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Do Americans Read Literature in Translation?

Posted by Erin Brown in books world literature on April 6, 2009

Literature in translation has long been regarded as a remote and economically challenging niche in American publishing. There is a common perception, both in the United States and abroad, that American readers simply cannot be bothered with books that don’t originate in English.

Horace Engdahl, a Swedish literary historian and critic, who presides over the Nobel Prize jury, caused quite an uproar last fall when he remarked to the Associated Press that American authors were not in real contention for the most prestigious international award in literature. “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature . . . That ignorance is restraining.” Indeed, the Nobel Prize has not gone to an American author since Toni Morrison received it in 1993.

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A week after Engdahl’s inflammatory comments, the 2008 Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. Le Clézio’s books, it so happens, are not widely available in translation in the United States. The Prospector (1993), a translation of Le Clézio’s Le Chercheur d’or (Gallimard, 1985), is published by David R. Godine, Inc., a small, independent press in Boston whose recently launched series, Verba Mundi, features some of the most prominent names in world literature. (Other publishers of recent Le Clézio translations include the University of Chicago Press, The University of Nebraska Press, and Curbstone Press.)

Is it only the so-called provincialism of American readers that’s to blame for the stunted growth of literature in translation in the United States? Champions of the neglected genre point out that the lack of multilingualism among American editors (by comparison to their European counterparts) makes it hard for them to judge with confidence which foreign language works have promise. Others note that translated works are seldom backed by vigorous marketing efforts—such that lackluster sales become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next week I will revisit the question of “focused, long-range editorial vision,” the principle upon which Europa Editions is founded.


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