“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Publishing Translations

By Lucas Klein, published

The discussion following my post on footnotes descended, as discussions involving translations often do, into guesses at the world of publishing, and why English-language publishing might be so averse to translations. I called them cowardly (though I can think, especially in the smaller presses, of many brave exceptions); a commentator said they were overworked.

Whatever the reason translations are kept out of the American book market, I was impressed by how translations are marketed in other countries. A novel written by a college friend of mine, Red Weather, recently came out in German, and the publishers have produced a trailer for its release.

I don't understand German, but the trailer is pretty easy to follow.

But a trailer for a book? A clip to be viewed online, on television, in movie theaters perhaps? I don't think I've ever heard of such a thing, let alone for a first novel by a rather obscure (sorry, Pauls) writer in another language, chronicling (I have to admit I haven't read the book) the life of a first-generation Latvian immigrant in the Milwaukee? It's pretty impressive.

Filming a trailer cannot be cheap. But what's interesting is that the German translation of the book is published by Rowohlt Verlag, part of the Holtzbrinck empire. In the American market, Holtzbrink owns Macmillan, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Faber & Faber, Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martin's Press, and others (in the US, Red Weather is published by Shaye Areheart, a subsidiary of Random House, which in turn is owned by the German Bertelsmann). I'm interested in figuring out why, if German publishers have the resources to find making trailers for books--including translations--cost effective in Germany--which has got to be a smaller book market than in the US--why German publishers don't think making trailers is cost effective for the American book market.


# 1.   

But there are lots of trailers for books, aren't there? This one is just a bit more elaborate, with an actor and all.

Look at these for example:


Anna GC, March 20, 2009, 1:38p.m.

# 2.   

I actually meant to post this link:


Anna GC, March 20, 2009, 1:39p.m.

# 3.   

I guess you're right--there are other books with trailers. I'd never come across that before. These look like bestsellers; has anyone seen trailers made for literary fiction (or, say, poetry?) in the US? And for anything in translation? [I don't want to include any value on the categories "bestseller" and "literary fiction"; I think these are the names of the genres in the publishing world].

Lucas Klein, March 21, 2009, 10:01a.m.

# 4.   

An author wrote up his experience with trailer-making for the writer blog Storytellers Unplugged. That's for an ebook in a very narrow genre (SF romance), so the author rather than the publisher took care of the arrangements.

jdmartinsen, March 21, 2009, 8:35p.m.

# 5.   


You are talking about Germans reading American novels in translation. This is no where near the same as British/Americans reading Chinese in translation.

As America controls the whole world, media, entertainment etc, American culture is going to be interesting to foreigners, whereas conversely Americans in General don't have to care about other cultures, because they produce enough cultural output and more to satisfy themselves.

It's the same reason why 8 out of the top ten movies at the British box office at the moment are American, and I bet it's pretty similar in France, Germany, probably even China. America has the money, power and whatever else to demand to be noticed, whereas who cares about china?

Tom, March 24, 2009, 3:14p.m.

# 6.   

Hi, Tom--

Your points and questions are right on. America owns the world, which is why the rest of the world cannot afford to pay attention to us, while we can afford to ignore the rest of the world.

But quite simply, this is not how I want things to be. So I ask myself how to remove the cynicism from your analysis and in its place work towards a program for actually changing things. I imagine a large-scale campaign with many fronts, but one front would be for publishers to support translations. If we as readers, writers, and translators, can compel publishers to do more to market translations, we already will have achieved a lot and gone far towards rectifying the cultural imbalances between the US and the rest of the world.

Lucas Klein, March 24, 2009, 3:31p.m.

# 7.   

Lucas, I don't think it is cynicism. People around the world look to the biggest,richest country there is for their cultural directions, whether that is fashion, entertainment or eating habits. The world's number one superpower is also in a unique position to market itself.

People become interested in other cultures from time to time, and foreign authors do well out of that, for instance Haruki Murakami (I don't know about the US but he's huge in England). But trying to force foreign literature/culture etc on people just won't work, because there is too much apathy and as I said earlier, there is no point trying to market the unmarketable.

Thats not to say I don't think there is a place for literary translation, but I believe it should be something which should be done out of love for the literature itself, rather than trying to pursue it as a commercial endeavour.

Tom, March 24, 2009, 4:39p.m.

# 8.   

Hi, Tom--

What I find cynical is the attitude that we can't--or even shouldn't--do anything about the situation as we find it. When translations only account for 3% of the American book market--and the minority of that is what we would call literature--and translators across Europe make poverty wages, I see this as a problem. I see it as very much related to the problem of American military interventions in the Middle East, or of American corporate domination of the Chinese workplace, or of neoliberal lending policies in the World Bank. Basically, it's too easy for us in America to impose our will on the rest of the world without taking into consideration the way things are done there, the field upon which--rather than into which--we thrust ourselves. This is not to say that I think that if more translated literature were published in the US then we'd all have peace on earth; but it is to say that as writers, readers, and translators, we have a role to play in creating the world we want.

