Nurturing Literature in Translation

by Ginny Tapley • Interview with Chad W. Post 
Among initiatives aimed at stimulating interest in the English-speaking world for reading literature in translation is the work of Dalkey Archive Press and Reading the World. SWET interviewed Chad W. Post, who has been active in both these initiatives and whose career is devoted to encouraging translation and international literature.
(This is the full interview, which was slightly cut to fit the print Newsletter.)

Chad W. Post is the co-founder of Reading the World and former Associate Director of Dalkey Archive Press. He now works at the University of Rochester, assisting in the creation of a literary translation program and a related publishing press dedicated to international literature. SWET talked to him about his perspective of the latest trends, what he considers the main hurdles to publishing translated literature, and what he feels can be done to overcome them.

Q: In June 2006, I met you in Japan where you were speaking at a Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP)-sponsored seminar in Tokyo. You spoke about the “abysmal” sales of translations in the United States and some projects you had to tackle the problem. Could you update us on this appraisal and any activities you have been involved with lately in that regard, such as the Reading the World (RTW) project?

CP: Unfortunately, sales for translations are still abysmal despite RTW and related projects. That’s not so say that there isn’t hope or that these projects aren’t having an impact. In fact, Dalkey titles that were part of RTW sold much better than initially projected and continued to sell well months after being featured in the program. More importantly, RTW is increasing the awareness among booksellers, reviewers, and general readers to the fact that there are works of interesting international literature out there—these books just aren’t promoted as well as they need to be to find an audience, which is the fault of publishers, reviewers, and booksellers.

Q: Even if American readers can be persuaded to show more interest in translations from European and Latin American literature, how does literature translated from Asian or Middle Eastern languages fare? Have there been any examples of books with enduring appeal among general readers from Asia/Japan?

CP: I think at this time it’s actually easier to generate an interest in Asian or Middle Eastern literature than Latin American or European. Because of Bush’s war and the current interest in Japanese movies and culture, readers are more likely to get interested in books from these regions. But there’s not that much available to them at this time, and not many ways to find out about those few books that have been translated.

Q: You mentioned the prohibitive cost of publishing a book in translation against the poor expectation of sales as one of the reasons many publishers are unwilling to take the risk. You put the cost of publication at around $30,000, of which 10 percent or less would go to the translator. Are you saying that in today’s market, around $3,000 is the going rate for translating a work of fiction? Can translators also expect a royalty against sales as a way to improve their earnings should the book sell well?

CP: Although no one is immune, the marketplace has really screwed translators. Most translations being published are coming from small, independent or university presses—which all lack the resources of the conglomerate, corporate publishing houses. In other words, translators deserve a lot more than $3,000 for their work, but that’s usually as much as a publisher can afford. In my experience, this has always been treated as an advance against a royalty rate of 1 percent of the retail price of the book. Which doesn’t help in the short-term, but if the book does take off, at least then the translator will be protected. It will be difficult for this model to change, due to the fact that the profit margin for literary fiction is so small to begin with, and even smaller when it comes to work in translation. Governments (foreign or U.S.) and foundations are the most likely sources to effect any changes in this area. Proper funding for translators won’t cure the world’s ills, but it would encourage more people to get into this field and reduce one of the additional costs for publishers interested in translations.

Q: You also mentioned that most translated works of literature could only expect sales of around 4-5,000 copies. Can you elucidate any reasons for this poor showing? Is it difficult to get bookstores to even stock translated fiction, let alone give it a prominent display? Do you find critics reluctant to review translated works?

