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Translation in the English-Speaking World

Translations are an integral part of the publishing industry. They are potentially invaluable to shaping young minds, breaking down cultural barriers, and furthering the development of modern languages; literature in translation accounted for 13 percent of The New York Times list of the 100 most notable books for 2015. And yet, the English-speaking world produces translated titles at a very small rate. Salman Rushdie called the low number of translated books into English in America “shocking,” and Literature Across Frontiers Director Alexandra Büchler said that the percentage of books published in translation in the United Kingdom and Ireland is “embarrassingly low.” When books are chosen for translation into English, they are normally originally written in Indo-European languages by male authors. Female authors are extremely neglected, as are authors from cultures highly foreign to Anglophones. The statistics certainly are dismal, especially given what is at stake.

Trends in Translation:

 So just how low are translation rates in the English-speaking world? In America and the United Kingdom, translations only constitute 3 percent of publications, with fiction accounting for less than 1 percent of that figure. According to Rachel Bitoun, writer for The Artifice, those translations into English that are published tend to be produced by established authors, and American publishers have shown more interest in bringing British authors to the United States than in translating foreign books. According to the United Nations’ Index Translationum database, the top language translated into English is French, followed by German. The database also recorded that nine of the ten top languages translated into English are of the Indo-European language family. The only Asian language on this “Top 10” list is Japanese, and no Middle Eastern or African language makes an appearance. These statistics reveal a lack of variety of language families accepted for translation into English.

As in many industries, women find themselves underrepresented in the publishing of translations into English. According to Meytal Radzinski, who examined data published by the Three Percent database, female authors write only about 30 percent of books newly translated into English, and these statistics have changed little within the past few years. She noted that AmazonCrossing and Europa Editions are the only publishers where at least half of the books translated into English were written by women. University presses publish an embarrassingly low number, with only 19% of their books in translation being female-written. Since four university presses appear on the “Top 10” list for “Publishers of Translations in the US” and two have places on the corresponding list for the UK, they obviously value translations into English; why, then, do these university presses not publish more female authors in translation?

Who else is underrepresented in the publication of translations into English? In his essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” writer John Keene spoke to the absence of translated black voices in America and globally. Like Radzinski, Keene also studied the statistics gathered by the Three Percent database. He noted that, in America, of the 588 books* of translated poetry and fiction published in 2014, only twenty-five translations came from China, four came from India, and fewer than five were published by non-Anglophone authors from sub-Saharan Africa, where books are actively being published by African publishing houses.

In 2015, the United States published 569 titles* of translated fiction and poetry. Compare this number to the statistics in countries where English is not the native language, and the differences are alarming. For example, France trumped that number decades ago. In 2005, France published 6,326 titles in translation and, in 1995, 3,736 translated titles. In 2005, Estonia published the same number of translations as America did last year, with a total of 570 titles.

Regardless, there are some publishers of translations within the English-speaking world that produce much higher percentages of translated fiction. Gecko Press, based in New Zealand, publishes exclusively English versions of children’s books from around the world. On its website, the press detailed the inspiration behind its mission: Julia Marshall founded Gecko Press after living in Sweden where she noticed how normal it is there to read books in translation. She is quoted as saying, “The more publishers I talked to, the more it became clear that publishers in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Sweden were selling rights for their best writers and illustrators…in every language but English.” When Marshall returned to New Zealand after 12 years in Sweden, she began her press with a niche for translation. Unfortunately, English-speaking presses with such a dedication to translation are rare, though others include Enchanted Lion and Pushkin Children’s Books in the U.K.

* Statistics slightly vary by source

The Argument for Translations:

So why should the English-speaking reader or publisher care about these mostly lackluster statistics? Keene claimed that, through engagement with more translated works from non-Indo-European languages, we could improve our understanding of pre-existing conversations about cultural barriers. Another writer, Don Mee Choi, agreed: “Translation weaves, it weaves solidarity.” A writer for Book Riot, Rachel Cordasco also concurred that translation acts as a bridging of cultures. She raised the argument that reading translated books makes one a better person. By reading a translated story, one is confronted with things about which the reader is, in Cordasco’s words, “(probably) clueless.” Cordasco asserted that by reading stories about foreigners, one develops compassion, tolerance, and understanding. She added that, though reading in translation probably won’t make one “run outside and join hands with all humanity and sing,” it does allow readers to recognize the value in shared experiences. According to these writers, translation allows for the sharing of experiences, the braiding of cultures and languages.

According to Edith Grossman, a professional translator, it is through reading translations that one experiences the linguistic and national traditions of other cultures. When a writer reads foreign literature in translation, there occurs a “literary cross-fertilization” as authors deepen their understanding of style, technique, and structure, by recognizing language synthesis that differs from those methods employed by authors in their native languages. Translation allows for growth of both languages. Writers learn from one another; thus, without translations, developments in literature would have come with much slower progress and much lesser creativity, as the number of books to which authors would have access would be incredibly minute.

Publishing of translations also expands readership, to both the benefit of the author looking for sales and of readers who seek the best possible literature available. Translations are especially indispensible for writers whose language is only spoken by a small number of people. Even the United States book market has its limitations; author Philip Roth argued that, once an author sells his/her book to those Americans who actually purchase books, his/her sales in America have ended.

Looking Forward:

America and other English-speaking countries seem to think small when it comes to acquiring books for translation into English. While other countries actively seek access to global stories, the English-speaking publishing world is considerably more reluctant and insular. Why? Many theories have been suggested (high prices, too few translators, Anglocentrism, etc.), but more pressing is the concern of what we are missing. If we as readers, authors, and publishers hope to fully experience the benefits that publishing in translation creates, current statistics of production must improve. To improve upon our civilization’s development, the English-speaking world should publish more books in translation, and a greater percentage of authors from poorly represented groups – such as women, people of color, and those who write in non-Indo-European languages – should be represented to allow for the highest level of diversification of voices.  Let’s get translating!

One Comment

  1. […] likes and preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than money or physical power. A few statistics for you: translations account for only an average of 3% of the books published in the US and the UK (the […]

  2. […] es que según algunos datos, del total de libros que se leen en inglés, apenas el 3 por ciento son traducciones. Aquí sería todo un tema de estudio discernir las razones de esta […]

  3. This is a very well written article. I really hope to read more articles like this. It really enrich me with new knowledge which
    I feel it is not just useful but of great value to me.
    I am a website translator and I translate english to chinese and vis versa. I learn alot of things from this article.

    It is a new knowledge for me that the United Nations’ Index Translationum database, The only Asian language on this “Top 10” list is Japanese.

    For me I wish to see more translation for english and chinese. I began to put up a platform for people to learn english transaltion using
    the Hanyu Pinying reading method. The user will need to first understand how to use Hanyu Pinying before starting to learn. This video guide that
    I have put up will explain how to use Hanyu Pinying

    After which you can proceed to learn each words using Hnayu Pinyin reading by visiting the website here
    click on start here on the main menu and start learn using the video guide word by word

2 Trackbacks

  1. By The Monolingual Dystopia — Change-Magazine on March 9, 2017 at 9:45 pm

    […] likes and preferences of others through appeal and attraction rather than money or physical power. A few statistics for you: translations account for only an average of 3% of the books published in the US and the UK (the […]

  2. […] es que según algunos datos, del total de libros que se leen en inglés, apenas el 3 por ciento son traducciones. Aquí sería todo un tema de estudio discernir las razones de esta […]

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