You founded and maintain the translation database, so let’s start there, with a wide lens on where the translation market stands—what notable trends have you’ve observed in the data?
I hate starting off on a negative note, but let’s get this out of the way: 2018 was the second year in a row that the overall number of literary translations published in the U.S., that is fiction and poetry translated into English for the first time ever, decreased. The peak was in 2016 with 666 titles, whereas 2018 ended with 609 new works. Percentage-wise, that’s a significant drop. But in reality, we had consistent growth from 2008, when we counted 369 total titles, so maybe this is a just a minor hiccup?
It terms of other trends, two jumped out—at least at the macro-level: Spanish surpassed French as the most translated language. French, Spanish, and German have always been the top three, with French generally being the most translated. And, the gender gap has been somewhat reduced. In 2017, some 66% of translations were books written by men, and only about 30% by women. Last year, just over 59% of translated books were written by men, and about 36%% by women. That is is still bad, but at least it’s a step in the right direction?
On a more granular level, any other trends that have caught your attention—are we seeing new publishers in the translation market, or are the same publishers still carrying the load?
There are a lot of micro-trends I’ve been writing about at Three Percent over the past year, but the one thing that always stands out to me is the balance between translations published by independent and nonprofit presses and the number done by the Big Five. As has been the case throughout the history of the database, about 86% of translations last year were published by indie presses. And while these books may not generate massive sales, they definitely are a source of prestige. A New Directions title won the National Book Award for Translation, and in recent years, some the most talked about authors are Ferrante (Europa Editions) and Knausgaard (Archipelago). So many exciting voices are finding their way into English via passionate editors working at smaller houses, and a lot of critics and booksellers are recognizing this.
Talk about some of these authors and books—what should be we keep an eye out for?
It’s always tempting to talk about Open Letter titles, like Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan, who is the next in the growing line of amazing Korean women writers to be translated into English. But I’ll talk about books other presses that I think deserve wider attention. Like Sjón’s CoDex 1962, which is one of the best translations published last year—ambitious, and incredibly well-written and translated. It is also going to be the subject of the eighth season of the Two Month Review podcast that Three Percent/Open Letter runs—a sort of weekly book club where demonstrate how much fun it is to dig into titles like this.
Another recent discovery for me was Catherine Leroux, a Quebec author with two titles out from Biblioasis. Her Madame Victoria, a collection of short vignettes imagining the lives of an unidentified skeleton found in the woods behind a hospital, deserves to be considered for any and all major awards. And, I think Virginie Despentes is about to have a major moment. She’s already well known in France and has a cult following in America for her books King Kong Theory and Pretty Things. But the Man Booker nomination of the first volume of Vernon Subutext, her three-volume magnum opus, coming out later this fall from FSG, is going to take her to the next level.
In 2018, Open Letter, the publisher you founded, celebrated 10 years—can you reflect a little on the last decade, and where you hope to go in the next 10 years?
I think we’re about where we wanted to be—I mean, I thought by year 10 we would’ve had a Ferrante or Knausgaard, but that’s kind of unrealistic! We’ve done just over 100 titles so far—which fits our plan of doing 10 a year. And we did have an Enard, a Gospodinov, a Zambra, and several Rodoredas. The publishing industry runs off of aspiration, ambition, and luck, so it’s hard to ever really be satisfied. There’s never enough donors or sales, and losing authors to larger houses always hurts. But I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.
I’m also extremely happy with what we’ve done with Three Percent, which encompasses a lot of the more altruistic aspects of the Open Letter’s mission—connecting readers, translators, authors, and raising awareness of international literature and the art and craft of translation. We’ve expanded from a simple blog and review site to become the home of multiple podcasts, the Best Translated Book Awards, and the origin of the Translation Database—all of which is pretty gratifying. So, I feel like we’ve helped expand both the number of translations published in the U.S., and the way these books are discussed by the media.