Quick: name two books originally published in a language other than English that have recently shown up on bestseller lists. Okay, maybe you can name one: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, recently picked by Oprah and opening next week as a feature film; or two: Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française. And though some of you might be saying Coelho! or Wiesel! let's face it: translated books are not atop many readers' or editors' minds these days.
According to the most recent Bowker figures, there were 4,982 translations published in the U.S., about 3% of all the books published here. And of that, fewer than 1,000 were works of literature for adults—and most of those issued from literary small presses like Green Integer and Dalkey Archive.
The reasons for our literary xenophobia are many, but surely the fact that we publish nearly 300,000 books a year (compared to the smaller European ouput) makes us more interested in selling titles than on bringing titles over here. But there's also something else: like moviegoers turned off by subtitles, most Americans would rather read about Americans in the American idiom. A function of fear or arrogance? You decide.
So it's interesting to see an anecdotal, if not tangible, shift in attitudes of late. Consider the unusually large number of Kurdish-, Pakistani- and African-themed novels that garnered buzz and sales at Frankfurt. Consider: the New York Times recently started the Reading Room, a book club blog, with the first book under discussion being Knopf's new translation of War and Peace. Consider: on November 8, the day before the 24th annual Miami Book Fair begins, BEA is cosponsoring a day of panels on the translation market. (Full disclosure: I'm moderating one of those panels and, in a former life, I translated several works from Spanish.) Consider: Grove Atlantic's big book of the winter is Night Train to Lisbon, a translation (from the German) of a novel by a Swiss-born author that has sold two million copies worldwide.
None of this means that the American publishing industry is suddenly embracing the commercial potential of translated books, of course. PW's international bestseller lists, after all, are filled with books that have never been and will never be heard of in the U.S. Besides, one analyst suggested that even if the 2004 number were doubled, we'd still be woefully lacking in this department. But when a relatively mainstream house like Houghton Mifflin (which has just merged with translation-heavy Harcourt) gets so fiercely behind György Dragomán's The White King, a translated novel about repression in Romania, there is cause for hope. Could the American reading public, fresh from the success of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns (written in English by bilingual author Khaled Hosseini, but foreign nonetheless), now be ready for a more global world view?
Me, I've become obsessed, thanks to some newspaper articles and a recent 60 Minutes profile of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Just the other night, I met a publishing person who was reading the French playwright Yasmina Reza's take on the controversial America-loving Sarkozy—“in French,” he admitted, almost by way of apology.
“Well, do you think it would sell if published in English here?” I asked.
His answer: a mysterious, and perhaps prophetic, “We shall see.”
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