CP: For most publishers, sales of 4–5,000 copies of a literary translation would be a fantastic success . . . it’s tough to sell literary fiction on the whole, since the bookshelves and review spaces are overloaded with the latest Da Vinci Code knock-off. This is all part of a self-fulfilling prophecy though: publishers assume literary translations won’t sell, booksellers assume they won’t be reviewed and, as a result, probably won’t sell, and reviewers assume readers aren’t interested in books like this, so they don’t review them. The exact opposite is true for popular fiction. It’s almost a have vs. have-not situation. In theory, left to its own devices, the marketplace model should result in best-selling books continuing to grow and grow in sales until everyone’s buying the same 12 books, and literary works selling in fewer and fewer numbers, resulting in fewer and fewer translations. But that’s not what happens. Thanks to a group of great publishers, booksellers, and review sources, there is a growing group of readers and supporters of international fiction. The audience will always be slightly (well, more than slightly) smaller than the one for Harry Potter, but it is growing, and there is a network of motivated and interested people who are helping to get these books into the hands of readers.

The excitement among booksellers about this year’s Reading the World program has given me hope that the audience for these books is growing. And now that RTW
has established itself, a couple dozen publishers have approached me about participating—and looking at the titles they have coming out in the future, it seems like more translations are coming out each year. Online, the growing popularity of websites like the Complete Review, ReadySteadyBook, Words Without Borders, the LitBlog Co-op, and a number of other sites, has created a new vehicle through which readers can find out about more obscure titles—including books in translation. Tin House recently dedicated an entire issue to international literature, the New Yorker did the same last year in relation to the PEN World Voices Festival (and hopefully will do this again), and the New York Times Book Review will be running a piece on the number of translations being published in the States. Unfortunately, these are single hits that occur in diverse places, but the more activities of this sort that occur, the more ensnared readers will become in hearing about international fiction.

Q: Literary works have traditionally been published first in hardcover, despite the cost to both publisher and readers, partly due to the fact that critics have only reviewed hardcover editions. Recently, however, there appears to be a trend towards reviewing works published directly in trade paperback. Will this help to offset costs to any significant degree—and thus make publishing translations more commercially feasible?

CP: There are a number of trade-offs between doing a hardcover and doing a paperback that prevents the budget from changing in any dramatic fashion. Paperbacks are cheaper to print, but they also retail for a lot less, thus impacting both sides of the balance sheet. The important thing though is access. Hardcovers are only on the bookstore shelf for 3–6 months, whereas paperbacks can remain in a store for more than a year. Unless a book is going to be a huge hit, it makes more sense to cultivate a readership for an author over a period of years, by publishing a paperback version initially. For a publisher, it’s sickening to know that the book you loved so much, the one you decided to print in hardcover, is rotting away in a warehouse where no patrons browsing a fiction section will ever stumble across it. Unless you’re sure a book is going to reach a much wider audience in cloth than it would in paper (due to increased exposure because it’s a “real” hardcover book), I think it’s better for the book, for the author, and for the readers if the title is published straight off as a trade paperback.

Q: Looking into the actual text of the translations, you have applauded the “experimental” quality of literature from Eastern Europe and Latin America, so clearly the content and approaches of the works you introduced at Dalkey Archive are sometimes unfamiliar to English fiction readers. Do editors have to make adjustments or adaptations, or resort to footnotes, when preparing these works for publication in English? Do you know what sorts of problems come up in the publishing process from these languages?

CP: I don’t think an editor should alter a foreign text solely to make it more “accessible” to an English reader. What I think is more useful is some sort of introduction or critical material that provides the reader with a context for approaching the work. Not only are a lot of these authors unknown to general readers, but most readers picking up these books won’t know much of anything about that country’s literary tradition, or where this author fits into the greater context of “world literature.” In editing “experimental” texts, my belief is that a book should work on its own terms, part of which is being accessible to dedicated, perceptive readers. In my opinion, footnotes rarely add anything useful and are usually just a distraction. If it’s a fact or name that’s throwing a reader off, it’s almost easier to check that on Wikipedia than to flip to the end of the book to find a rather incomplete explanation. That may be a bit of exaggeration, but in this day and age, most readers are savvy researchers, and footnoting events, names, places, etc., is a slippery slope that can interfere with a reader’s enjoyment of a book due to the all the “props” the publisher has inserted.

