Bill Morris on why Americans don't read (European) writers in translation:
On a crisp morning last October, I paused in front of one of the many magnificent bookshops that dot the city of Cologne. In the display window was a large, hand-lettered sign: NOBELPREIS FÜR LITERATUR, PATRICK MODIANO. Arrayed around the sign were a dozen works of fiction by Patrick Modiano—most in German, a few in French, none in English.
I walked into the shop and introduced myself as an American writer visiting from New York. Then I came clean: “I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never even heard of Patrick Modiano. Is he any good?”
“Oh yes,” said the woman behind the cash register. Like most bookshop workers in Europe, she was young and bright, fluent in English, and criminally well read. “He’s French and he’s quite good. You should definitely read him. Start with his first novel, La Place de l’Étoile, or Dora Bruder.”
Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester, derives its name from the fact that about 3 percent of all the books published in the U.S. every year are translations. But the bulk of these are technical writings or reprints of literary classics; only 0.7 percent are first-time translations of fiction and poetry. While the number of fiction and poetry books available in translation remains small, it has been rising steadily—from a total of 360 in 2008 to 587 last year, according to Three Percent.
So the question becomes: are so few translated books available because American readers don’t read them, or do American readers read so little foreign fiction and poetry because so little of it is available in translation? Or is it a bit of both?
“It’s complicated,” says Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, which is consistently among the top American publishers of foreign fiction in translation. “I think it’s getting easier to get books in translation into the hands of reviewers. They’re excited—not only receptive, but very kind. But the reading public? That’s the million-dollar question.”
After noting that translators are doing some superb work today, Glusman offers his own theories about why translated fiction and poetry remain a tough sell for American publishers. One theory is that Americans lag behind other nationalities in exposure to foreign cultures, which is reflected in a lack of foreign language instruction in American schools. This certainly doesn’t help foster a hunger for foreign literature. Nor does the fact that only about one-third of Americans hold a passport.
Another theory, which Glusman credits to the German writer Peter Schneider, is deliciously counter-intuitive. Germany is a homogenous culture, largely white Anglo-Saxons with a smattering of immigrants, mostly from Turkey—and yet there is a voracious appetite for translated fiction in Germany, as I was reminded that day at the Cologne bookshop. America, on other hand, has been absorbing immigrants from all over the world for centuries, which might work as an impediment to fostering a hunger for foreign literature.
Schneider’s theory, says Glusman, “was that there’s an assumption that because of the heterogeneous nature of American society, we think we know more about foreign cultures than we actually do. And that breeds a certain insularity.”