Some welcome myth-busting about translation today at day two of the Literary Translation Center. During the opening session, called “Translation Intelligence: Surveys, Reports, Statistics—What’s the Story Behind Them?,” Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, plugged a new report with some important affirmations. Publishing books in translation are significantly cheaper than is commonly thought, it turns out. Risk-averse publishers may not make whopping profits on translated fiction (or on any literary fiction, for that matter), but readers are eager to take up works in translation (87% of booksellers thought as much about their customers) and publishers seem inclined to agree that there’s more to be made of what’s out there in this regard (81.8% of publishers believe the market has yet to be tapped). A complicating factor, though, in the fact-finding on cost and dissemination of literary works in translation is that the numbers are still somewhat elusive.
At a later panel, Daniel Hahn made the good point—which was duly ratified by Maureen Freely—that the famous 3% figure (that only 3% of literature in the Anglophone markets are in translation) may be a bit misleading, or at least arrived at somewhat hazily. While the amount of fiction in translation obviously leaves much to be desired, it’s hard to tell how much of the hype has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for publishers; there exists a kind of “tautological attitude” among certain agents and publishers, said Rudiger Wischenbart at the morning panel: “publishing translated fiction isn’t a thing we do because . . . we don’t do it . . .” In this vein, it is worth recalling a point made by Boyd Tonkin yesterday: namely, that it’s quite difficult to know how much recent statistics attesting to a decline in readership for translations is a distinct phenomenon, or whether it may, finally, just be part of the broader trend of declining readership of literary fiction. Jonathan Heawood, for his part, was also careful to qualify this morning that while it is relatively cheap to publish a work in translation, there still isn’t much good comparative data about how much it might cost to publish a work of literary fiction.
Panelists were angling to challenge certain accepted theories at a later talk too, on “How Digital Publishing May Change Translation,” led by Words without Borders co-founder Alane Mason. Richard Nash, intrepid publisher and founder of Soft Skull Press, dealt a persuasive blow to the idea of the long-tail theory about the widening gap between the powerful (like Amazon and the commercial engines) and the rest of us online (with regard to literature on the web). The Internet has opened up unprecedented channels for original work in countless genres. And the tiny slivers of niche groups and readers are some of the principal beneficiaries here, he maintained, in that they have new ways of organizing themselves and associating online, refining their interests, sharing them, and, finally, having ways to give powerful vent to their passions. As co-panelist and publisher Neal Hoskins went on to say, he’s not afraid that digital media will spell out the demise of exciting and innovative projects that put a premium on language and literature. In a gesture met with applause, he held up an iPad and a children’s book, one in each hand, affirming that “these things go together,” each one growing more powerful through contact with the other.