Edith Grossman on the Problems of Translation in the English Language Market

Publishing Perspectives has a profile of Edith Grossman discussing the problems of publish translations in the English speaking world. She lays it out quite accurately and you might say depressingly. I find it amazing any time I open a Spanish language literary magazine, book review, or go into a bookstore in Spain and see the mounds of translations, often of books I can’t believe they would be interested in. It is very timely article for me as I’m about to start a review essay on Spanish short story writers who are unpublished in English (if translations get little respect, translations of short stories get even less).

In her book, Grossman mentions the well-known fact that only three percent of the books published in the United States, Great Britain and Australia are translations, while in Europe and Latin America this percentage number fluctuates between 25% and 40%. “We English-speakers are not interested in translations,” says Grossman. (An interviewer infected with translators’ jargon would have commented that Grossman said this “with a sigh”, or “shaking her head.“) “I don’t believe that this will change soon, since almost all publishers are part of large corporations and make their decisions under enormous pressure to be profitable.”

I mention then that a few small and medium US publishers have recently published translations of books by César Aria, Alejandro Zambra and Juan José Saer. “I love these publishers, and they have good people working there,” she says. “But they are too small, they have a lot of trouble getting adequate distribution and good publicity or reviews in the media.”

In spite of everything, in the English-language world new translations of classical works sometimes get the same attention given to new novels. Grossman’s Quixote was a major event in the world of letters, just like Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary was last year. A few months ago, Julian Barnes wrote a long review of Davis’s version, comparing it with half a dozen earlier translations. In Barnes’ view, translations in the last few decades have become more accurate but also more cumbersome and less fluid. Barnes said that new translators, wanting to reflect in more detail the author’s original intention, had forgotten how to write well in their own language.

The ever interesting Three Percent has thoughts from a small press publisher which puts her comments in greater context.

Well, OK. I was going to complain here about how difficult it is getting books into bookstores where the buyers won’t even take a call because “that sort of stuff doesn’t sell here on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.” (Or in Nebraska, the Mountain & Plains states, or wherever.) And I was going to point out that Juan Jose Saer’s Sixty-Five Years of Washington sold out its first print run and was reviewed in the New York Times and The Nation among other places. But whatever. She’s right.1 Even at our best, the lousiest piece from crap from Corporate Publisher X will get more penetration into the marketplace, which is the slow sick sucking part of the business, and I’m not sure it will ever really change.

Obviously, Internet retailers have leveled the field a bit—all of our books are just as available through Amazon as anyone else’s—but in that case, when a reader is faced with an overwhelming number of choices (approx. 3 million new ones each year, including tons and tons of $.99 entertainments), it’s tricky for an unknown author from Peru to make it through. Ideally, when everything’s available, people would try new things and find some niche tastes, but in reality, we search for what we already know we want to find, and bust the Bieber while reading Twilight. But that’s a subject for another post and/or book . . .


2 thoughts on “Edith Grossman on the Problems of Translation in the English Language Market

  1. I don’t know how accurate that 3% translation figure is these days, but I get tired of hearing people like Grossman whine about how Americans don’t care about translations. She doesn’t speak for me or many other people I know, so I wish she wasn’t quite the blowhard about the topic. Also not sure what her solution is to indy publishers being “too small” to have their books penetrate the market. That may be true to a certain extent, but she’s not exactly looking out for the little guy translation-wise when she takes on something like Don Quixote rather than a lesser known author. P.S. Glad to hear that Saer book, which is excellent, did so well for its publisher despite the ridiculous and inaccurate translation of the title. Argentineans I know were laughing at how Glosa somehow became The Sixty-Five Years of Washington in the U.S., and I can’t say I blame them. Publishers: please respect the original author’s work, and don’t change things unnecessarily!

  2. I don’t get the title changes either. Is the title of Glosa supposed to make the public who already isn’t buying translations suddenly buy it because it has the word Washington in it? Seems a stretch. I thought the Three Percent Piece was a nice change from the sour note of Grossman.

Comments are closed.