I have been thinking lately about the infamous “three percent problem” of the publishing landscape, the notion that only three percent of books published in the United States are books in translation. This figure has done a lot of work as a rallying cry among translators and publishers—statistics are good for that—but I can’t help feeling that the statistic actually masks more than it reveals. So here are some further statistics worth pondering: a cursory glimpse at the data from the translation database established by Chad Post of Open Letter and now maintained by Publishers Weekly reveals that, between 2018 and 2022, 58% of books published in translation came from French, Spanish, German, or Italian. To my shock, this figure has only increased over time: between 2008 and 2017, for instance, 48% of translated books were translated from these Big Four languages. I remain astonished that the diversity of books published in translation seems to be diminishing, rather than growing. And yet, it is not surprising: as large publishers attempt to consolidate monopolies, “risk aversion becomes systemic,” preventing smaller publishers from taking chances on new kinds of works.
And so when we celebrate the increasing visibility of translation, we should also ask about what languages and literatures—and, consequently, what human experiences—are afforded visibility. If translated literature still makes up only three percent of the market in the United States, what does it say about the state of publishing that literature from thousands of languages beyond the Big Four has been relegated to a single, dwindling percentage point? How can translators from “lesser” translated languages garner visibility when the Big Four languages have only increased their share of the translation market over time? What good is a World Literature that privileges western languages, that reproduces existing global hierarchies, that retrenches European hegemony over cultural production? Why are publishers increasingly consolidating around these Big Four languages and increasingly excluding all others? The crucial work ahead lies in the hands of publishers and editors, to diversify their catalogs with braver acquisitions and more critical awareness of the inequities they perpetrate. Diversifying catalogs would mean greater opportunities for emerging translators, translators of color, and translators beyond North America and Europe. Championing linguistic diversity would stave off the reduction of any and all publishing decisions to mere actuarial science, and it would challenge the corporatization of literature itself. We deserve more than three percent, of course, but we also deserve a World Literature that represents more than the Big Four languages.
—Translator Nicholas Glastonbury
A really great question, in terms of what should be the next priority for the translation community. There are so many things that I still think need to be addressed, but if I had to choose one or two, I would say royalties from the first book sold should be standard practice for every publisher. The times this has happened with me, it’s been tremendously rewarding in every sense of the word. I also find that for translators to access publishers and editors, to get their work in front of them, still remains very much a game of “who knows who” or “who knows you.” If you don’t know the right individuals, you can’t get your work seen by the right pair of eyes. This needs to change.
—Translator Sawad Hussain
We in the translation community have advocated brilliantly for ourselves in the past fifteen years. We’re also starting to make progress in widening our community and access to it. Let’s do more of both! But also, it’s high time we started to advocate for beings beyond our community. I’d love us to start asking the hard questions about how our work and structures need to change in order to do our part to tread more lightly on this one earth we share, the one that grows our books. Could we have a decade of not flying to residencies, fairs, and book events, for example? We are an international community—forever falling in love with the greenness of faraway grass—and that brings environmental challenges, but don’t we also know that constraints lead to creativity?
—Translator and publisher Stefan Tobler
I would love to see more efforts made to tackle the “three percent problem” so that a larger number and wider range of literatures can be translated into English and find new readership. It’s important to not just publish more translated works by writers and translators who are marginalized in Anglophone publishing, but also ensure that they are supported at every stage of the publishing process, from acquisition and editing to production and marketing.
—Translator Yilin Wang
Copyright © 2022 by Nicholas Glastonbury, Sawad Hussain, Stefan Tobler, and Yilin Wang.