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Episode XXI: The 3%

Published 7/8/15
In this installment, I speak with Chad Post. Topics include why 3% of books are translations, language figureheads, heterogeneity of the canon, computer translation & more.

I’m here with Chad Post, the Publisher at Open Letter, a press that specializes in translated books. Chad is also an organizer for the American Literary Translators Association, and helps run Three Percent, a digital arm of Open Letter and the University of Rochester’s translation program. At the time of interview, Three Percent is running a wonderful series called Women’s World Cup of Literature, where they pit two foreign writers’ books against each other.

Let’s start from the beginning: how’d you get into translation publishing?

In two ways, really. After graduating from Michigan State, I worked in bookstores in Grand Rapids, MI and Raleigh, NC, where I became obsessed with foreign fiction, especially Latin American literature, such as Cortazar, Borges, etc. 

Then, I left the stores and took a fellowship with Dalkey Archive Press, a press that has a long reputation for doing international literature. That's where I started learning the intricacies of how and why certain books get translated, and built a network of publishers and agents and translators and authors to help in bringing more works to more readers. 

In 2006, I left Dalkey, started Open Letter, with the goal of helping create a thriving community for readers and supporters of translated literature. 

I'd like to know "how and why certain books get translated", but I'm guessing we'll need an entry point into that incredibly broad question. The name of ‘Three Percent’ is a nod to the fact that only 3% of the books published in the US are works in translation. How do you explain that number? Historically, has it risen to 3% or fallen to it?

That's hard to say exactly, since most stats are elusive or incomplete. Venuti claims in "Translator's Invisibility" that it was 3% back in the 60s and 70s. But his stats aren't the most specific . . . 

Back with the PEN World Voices Festival relaunched, Bowker made a concerted effort to nail this down, reported that 3% was the number, but didn't actually list any books or define how exactly they got to this number. 

We've been tracking all original works of poetry and fiction published in the U.S. in translation, but leave out reprints and retranslations, so those numbers are skewed in a particular way as well. 

All that said, there are more translations coming out now than 8 years ago, but there are also a lot more books being published. So, I believe, that the percentage--as a percentage--probably won't ever change. But we do have more and more books available that readers can find out about and enjoy. 

Can I also assume that the languages being translated in the 60s formed a much different palette than the ones being translated today?

I'm not so sure. The top languages translated into English--and this has been true for all of the years I've been keeping track--are French, Spanish, and German. I think that's been the case forever. 

But the next batch--Italian, Russian, Japanese, Arabic--seems to shift with various trends. Swedish was a top 5-6 language for a while, as publishers tried to find the next Steig Larsson. 

When someone like a Knausgaard or a Ferrante (or a Larsson) comes along, do you consider that a "win" in favor of the public paying more attention to foreign fiction?

Definitely. At least in some senses. With Knausgaard and Ferrante, two really spectacular presses dedicated to international literature are making bank, allowing them to continue what they've always done, with some more stability. 

But I don't think that readers see this in that light. It's not like a reader is all "hey, this book is Norwegian and I liked it! I'm gonna go get me some more Nordic titles!" They like the books as books. But it does erode the anti-translation, "this isn't as good as the original" sort of prejudice that exists. 

What do you say to those who insist on reading any piece of fiction in its original tongue? Rather, of course it's preferable to read in the original language if you can, but what of that logic, that translation is a loss of something crucial?

They're missing out on great books, from the languages they can't read, or don't *actually* understand as well (in terms of nuance, etc.) as they might think they do.

I'm against the "lost in translation" point of view. Translation is a gain, giving us books we otherwise wouldn't have, and conveying interesting ideas and styles and thoughts to a whole new group of readers. 

That's a fascinating point—even if you know a language, the nuance you may be missing might make a translation to your first language even more worthwhile.


I’ve always been astounded at how the ‘canon’ changes wildly when you change passports. For example, Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century has a lot of names that are required reading in the US—and a lot that aren’t: Celine, de Saint-Exupery, Vian, Prevert, Apollinaire, are all in the top 20 of the list. How do you view the effect of this fact? Is it great we have cultural fault lines, or are we missing out on a lot of great literature?

