Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Foreign exchange

Let's start with the bad news. Out of 195,000 books published in America last year, a whopping 864 were translated works of fiction. Now for worse news: it's not getting any better, or easier. Or so one might conclude from last night's panel discussion at Housing Works, which featured Dennis Loy Johnson (of the Moby Lives/Melville House multimedia empire), Michael Orthofer (of The Literary Saloon), Margarrita Shalina (a fiction buyer for Manhattan's St. Mark's Bookshop), and Chad Post (of Dalkey Archive Press). Looking unnaturally luminous under the C-SPAN klieg lights, the panelists ran through a litany of obstacles to publishing foreign books in this country.

First: we're in a rather xenophobic moment. Much of the media--hey, much of the populace--would sooner spend a holiday weekend at Guantánamo Bay than celebrate a non-American author. According to Johnson, one television producer pulled a last-minute cancellation on Bernard-Henri Lévy simply because the guy is French. ("No accents allowed," was the curt explanation.) Johnson also noted that he's been pressured to remove the translator's name from the jackets of Melville House titles, in order to fool consumers into thinking the books were written in English.

Even in a more hospitable cultural climate, however, the financial hurdles would still be daunting. As Post explained, a translated work typically runs Dalkey in the neighborhood of $35,000 to produce. In return they can hope to sell between 900 and 1,500 copies of the book. "Two thousand copies is a success," Post said. "Three thousand is a wild success." These are not numbers to warm a trade publisher's heart. Dalkey, of course, is a nonprofit, which can stanch its losses by grants and fundraising. But Melville House is a for-profit operation ("Or so they tell me," Johnson joked), meaning that it must eke out some kind of margin to survive.

Orthofer, whose beard and spectacles make him resemble a kinder, gentler, more studious Trotskyite, argued that the best way to boost translation is to build demand: "The real challenge is getting the word out." Few people are doing so as diligently as Orthofer himself at the Literary Saloon, and Shalina delivered the heartening news that his efforts have moved at least a trickle of customers into St. Mark's to purchase translated works. She also defended the presence of cheaper, out-of-copyright translations of older classics. Sure, she argued, we need elegant new versions of Tolstoy and Gogol and Dostoevsky. But she put in a plug for the frumpier, turn-of-the century texts we all read in high school: "Let's not kick around poor Constance Garnett!"

By now it was question-and-answer time, and much of the audience seemed to be in a depressed stupor. "Is there any good news?" somebody asked (okay, it was me.) And yes, the panel responded, there were some glimmers of hope, starting with the enormous success of the PEN World Voices Festival. Post and Shalina went on to discuss the current Reading the World project--a marketing initiative involving five prominent publishers of translated works and 100 independent bookstores around the country. To sum up: All is not lost! Publishing foreign books is no mere exercise in masochism! And as long as there's some appetite for reading--which Shalina defined as "a deviant act"--there will be an appetite for reading works in translation.

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