Pevear).

    However the authors' work they translate has a hard time coming into the hands of mainstream reading audiences.

    "I don't think that you can say that translated works don't sell because American writers and readers are not interested in stories about the rest of the world."

    It's not that they don't sell at all, but they certainly don't sell "well" in terms of the book industry perspective (stores or publishers). And when they do hit the bestseller lists, it's a rare occurrence. When you think about the number, 3%, and then take those 2 translated authors on the bestseller list, the percentage of even that 3% is miniscule, barely a blip.

    Of course, this is what Three Percent is trying to do: Bring the names of good translators into the mainstream, and more so the works of writers from around the globe. They are doing this precisely because they agree that Americans are interested in stories about the rest of the world. We just need to find better ways of putting those books in front of those readers.

  4. While many American novels are set in other countries (Prague by Arthur Phillips comes to mind), they tend to bring American issues--social, cultural or political--with them. So it's a typical American story told in another setting.

    A 2008 NYT piece by book critic Motoko Rich speaks to the lack of translated works in the U.S.:

    "According to Chad W. Post, the director of Open Letter, a new press based at the University of Rochester that focuses exclusively on books in translation, 330 works of foreign literature — or a little more than 2 percent of the estimated total of 15,000 titles released — have been published in the United States so far this year.

    "That apparent dearth of literature in translation in the United States was the subject of controversial remarks by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the organization that awards the Nobel Prize, a week before the prize did not go to an American.

    “ 'The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,' Mr. Engdahl said in an interview with The Associated Press. 'They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.' "

  5. Here is the original article from which the poster above quotes:

    Translation is Foreign to U.S. Publishers