Why are we deprived of World Literature

The book market is heating up. I do no mean the constant dire predictions of doom for the industry, which seem to dominate the news. This time I would like to steer your attention to good news: books translated into English language are making headlines.

I lamented countless times about the scandalous practice, or as Manguel puts it simply: the Anglo-American book publishing model, which overlooks nearly all foreign writers and publishes almost exclusively those who write in English. Recently we can witness some debate on the topic, and hear from organizations that are determined to break the 3% barrier (the overly-optimistic estimates of a whopping 3% of books available in the US being books translated from foreign languages).

Why are English speakers deprived of World Literature? Author of a series of articles takes on the subject:

“Why is it so hard for foreign authors to get published in the US?  It’s clear to anyone working in international rights that the sophisticated marketplace involving scouts, rights sellers and foreign publishers that exists to get American books out into the world does not exist to the same degree in the other direction.

It is well known that placing a foreign book with a US editor can be devilishly difficult. First, there are the unforgiving economic calculations that publishers face in taking a translation to market.”

Alberto Manguel argues, among other things, and quite eloquently, that the Anglo-American book publishing model, centered on commercial books, is dumbing down the reader.

But, are financial considerations that only obstacle? After all in other countries they translate books that do not guarantee commercial success.

“Apart from economics, the often cited reason for the difficult of placing translations with American publishers is the limited number of US editors who speak a foreign language.  This is indeed an obstacle.  Rachel Kahan, a senior editor at the Putnam, says, “There doesn’t seem to me to be as concerted an effort to bring [foreign language] authors to the US as there is to bring UK authors to the US, but I think a lot of that is just the language barrier.

One can only ask: Why is there no language barrier for, say, European editors who purchase books from all over the world, and not just from the English language? Is English language and its dominance the primary obstacle for US Editors? Will language courses or hiring of editors who speak more than one language change anything?

Apparently, and sadly, not. The reason, argues the author of the article, is diversity. There simply is too much available in World Literature for American editors to keep track of, to be able to asses what may be suitable to American readers.

If this depressing explanation isn’t a blow to readers, then the Literary Agent institution is the proverbial last nail in the coffin. One can browse any industry publication to find articles whose authors blame Literary Agents and their seemingly primary goal of driving up advances on all the woes in American book publishing industry.

“Rachel Kahan, a Senior Editor at Putnam who reads fluently in Spanish, admits, “If they [foreign writers] don’t have a US agent and they aren’t being conspicuously packaged for the US sale, which is the case a lot of the time, I tend to luck into things.”

Are we, the readers going to have access to foreign authors, or are we doomed to remain locked up behind a huge wall that was raised by the industry? I think that some changes are coming, and the recent debates are a positive sign, but, I am sad to conclude that in order to read World Literature our best bet is and will be to learn foreign languages.


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