Q: Through the JLPP, Japan’s Agency for Culture Affairs is selecting works of modern and contemporary Japanese literature deemed appropriate for translation and are offering them to publishers as a complete translated-and-edited package. Do you think that this approach is better than the more time-tested approach by which translators themselves choose what should be translated? What are some of the pros and cons of both approaches?

CP: Ideally, both approaches would be equally successful and a ton of Japanese books would be reaching the American marketplace. The JLPP approach is extremely interesting and addresses a number of the problems that plague publishers of translations. It provides information about the book, the opportunity to read the entire book in English before signing it on, and the guarantee a sales level that helps the publisher to at least break even. It’s also easier for the JLPP to display works at book fairs and meet with publishers interested in international literature. Translators can often have a hard time making these connections. But obviously, the JLPP can’t support every book a publisher is interested in, so translators working on their own, translating books they love, and approaching publishers directly is vital to book culture. I think the most difficult aspect of this is getting publishers to pay attention and get the information they need. One of the projects I’m working on at the University of Rochester may help address that . . . I don’t want to say anything more until it’s all ready to go, but I’ll let you know about it as soon as possible.

Q: Dalkey Archive Press is due to publish Uchida Hyakken’s Realm of the Dead Realm_of_the_Deadtranslated by Rachel DiNitto under the JLPP program. What were the qualities of this work that you found appealing? Have you considered any other Japanese works for translation, and if so, what qualities are you looking for? Do you find it easy or difficult to find attractive works in modern and
contemporary Japanese literature?

CP: The thing that was most striking about Realm of the Dead is how utterly bizarre and off-putting the images and plot twists are in the stories. Maybe this is evidence of a Western reading prejudice of sorts, but the things that happen in those stories violate so many assumptions one has when approaching fiction. And what happened to me in trying to understand and incorporate the bizarreness found in the stories into my reading experience is what drew me to this book. One of the most exciting aspects of starting a new literary imprint (which will be part of the University of Rochester Press) is figuring out your first books, and what criteria you want to use in deciding (or explaining your decision about) which titles to publish. Even after giving this a lot of thought, it’s difficult to explain concisely what we’re looking for, but in general and disappointingly vague terms, we’re really looking for unique, lasting titles. I love reading a book and having the sense that I’ve never encountered anything like it before. It can be style, narrative structure, topic, or whatever, but it’s the uniqueness of certain books that keeps me engrossed and reading. Sure, it’s easy to say that everything’s already been written, but it can still be told in a remarkable way that readers will be reading and talking about for years to come.

Q: It is clearly problematic for editors to take on literary works written in a language they cannot read for themselves. How do you decide on the works you publish in translation? Do you rely on a sample translation together with reader reports? Or do you insist on seeing the entire translation before making a decision?

CP: This really is one of the fundamental problems facing publishers of literary translations. No publisher likes to sign on a book only to receive the full translation and find out that the book isn’t what he/she thought it was. To be wrong about something like this costs a good deal of money and further reduces the odds that you’ll want to take another chance on a book that has a compelling description. Ideally, you can read the entire translation before deciding, but that’s a pretty rare situation. So although it’s not foolproof, the method of evaluating a couple of reader’s reports and a significant sample translation is the route that I take. One of the best things about being at the University of Rochester is having access to readers from any number of languages so that I can ask questions about their reports and sample translations face-to-face. And they can even attend our editorial meetings to help clarify and ensure that we’re not making any mistakes in signing on certain books.

Q: Are works that are bestsellers in the language they were written in necessarily those that would capture the imaginations of English readers? Are there any criteria one could keep in mind when reading Japanese literature in search of good works to translate?

