More on Translated Burritos

February 10, 2009

Turns out the Masked Translator already wrote an articulate response to the Aviya Kushner article, “McCulture,” that I wrote about a few days ago. He or she (I can’t tell behind the Zorro mask!) takes irate issue with Kushner’s self-congratulatory tone, but ends up focusing mostly on enumerating those aspects of the publishing industry that impede the path of a translated text to bookstore shelves, from the need for agents to the enormous quantity of titles any translation has to compete with for publication and, if it’s lucky, sales.

I don’t agree entirely with the Masked Translator’s arguments. The post emphasizes the U.S. as a fundamentally multicultural nation, saying,

We are a nation of immigrants (has Kushner forgotten?), and almost all American writing in some way brings the author’s ethnic background to the table, from Norwegian-American Garrison Keillor’s humor and essays to Chinese-American Amy Tan’s masterful storytelling. The fact that we read hyphenated-American authors is not because we are afraid of translations of actual Norwegian (cf. Out Steeling Horses by Per Petterson) or Chinese (cf. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie) novels; we read hyphenated-American authors because absolutely nothing is more American.

This was certainly the go-to defense made of American literature after Engdahl’s notorious Nobel smackdown last Fall, but I don’t think it lets us off the hook. Nor is it enough to just blame the publishing industry. Masked Translator actually starts out defending publishers:

According to Bowker (, the U.S. publishes about 300,000 books a year, so 3% is about 9,000 books. Spain publishes about 50,000 books a year, so the 25% that are translations is about 12,500 books. So, yes, we’re behind, but we already have most of the diet books and murder mysteries we need. We only need to translate Spanish ones if they’re really bringing something different to the table. Obviously I’m in favor of even more books being translated, I am a translator after all, but what the American publishing industry is accomplishing already is not exactly nothing.

But the 300,000 titles referred to in the post are in their overwhelming majority not literary titles, and the oft-cited 3% figure, if it is remotely accurate, still does not mean that 9,000 works of literature in translation are published each year. (The spreadsheet created by Chad Post at Three Percent for 2008 contains 357 titles.)

[I’d actually like to make a public appeal to people writing about these issues that they choose statistics relevant to their arguments — and in this case, Kushner started it. Even if 25% of books published in Spain are translations, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all with respect to the proportion of works of literature in translation published there compared to the U.S. Technical books and titles from other fields dominated by English or other languages might significantly skew those statistics.]

Still, I can’t help feeling (perhaps wrongly, but you’d have to convince me) like there’s a basic lack of interest in international literature that goes beyond mere unavailability of titles. In the Barnes & Noble Review, a regular feature invites writers and other big names to recommend three of their favorite books. Apart from the VERY occasional mention of Anna Karenina or One Hundred Years of Solitude, the guest readers remain firmly within the English-language canon. (Big ups to Gary Giddins, then, for selecting works of translated literature as not one but all three of his titles.) I don’t know to what to attribute this indifference, and many of Kushner’s arguments are silly (young French travelers use Guides Routard as much as Americans rely on Lonely Planet or Let’s Go — has Kushner really done an in-depth comparative analysis of international guidebooks?), but if there were active interest in translated literature, the publishing industry would provide. Of course they could help create that demand, and usually choose not to — I certainly wouldn’t argue otherwise — but I do see a broader lack of interest that needs to be combated somehow.



One Response to “More on Translated Burritos”

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