A statistic to consider: About 50 percent of world literature derives from English, but less than 3 percent of English-language publications are translations into English from the rest of the world. And that figure is closer to 0.3 percent if you consider only adult literature and poetry.
It wasn’t always thus. Esther Allen, executive director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University, asks us to consider the intellectual life of our country in the 1950s. “You had people who’d immigrated in the wake of World War II, and had been in Europe. The legacy of that international engagement persists for three decades,” she says. “With the Cold War, there’s this underlying notion of cultural exchange as the solution.” In 1999, the United States Information Agency closed. After that, she says, “Needing to hear from the rest of the world dissolved. Now you have the Treasury Department embargoing translation from such countries as Iran.”
Our current three cents’ worth of translation reflects not only our cultural climate but also the changing landscape of book publishing in general. Traditionally, new books found their audiences in a lazy, back-fence, word-of-mouth manner. This changed in the ’80s with big book publishers getting bought by bigger media companies, plus being taxed on unsold warehouse inventory. Now, mainstream publishers give a new book four weeks to show juicy sales or—as translator and literary agent Thomas Colchie puts it—“they pull the plug.”
Fortunately, the situation isn’t entirely bleak. In 2005, Rainmaker Translations formed to publish eight translated works of contemporary literature per year. With a catalog including Albanian, Hungarian and Taiwanese titles, Green Integer is also an important player on the scene. And the New Directions house—founded 72 years ago by poet James Laughlin (a protégé of brilliant translator/poet Ezra Pound—remains dynamic and bold, with translations filling half the company’s list. New Directions publisher Barbara Epler praises the “whole slew of wonderful small presses (Archipelago, Ugly Duckling) and medium-sized ones (NYRB Classics, Graywolf, Dalkey) who make translation a priority on their lists and are bringing out terrific books.” Also, this fall—in conjunction with its program fostering new generations of translators—the University of Rochester is launching Open Letter books, publishing modern international literature and nothing but, with such exciting, fun works as The Pets by Bragi Olafsson, bassist of Björk’s old band, The Sugarcubes.
Bookstores are likewise receptive to words beyond borders. Veteran bookseller Paul Yamazaki, of City Lights in San Francisco, has helped establish a program called Reading The World. Fifteen publishers are involved, “each contributing five to seven titles in translation,” he says, “of which 300 stores commit to displaying two or three from each, accompanied by posters and pamphlets, whose printing and mailing is partly underwritten by large publishers.” The program takes place in June, one month after World In Translation Month.