CP: Sure, there are examples of popular foreign titles that are extremely successful in translation, but for every multi-national best seller, there are 100 books that sold a few hundred thousand copies in country X, but only 1,500 in America. So to answer your question directly, no, sales levels aren’t a good indicator of which books can travel. In the same vein, awards usually aren’t that useful in predicting sales either. Awards are helpful in finding great books to publish, but this critical success won’t necessarily be duplicated in another country. And the marketing value of an award is lost in the 2–3 years that elapse between when the book first won an award in its original language and when the English translation is published. You can always put something on the book about how it won the “XXX Prize,” but anything less than a Nobel means next to nothing to your average American reader. This sounds naïve and obvious, but quality is the most important criterion to apply when trying to determine which Japanese books would be good to translate. Assumptions about what themes, locales, or types of stories American or other foreign readers would like are doomed from the start. Personally, I feel like books pitched in this fashion always feel derivative, almost forced. Like I’m supposed to like something because it’s somehow familiar. But that’s not why I read, that’s why I watch bad TV. And I truly believe that readers of literary fiction are most interested in seeking out the best books they can find; even if the setting and themes aren’t what they’re used to, the quality of the writing will come through and keep them engrossed.

Q: If quality of writing is paramount, translators must be experienced and highly skilled writers in addition to knowing their source language. Translators cannot be just knowledgeable of the language from which they are translating; they are expected to have polished writing sensibilities and virtuosity. But when languages are as far apart as Japanese and English, a work that is over English-ized can lose much of the nuance and freshness that makes it valuable to translate at the outset. How tolerant are American readers to works that sometimes read more slowly than they are accustomed to?

CP: I never said this was an easy process, and in many ways, your question points to the value great translators have and the need to train translators. I think the ultimate goal of translation is to create a book that resembles what the author would have written had he/she written the book in this other language. Sounds simple, but you’re right—the translator has to be very sharp and capable of capturing all of the nuances and complexities of the original book. Since language is social and cultural, there are things that aren’t possible to recreate accurately in the translation process. I think readers are willing to be patient when reading a translation—as they should; they shouldn’t expect books from other cultures to be reflections of American ideas and styles—as long as the translator doesn’t create new roadblocks for the reader. A translation that feels like a translation isn’t very fun to read—it sounds wrong and it’s irritating to readers to feel like they have to look past the words on the page to try and get a glimpse of what the author’s original book was like. Translations should be different, but not stilted. Not English-ized, but not clunky for the sake of accuracy either.

To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.

—Susan Sontag, Reading the World

Q: It is often said that literature is a window onto a culture, and can give a more “real” view than many non-fiction studies. However, there is a widely held opinion that much of the Japanese literature translated to date has tended to “exoticize” Japan. Some feel that more mainstream popular fiction in translation would help to break down stereotypes and provide a more realistic view of contemporary Japan. Others, however, feel that popular fiction is less likely to provide works that will endure the test of time. What are your feelings on this issue?

CP: I agree and hope that one day there’s enough room to publish a wide range of popular fiction and literary works. To get a real sense of any country, you need both. It’s just as culturally limiting to ignore the existence of “lowbrow” books as it is to believe that literary fiction is too “difficult” to enjoy. Personally, I think literary books can offer a more complex description of a culture, but the way in which quality writers from different cultures play with common genres can be highly informative and telling.

Q: It has been suggested that many Japanese literary works are either far too long (700–800 pages) or too short (60–80 page novellas) for the American market, which is more used to around 250–300 pages. Do you agree that this is a significant factor? Do you think there is any such thing as an “ideal” number of pages?

CP: Personally, I love long translated books, but I’m not sure I’m an accurate representative of the American reading public. . . . From a publisher’s perspective, shorter books are ideal, since they cut down on printing costs and allow for the books to retail at a reasonable price. Which may actually be where the real issue is . . . I’ve heard from people at Borders before that $14.00 is a cut-off point above which readers are much less likely to take a chance on a author or book that they don’t already know about. A lot of university publishers have a tendency to treat these books as they do scholarly titles, which has a number of consequences, including the fact that they generally price the books for library sales rather than bookstore sales. I’ve refrained from buying books that I’m interested in because they’re too expensive. Paying $18.95 or $22.95 for a 200-page paperback violates some core belief in how much entertainment/intellectual stimulation is worth . . . in this age of free TV downloads and iTunes, the economic side of book buying is pronounced.