You're right that international writer such as Murakami Haruki 村上春樹 have made their way into the English-language mainstream, and their cases--how they managed to do that, what kind of apparatus they had at to support them etc.--are instructive. But how many readers of Murakami in English can name a second, or third, Japanese writer? How many readers of Orhan Pamuk can name a second Turkish writer? How many readers of Roberto Bolaño can name a second Chilean author? I try to be as informed about translation and world literature as possible, and I can't name a second Turkish writer, or another post-Boom novelist in Spanish. The fact that the American publishing industry crafts itself as only large enough for one writer from each language other than English is, I think, a problem (if I remember Peter Theroux's lecture from last year's ALTA conference, one of the things he talked about was that we wouldn't have to worry about whether translations were "representative" if we published more translations from those languages).

To be clear, I'm not talking about forcing foreign literature or culture upon readers. I'm talking about encouraging people to read international writers through changing the rules of the literary marketplace. To do that we may have to find ways to force the publishing industry to market translations differently, to find ways to make what they see as unmarketable marketable, but the point as I see it is to increase options for readers, not to limit them.

I think if we've done that, we've cleared away many of the obstacles that stand between readers and a choice for reading something in translation. And if we've done that, we've increased the potential for people to, as you say, find a place for literary translation out of love for the literature itself.

Lucas Klein, March 24, 2009, 5:23p.m.

# 9.   

In the words of Ceasar Chavez: Si, Se Peude...!

  1. Yes, it IS POSSIBLE (even essential) to use new media to market "old" media. People who watch Youtube read books, and people who read books watch Youtube. Some of these people will want to read Chinese books.

  2. We don't have to wait for publishers, American or Chinese or otherwise, to catch up with this notion. We already have the tools at our disposal. The tools are cheap and readily available. We have the language skills, we know the books and the sites where our books will reach our target audience. We know how to produce short videos, translate and even subtitle them.

  3. So...what the hell are we waiting for?

  4. Tom's point about the overwhelming tide of American pop culture - and its tendency to drown out our better angels, to make us deaf to voices from other countries - is well taken. Surely this is the reason that so many of us came to China in the first place. Isn't this precisely why we translate Chinese literature, despite the low wages and various other headaches? And isn't this at least one of the reasons the writers we love to read keep writing?

  5. Si, se puede...we can do so much more than we're doing now, so much more to promote literature in translation, and a better world thereby.

  6. I know I'm rambling, speaking to myself as much as anyone. I haven't done as much as I could, or should. And I know I'm preaching to the choir. But we have enough voices now to raise the rafters, attract some attention, draw a whole new generation of readers into these amazing books.

  7. We're gonna reach the nosebleed seats.

Cindy Carter, March 24, 2009, 7:19p.m.

# 10.   


Your novel-in-progress (not the one you're translating, I mean) could probably benefit from an online video advert -- to sell the book and concept to a smart publisher. (Or a dumb publisher. No need to discriminate.)

You once shared about a page or two of it with me -- the bit about the photograph -- and that would make the basis for a great teaser advert for the book.

Hutong Robot, March 24, 2009, 10:48p.m.

# 11.   

I think, Tom, that no culture can be self-sufficient in the long run and "produce enough output just to satisfy itself" - because it is, as you probably well know, on the interfaces between cultures that new things happen (just take the closed chinese empires of the past as an example, I don't think the rigid educational and cultural systems were an accident). But I admit that whereever one looks in world history, the richest, most advanced civilisations tended to this self-sufficiency illusion.

The reason I think why america can still afford this illusion without getting totally stuck is that it still styles itself as a nation of immigrants bringing in foreign culture in the heads of people, not the works of literature and art. But observing the immigration policies I get the (from a european pov) impression that america is living on borrowed time and riches from a past long gone. Probably thats why most blockbusters just look the same and feel the same? Or is it that the melting pot creates a culture in which everyone finds the subjects and styles he or she can identify with? I think there is a specific aspect in the way of e.g. love/loving in every culture, but for whatever reason it seems any romance from old Hollywood meets the taste of billions, taking exactly a big and deep topic (which is important for everyone) and stripping it of any depth and complexity, making it accessible to a world audience.

I (as a german) happen to be very thankful for a rich and international local book market, even though I try to read originals in any language I've learned. And I like american novels by the way :).

Matthias Schmitt, March 25, 2009, 1:20p.m.

# 12.   

I am only a little obscure! Okay -- well, I'm totally obscure. But I look good in hats.


Pauls!, August 26, 2009, 2:54a.m.


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