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.
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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. Read More