For the past few decades, the main topic of conversation among those in the literary translation community has been about producing more titles. The idea of the “3% Problem”—fewer than 3% of all the titles published in the U.S. in a given year were originally written in a language other than English—has shaped this discussion in a number of ways. A frequent starting point is that it’s bad for our culture to be so cut off from the rest of the world. Some people focus on the need for more funding to publish international literature. Others see the creation of new presses and imprints dedicated to bringing voices from around the world to English readers as essential.
The “3% Problem” also contains inherent labor costs. As translators have become more professional, they’ve advocated for higher fees and royalties. They argue that freelance translating should be a career, not a hobby. But for that to happen, there needs to be enough work to go around—something that wasn’t the case a decade ago, when just over 350 new translations of fiction and poetry were published in the U.S.
A lot of the hand-wringing about this situation comes from two colliding assumptions: that translations are culturally valuable versus the belief that translations are less likely to generate a profit than a book originally written in English. There needs to be much more revenue from translated books for the “3% Problem” to become the “4% Problem.”
To get booksellers onboard with promoting books in translation, Europa Editions in 2016 launched the Booksellers Without Borders program to provide fellowships to attend international book fairs. “Booksellers are an increasingly important link in the chain that connects authors and their readers,” says Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief at Europa. “Yet, when it comes to international literature, especially literature in translation, most have no direct connection with other important links in that chain—foreign publishers, agents, producers, and other booksellers. We wanted to create real connections between professional booksellers here and abroad. And, ultimately, we aim to create an international bookselling network.”
Another path to expanding the world of literary translation is to build on recent successes. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (Europa) has sold more than 4.1 million copies in the U.S., and the first volume, My Brilliant Friend, was made into an HBO series that was recently renewed for a second season. Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (Washington Square Press) also made the jump from page to screen and has sold more than 2.8 million units worldwide. But even outside of titles that have been turned into film, there seems to be a groundswell of interest in international literature among both smaller presses and the Big Five. This fall, HarperCollins is launching the HarperVia imprint to bring out dozens of translations a year.
But for translators like Jennifer Croft, the surest route to success is winning an award. Although she says she “fell in love” with Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights (Riverhead) when she first read the original in 2007, she struggled for nearly a decade to find a publisher for her translation. It wasn’t until May last year, when she and Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International that things changed. “My feeling is that the Booker opened every literary door for us,” Croft says, “and that finally, after working with Olga for 15 years, my goals for her career are attainable. She is a wonderful, accessible writer who seems to have intimidated editors for no good reason until now. Readers, meanwhile, have always been ready to dig in.”