Why are fewer translated works being published these days, and what can be done to reverse the trend? A panel Monday at Housing Works Used Book Cafe grappled with these questions. Dennis Loy Johnson, co-founder of Melville House, an independent New Jersey-based publisher, moderated.
The first question addressed was a different one: Why should anyone care? Learning from literature in translation helps us learn about ourselves, said panelist Margarrita Shalina, a buyer for St. Mark's Bookstore. Panelist Chad Post, associate director of Dalkey Archive Press, concurred. "We need to know viewpoints from different countries. Beyond that, they're great books."
Mr. Post cited the statistic that roughly 0.4% of books published in America are adult literature in translation. "Pretty dismal number," he said. Commercial publishers used to publish a fair amount, he said; it was considered prestigious. Even Avon had a Latin American line in the 1980s. But an emphasis on the bottom line has changed that, he said. The burden has now fallen more on independent publishers like Melville House, nonprofit presses like Dalkey, and university presses.
It costs about $35,000 for Dalkey to publish a translation, Mr. Post said, and if 2,000 copies sell, the publisher earns back $12,000-$13,000 dollars. Selling 3,000 copies is considered a "wild success," he said. "Now we know why the big publishers stay out" of publishing translated work, said Mr. Johnson. Joking about how that loss per book could be made up, Mr. Johnson added, "We're selling cupcakes outside."
Mr. Johnson started by asking Mr. Post how a small press hears about books to publish. While sometimes a translator contacts them, Mr. Post said, it's not good enough to find "a translator": What's really needed is a translator who will do a book justice. While the Internet or e-mail can help a publisher learn about the latest books from Estonia, he said Dalkey is often looking for the enduring work, originally published 30 years ago, that never got translated. Dalkey editors have traveled to Finland, Paris, Germany, and the Netherlands in search of works. Visits to Estonia, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Austria are planned for the fall.
Mr. Post described the "hidden costs" of publishing translations. They often take twice as long to edit (publishers need to edit both the author and the translator) and incur increased marketing costs, since American readers are often less likely to have heard of the translated authors, and the books often need innovative ways of reaching readers.
Mr. Post said Dalkey was fortunately located at Illinois State University, which provides office space and pays for the press's electricity while the press pays its own phone bills. The press also benefits from graduate student assistantships. He gave the example of a Serbian graduate student who read a book by Dubravka Ugresic that was popular in Croatia and wrote a synopsis on it for the press.
Mr. Johnson then turned to Ms. Shalina, who said a number of books overlooked by the mainstream press are "incredibly culturally viable" apart from commercial viability. She said St. Mark's had "savvy" customers unafraid of authors with foreign sounding or unpronounceable names.
She said she visits the Web site of the writer's organization PEN to see "who they are rallying for and who has been arrested." These, she said, are voices not necessarily sought out by American readers. Ms. Shalina used the word "transgressive" to describe some of the books she seeks. Mr. Post likewise used terms like "unconventional" and "subversive" to describe Dalkey's aesthetic.
Mr. Johnson asked panelist Michael Orthofer about his having previously written that too many people who publish translations were "embracing the exotic." Mr. Orthofer wondered whether small presses may be contributing to their marginalization by tending to focus on books that aren't expected to reach as wide an audience, especially more "literary" and "difficult" books. Mr. Orthofer said this was admirable and that he liked the exotic, but thought more needed to be published, such as the large central part of the market that makes up the literature of most nations, popular books that are not best sellers.
"Readers looking for books in translation are now likely to find, at best, a few really big names (Eco, Allende, etc.) and then a lot of obscure stuff, which reinforces the idea of translated-works-as-exotic: sort of like subtitled art-house films, a boutique industry attracting a small, steady audience, but one that finds it hard to attract the average consumer," he later told The New York Sun.
Ms. Shalina said America was a monolingual society.
What are some countervailing forces of the landscape? Mr. Post spoke of the generosity of the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, without which Dalkey would not exist, he said.
Mr. Post spoke about a new initiative where a handful of publishers and 100 independent bookstores were promoting "World in Translation" month. A special display this month features selected international translations. The big problem is that readers don't hear about these books, he said. "We kind of have these books already," Ms. Shalina said, but "we put up the poster."
During the question-and-answer session, Italian translator Michael Moore quoted Gregory Rabassa: "The only thing that gets lost in translation is the money." Mr. Moore was concerned about the earlier talk of sales representatives, distributors, and buyers discouraging putting translators' names on covers.
Mr. Johnson said it was art meeting commerce. The publisher's aim is to sell the book, he said. Mr. Johnson picked up "Thank You for Not Reading" (Dalkey Archive Press), looking for the translator's name. "[It's] on the back," Mr. Post said. Other Dalkey books in his stack, such as "Voices of Chernobyl," had the translator's name on the front.
Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Post about pricing books. How does one choose the price? Mr. Post said $14 appeared to be the point at which customers start to question the purchase of a 160-page book from an author in translation they don't know. "It's the quavering point," Mr. Johnson said, nodding. If the book is priced at $18.95, Mr. Post said, people who are not motivated are going to put it down.
"Is there any good news, or should we slink home in a state of dejection?" asked audience member James Marcus. Mr. Johnson said it's an exciting time for small publishers who can acquire books by leading writers ignored by conglomerates. But he also cautioned that the current political climate is "not exactly friendly to foreign voices." He gave the example of having published "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. After that author was booked for a nationally broadcast televised show, an executive producer returning from vacation nixed the author's appearance, preferring "no accents" on his program.