Q: You mentioned that American publishers seem anxious to remove translators’ names (and even authors’ unfamiliar-looking names) from translated works as they are considered obstacles to sales. Nevertheless, many translators feel that in their words a new literature is born and that they deserve due credit—and there does indeed seem to be some interest in the work of the translator regarding authors like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, etc. (cf., “The Translation Wars,” by David Remnick, New Yorker, November 7, 2005). Do you think such interest is growing as readers become more familiar with literature in translation?

CP: Sadly, I don’t think that general readers are becoming more interested in the work, or process, of translation, but the creation of several translation programs throughout the United States points to a growing interest in the field of translation. The act of translation is inherently an artistic one, and that’s one of the values driving the translation program we’re developing at the University of Rochester. The more attention that’s paid to the translator, the more likely it is that translators will start to receive the respect they deserve. Dalkey always puts the translator’s name on the back cover, and at the new Press we intend to do the same. If it works design-wise on the front cover, we’ll put the translator’s name there, but if we can’t it will definitely be on the back.

Q: Many translators keen to undertake literary work have authors they are eager to introduce in English. Is it better to begin with academic translations such as short pieces published in journals or periodicals? Or should they approach publishers they feel could be appropriate for the work or author they are working on?

CP: From a publisher’s perspective, there are two big challenges in publishing translations that relate to this question. The first is the fact that most American editors know one, or maybe two, languages, which is pretty restrictive and forces them to rely upon outside readers and translators for info about untranslated books. The other is the general difficulty in finding out about what’s being written in other countries. So, we frequently rely upon translators for info and samples. A translator interested in doing a literary work should definitely contact a publisher directly, but since that publisher is going to want a sample anyway, it makes sense to shop around that short piece to a number of print and online journals. I scout those publications continuously, and frequently follow up with translators about short pieces I uncover. What’s missing from that experience is the personal explanation from the translator about why this particular book is of interest to him/her. Why it’s important, how it fits into a country’s literary history, etc. That’s what I get when translators contact me directly, which helps the process immensely. In short, do both. Simultaneously. And if you love a book, keep on trying to find the right editor for it.

Q: What kinds of Japanese literature do you think would add something new to the American literary spectrum—popular fiction, the “I-novel” confessional/ autobiographical-type fiction, historical fiction, or mysteries, etc.?

CP: American literature has a bit of everything, but contemporary writers—and I’m generalizing here—tend to be very realistic. Stuck in the vein of Raymond Carver and company, there are way too many coming-of-age narratives being published right now, from all over the world. It may be me, but these books aren’t that interesting, and nowadays, the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age book about a quirky family has been overdone to death. Personally, I think publishers should put a ban on this sort of writing. But that’s what American writers learn how to write, and almost all of them feel that their family is just that sort of quirky that hasn’t already been explored and that will really strike a chord with readers everywhere, since in America, we all seem to have quirky families. If Japan—or any other country for that matter—has coming-of-age books that really break the mold and are fascinating for whatever stylistic reason, then great, I think they should be translated and published. Personally, I seek out international literature to get away from this stuff, and have found a ton of books that don’t fit this category. So I know they’re out there. . . .

Q: Do you have any advice for editors and translators working in Japan about the mentality of the English reader towards writing today?

CP: Trends always come and go, and tastes fluctuate with time, but I have a feeling that we’re entering a great age for international literature. Through things like Reading the World, PEN World Voices, Words Without Borders, and developing translation programs and international literature centers, a new generation of readers is being cultivated that aren’t afraid of “funny-looking” names, that feels it’s necessary to know and experience global cultures. I might be too optimistic, but as publishing models shift, as ways to reach readers directly are increased, as editors interested in translation become more senior, and as reviewers discover the joys of translations, I think more of these books will be published and marketed more effectively to readers everywhere.

From Newsletter No. 115 (April 2007)