For three of the past five years, the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been met in this country with pretty much the same reaction: a collective grinning nod (“Elfriede Jelinek, of course!”), a spate of quickly-dashed off background articles (consisting mainly of quotes from a hapless PR person at which small academic press publishes the winner), and a whispered chorus of “who?” The steady return of this response points to one of two things: either the Swedish Academy is playing an elaborate prank on American readers, selecting obscure avant garde authors to make us feel bad about ourselves, or Americans don’t read enough fiction in translation. Although I wouldn’t put it beyond the Swedish Academy to pull a prank like that, the real answer is probably the latter.
The statistics are cited often, but they are worth citing again. According to UNESCO, fifty percent of all translations published worldwide are translated from English, while only six percent are translated into English. And a large part of that six percent can be attributed to our English-speaking friends across the pond. A 2005 piece in the New York Times held that “of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation.” Depending on who you ask, these number are “shocking,” evidence of American readers’ insularity, and a “great shame.” But they haven’t changed much in the past decade or so. After the Sepetember 11th attacks there was a brief spurt of interest in translated fiction (or at least a brief spurt of interest in talking about translated fiction). Shamed by our lack of knowledge about Iraq and Afghanistan, we wondered why there weren’t more Iraqi and Afghan novels at the bookstores. The Words without Borders website was launched, along with the PEN World Voices Festival, and the Three Percent blog. All of these are great resources and all the people involved with these organizations do great work. But this interest in translated literature has not translated into a significant uptick in sales. When people want to read about Afghanistan they pick up The Kite Runner; when they want to know more about Pakistan they buy The Reluctant Fundamentalist (both written originally in English).
So, who is to blame? One could blame publishers, who are too scared to invest in translating and marketing work that might not sell. One could blame English Literature departments, which for decades have willfully focused their attentions on American and British literature, leaving “world literature” to their poor cousins in Comparative Literature. One could even blame elementary school Spanish and French teachers for not inspiring enough children to become translators. But really, when it comes down to it, the numbers cited above are a question of market forces. If the American readers bought more fiction in translation, publishers would publish more of it. This is not to say that publishers shouldn’t take risks on translated fiction, nor that English Literature departments shouldn’t widen their scopes. All I’m saying is that the best way to bolster literature in translation is to buy some. And maybe you’ll get a jump on next year’s Nobel Prize winner.