Literary Translation Today—A Lament, a Shout-Out, and a Totally Random Guide
What gets translated into English by whom is an occasional but painful topic among writers, readers and scholars of foreign literatures. The answer is consistently and increasingly, “not much, and mostly writers that are already best sellers.”
The problem is emblematic of the American market, which is shrinking for fiction in general and almost nonexistent for foreign fiction (proof that American isolationism is still a thing), but which can be a gold mine for that very rare foreign thriller or Nobel Prize winner. Milan Kundera and Orhan Pamuk will have contracts for English translations even before their next novel is published in Czech or Turkish; By contrast, Paula Maia, the award-winning writer from São Paulo, Brazil, has published ten books, only one of which has been translated into English– Saga of Brutes, a triptych published in 2010 and translated six years later. Pilar Quintana, a successful Colombian writer with five novels and multiple short stories published in Spanish, has only one novel, The Bitch, translated into English, and that volume remains obscure even after winning the National Book Award for Translated Literature in the US. (Hands up if you’ve heard of this prize—do I make my point?)
The fickleness and brutality of the American fiction market for translations is even more evident when you consider the proportion of translated foreign authors that have some sort of connection with the US or the UK. Latin American authors are a lot more likely to crack the American market—however feebly—if they have immigrated to the US or were educated here. Add to the unlikelihood of getting a translated work published is the difficulty of getting it translated to begin with. Translation is generally not widely recognized (at least not in the US) as a worthy academic pursuit, meaning that the literary students and scholars most likely to first encounter these writers are not likely to have the means to translate them. The strength of the US dollar means that for vast majority of authors in other countries, professional translation by a native writer of English would be prohibitively expensive.
This is why the few heroes in the business of fiction, theater and poetry translation deserve their own special corner in heaven and enthusiastic recognition while still here on earth. These people include scholars and writers who translate purely for the joy of it (even high-profile translators such as Edith Grossman, who is as good as they get, generally hold down teaching jobs to make a decent living); publishers who are willing to take a gamble, and almost certainly a loss, on unknown foreign authors; critics and bloggers who dedicate time and energy to promoting these authors for free (no, their websites do not monetize well); and the institutions, few and far between, that support them. The publishers often are nonprofits that rely on donations and foundation support to carry out their mission. Without exception, they do this for love, not money.
Below is a quick and totally random list, useful for anyone interested in literary translations or in independent publishers in general.
If you want a comprehensive list of independent publishers of all types, by the way, go the website “Writers and Poets: Fifty and Forward.” A marvelous resource. https://www.pw.org/small_presses
Do you know of other publishers that would fit this list? Tell me in the comments section or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Publishers of translations:
Open Letter Books, a project at the University of Rochester that depends heavily on donated funds. Chad Post, founder and publisher, is a saint, hands down. https://www.openletterbooks.org/
World Editions, a publisher that goes well beyond its Dutch roots to bring translations of a wide range of contemporary literary works to the English-speaking world: https://www.worldeditions.org/
Dalkey Archive Press, an operation, founded and still run by the O’Brien family, that depends on donations and foundation support to enable it to publish fiction, poetry and criticism that focuses on the lesser-known and avant-garde. Its editor-in-chief is—wait for it—Chad Post! https://www.dalkeyarchive.com/
Charco Press, a relatively new setup in Edinburgh (that’s Scotland), focusing mainly on emerging Latin American writers and selling books in both Spanish and English. How they make any money, I have no idea. https://charcopress.com/
Coffee House Press in Minneapolis, a nonprofit that publishes much more than translations. Here’s their mission statement: “Coffee House Press creates new spaces for audiences and artists to interact, inspiring readers and enriching communities by expanding the definition of what literature is, what it can do, and who it belongs to.” https://coffeehousepress.org/blogs/news
Deep Vellum Press another nonprofit, this one in Dallas, that actually centers on a brick-and-mortar bookstore and envisions itself as “the heart and soul of the literary community in Dallas.” Thank goodness it has one. https://www.deepvellum.org/history
New Directions, an established press for 85 years that somehow stays in business while publishing a wide range of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and scholarship that major houses won’t risk. https://www.ndbooks.com/books/
Sourcebook, an independent publisher started in a Naperville, IL home thirty-five years ago that has grown to be a significant commercial press with multiple imprints. Yet they still venture to take risks on unknowns and foreign writers. https://read.sourcebooks.com/about-us.html
Restless Books, a relatively new commercial venture with high ambitions. Here’s what they say about themselves: “… an independent, nonprofit publisher devoted to championing essential voices from around the world whose stories speak to us across linguistic and cultural borders.” https://restlessbooks.org/
Oneworld Publications, another mom-and-pop endeavor (this one in London) that has grown over thirty-five years to be a major player. They very conveniently post a page listing their translated fiction by country: https://oneworld-publications.com/books/fiction/translated-fiction.html
Akashic Books. “Dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction.” A small list of translations, but still…. http://www.akashicbooks.com/about/
Catapult Publishing, a new entry that combines publishing, an online magazine and writing courses, all with a focus on international and emerging writers. https://catapult.co/pages/who-we-are
Graywolf Press, a nonprofit that has become quite a high-powered presence (as in, I had already heard of it before I started writing this list) and yet still publishes quite a few translations of emerging writers. Bully for them! https://www.graywolfpress.org/
City Lights Publishing, from the founders of San Francisco’s iconic bookstore, “committed to publishing works of both literary merit and social responsibility” for sixty-five years. https://citylights.com/publishing/
Daunt Books Publishing, another outgrowth of independent book sellers, this one in London, devoted to “the finest and most exciting new writing in English and in translation.” https://dauntbookspublishing.co.uk/about
And Other Stories, also a relatively new outfit in England. “We aim to push people’s reading limits and help them discover authors of adventurous and inspiring writing. And we want to open up publishing so that from the outside it doesn’t look like some posh freemasonry.” Oh, yes. https://www.andotherstories.org/books/
Archipelago Books, another nonprofit, devoted almost entirely to translations, contemporary and classic. An amazing website. https://archipelagobooks.org/about/
Two Lines Press. Just fantastic. This is the publishing arm of the San Francisco nonprofit Center for the Art of Translation. They have a journal, and education center and they sponsor events. They only publish translations!
Specialist Presses (just a few) that also publish translations:
Bitter Lemon Press, crime fiction, mystery and psychological horror. https://www.bitterlemonpress.com/
Creature Publishing, a feminist horror press. https://creaturehorror.com/about
Flame Tree Press, for horror, supernatural crime, mystery thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. https://www.flametreepress.com/about/
Todd S. Garth teaches Spanish and Portuguese Language and Latin American and Spanish cultural studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he was the first openly gay faculty member. He is the author of two critical studies of (long dead) Spanish American authors and an enthusiastic reader and commentator of fiction of all kinds. He is currently at work on a historical novel, The Mayor of Newark.