I read an interesting editorial the other day on Publishing Perspectives about books in translation. It mentioned a recent study that, despite not providing recent numbers (sample results are from 2000, 2005, and 2008), revealed "the first ever accurate figures" for translated books published in the UK: 2.5% in translation, while 4.5% are in literature (click here for full report.) In the U.S., we know that the famous number is 3%.
But what really caught my eye in the editorial is that it was from a publisher's perspective. Joanna Zgadzaj and Nancy Roberts, from Stork Press in the UK, wrote it together to raise awareness of translated books, their specialty. This in-depth article didn't come from translators, experts in literature studies, or avid readers, but from those who still have some control over what gets published in the traditional method.
Joanna and Nancy offer an explanation to the translated books issue: Mass market reviews are hard to come by. And that's how a vicious circle gets started, because most publishers in the U.S. and UK don't put the effort into acquiring rights to translate and publish a foreign book. They say it's too expensive and that readers don't like translations anyway. Upon reading it, readers believe that reading books in translation can be like "gambling," because they don't know if the translation is any good.
Then I ask myself, how do you know that a book will be any good before you start reading it? Ah, because such-and-such says so in a book review! And that takes us back to the point these two publishers are trying to make: It's hard to get the attention of the media when it comes to reviewing books in translation. If a foreign author hasn't received a major literary prize, publishers won't bother to acquire foreign rights because they don't see the return on investment.
And how can readers find books they'll love, but haven't been translated into their native languages yet? That's when fan reviews come into play, now that everybody has a voice on the internet. Communities like GoodReads and Skoob really help if you read in a foreign language and can get tips from readers living in the country/market where a book was originally published.
Fan recommendations work so well that "Wool" a self-publishing effort by Hugh Howey, became a phenomenon and foreign rights were sold to several countries and the story got optioned for a movie even before the author had a chance to sit down with publishers in the U.S. to discuss a deal for the first print run of his epic saga.
“Major publishers and the media are seriously underestimating the audience for translated books,” Joanna and Nancy challenged in the editorial. Let's hope they've just sparked the curiosity of their fellow publishers and we, readers and translators, can enjoy foreign works in our own languages as well.
After all, the 2007 book "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books" interviewed 125 famous contemporary authors to get the ultimate best books in literature of all time and they came to find out that FIVE of them were actually not originally written in English (Nabokov actually wrote "Lolita" in English and later translated it himself into his native Russian.)