+ American Publishers Shy Away from Foreign Books

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The Frankfurt Book Fair, the annual gathering of the international literary world, happens at this time every year.  Publishers from 100 countries are showing off  their best — or best selling — books.

Motoko Rich, in an article in the NY Times, suggests that the belief persists in Frankfurt that American publishers won’t spend much time in any room but Hall 8, the enormous exhibit space where English-language publishers hold court. 

Although there are exceptions to the translation-averse Americans theory, editors from the United States are usually more likely to bid on other hyped American or British titles than to look for new literature in the international halls.

David R Godine, a small independent publisher from Boston, is one of a handful of American publishers who regularly seek out books to translate during the fair every year.  He emerged prescient and lucky this month.  One of the authors he publishes in translation, the French novelist Jean-Marie Le Clezio, won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

According to Chad W Post, the director of Open Letter, a new press focusing exclusively on books in translation and based at the University of Rochester, 330 works of foreign literature — or a little more than 2 percent of the estimated total of 15,000 titles released — have been published in the US so far this year.

This dearth of literature in translation in the US was the subject of controversial remarks a week before the prize did not go to an American. 

Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize, said “The US is too insular.  They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” 

It is left mostly to the small publishers like Mr Godine to scavenge for hidden treasures among the European booths.

Godine met with Anne Bouteloup, the director of foreign rights at the children’s imprint of Gallimard, and indicated an interest in Mr Le Clezio’s children’s book “Voyage au Pays des Arbres” (“Journey to the Country of Trees”).

About 10 to 15 percent of Mr Godine’s list is composed of books in translation.  He hears about them each year at this book fair.  He says he publishes foreign authors because it gives his tiny press literary credibility.

But there is also an economic reason, he acknowledges.

“When you look at how much is paid for a mediocre midlist author in the United Sates,” he says, “and how much you have to pay to get a world-class author who has been translated into 18 languages, it is ridiculous that more people don’t invest in buying great literature.”  He has purchased the rights to a foreign book for as little as $2000.

The publisher of Graywolf Press, a nonprofit publisher based in St Paul, has had a breakout best seller with “Out Stealing Horses,” a novel by Per Petterson of Norway.  Fiona McCrae says that small publishers could not afford to buy books by the best authors in the US, but that they often could acquire works of top authors from abroad.

“Philip Roth is not going to suddenly be published by Graywolf,” she says.  “So you see who is the Philip Roth of Italy or who is an interesting writer out of Sweden.”  McCrae also notes that Graywolf is supported by foundation grants specifically aimed at publishing foreign titles.

To help spur more translations, government-sponsored cultural agencies in Europe and elsewhere subsidize — and often fully cover — the cost of translating a book into English.

Jill Schoolman, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Brooklyn nonprofit Archipelago Books, says her press will bring out Hugo Claus’s Belgian novel “Wonder.”  Claus was discussed as a Nobel contender, but died by euthanasia earlier this year.  Greet Ramael, the prose grants manager at the Flemish Literary Fund, has given her an application for translation reimbursement.

“Translation costs are often a deterrent or a reason not to translate a book,” says Ramael.

American publishers say monolingual editors fear making risky decisions based on short translated excerpts.  “It is hard enough to publish a book when you have read the whole thing and know you love it,” says Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown.

And there is the often heard maxim among American publishers that books in translation don’t sell.  But according to Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign-rights director at Gallimard, American publishers don’t provide marketing budgets to support translated books, and then compain that they don’t sell.

She was amused — and irritated — when an American publisher on the first night of the fair described Mr Le Clezio (the Nobel winner) as “an unknown writer.”

She calls it “the poverty of the rich.”

“American publishers are depriving the American readership of the cultural diversity through translation to which they are entitled.”

Noble makes it clear that she is not commenting on the quality of American writers: Philip Roth and Claire Messud are published by Gallimard.

American publishers who are devoted to foreign literature say there is no shortage of gems.  Mr Post plunged into one of the international halls on a certain evening and plucked brochures of translated English excerpts from stands hosted by cultural agencies from Croatia, Latvia, Poland, China and Korea.

Frankfurt Book Fair, he says, is about renewing contacts with people whose judgement he trusts, who can help him winnow the hundreds of titles he hears about here and elsewhere.

And David Godine notes that Frankfurt helped him discover, among many others, the Nobel-winning Mr Le Clezio. 

sole source: article by Motoko Rich, 10/18/08 in the NY Times   www.nytimes.com  

tutoring in Columbus OH:  Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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