That's an interesting question. I like heterogeneity in general, that there can be a multiplicity of viewpoints on what's "great art" and that we don't all have to agree. It'd be nice if a lot of those sorts of "books of the century" were available in as many languages as possible so that the maximum amount of people could experience them and have some insight into why that book ended up on a particular country's list. 

The natural, implicit fallout of expanding the number of books that we absorb into our culture is that we lose some of the megaliths of the canon. Of course it isn't easy to say this is a good thing, but realistically you'd have to make that tradeoff, no?

Sure, although isn't the idea of a singular "canon" pretty outmoded anyway? Anything that's an expansion, that enhances our literature, should be considered a good thing. Even if people start reading more Celine than Updike. 

The idea of a "canon" is outmoded, yes, but there are still real implications—say, secondary education. Would you take a world where high schoolers read such a variety of international text that it's unlikely you'll find peers in college who've read what you had? This is of course, hyperbole, but I think it illustrates a real point.

You're assuming college students read . . . 


No, but I get your point. But can't there be more variety without complete fragmentation?  Like, read Don Quixote AND Shakespeare. It is an interesting point though. 

Perhaps we're getting into a rabbit hole of semantics. Let's switch gears. In a recent New York Times article, Gideon Lewis-Kraus asks how close we are to a world where computers can handle the lion share of translation. It seems almost everyone on this side of the arts regards the question as absurd at best. Do you agree?

Yeah. Computer translation doesn't really work and points to something that I see as very problematic in today's literary culture: the idea of seeing books and writing as solely conveying information. 

Computer translation works by searching phrasings and "translating" chunk by chunk. For a simplistic text, you can "get the gist" rather easily. But is this the point of literature? To find out the core bits of story? I would argue that style, that the way the book is told and constructed, is so much more valuable than just getting the plot of "information" of a story. And that requires a human being who can work within *cultures* instead of treating phrases as simply data. 

Some people are baffled by the sheer number of translations that are out there for a given text. Why do we need fifty translations of The Stranger. And if we don't, we do we have fifty?

Some of that is fun. Retranslations offer an opportunity to open up a work to a new audience, and can give academics things to write about and teach. Also, I can imagine top-notch translators see this as a great chance to make their mark and discourse--theoretically at least--with all the translators who came before them. But it can get excessive. Instead of learning about contemporary views, we just get another translation of Goethe. 

From a publishing perspective it makes sense though. Classics are already known, meaning that part of your marketing is taken care of. They're in public domain, and a definitive translation can bring you tons of classroom sales . . . 

Fair point. Does (has) the art of translation changed in any discernible way?

I think it sort of has. "Chasing Lost Time"--the biography of Scott Moncrief, translator of Proust--has an interesting bit about this. It discusses Moncrief's technique of more or less reading a Proustian sentence, working out the rhythms, then writing out a version that captures the sound and "essence" of the bit. This is contrasted with the Lydia Davis retranslation which is more sparse, direct, and "accurate." 

I think that practitioners today value a sort of sleek, pared down sort of translation, one that values the information of a sentence (back to that idea again), to its trills. 

So there are shifts. It has become more acceptable to leave the original behind a bit more and to focus on the target language reader, without dumbing down the book. I think that's important and is something a lot of translation mentors are teaching to the new generation of translators. That's good. 

How does that preference, 'to focus on the target language reader', tangibly manifest itself?

By approaching the translated text with the eyes of a monolingual reader. Instead of focusing only on "x words means y" and retaining that even when it sounds weird in English, a savvy translator will rework a sentence in order to have a similar effect (or retain the author's unique voice and style) without slavishly sticking to the original. 

This brings to mind the fact that a lot of countries don't have an editorial culture. They get a manuscript, they like it, they print it. Translators working with authors and foreign editors can actually help improve a book in this process. That scares some people--those who want to believe that a translation is a 1:1 version of another text--but it's what makes this field so exciting and interesting. 

I think that's definitely a somewhat hidden truth of the translation industry.

That's true. It's surprising how much work editors can put into these books, and how they shift in the process. 

Of course, there are bad examples of over-editing--making a book more "American" at the expense of the original voice--but there are a ton of great editors working in this field. 

We're nearly out of time Chad, so I'll ask one final question: If there's one perspective on translations you'd want the general public to be more aware of, what would it be?

That they're enjoyable to read. I think people are sort of scared of international literature, partially because a lot of us in this business tend to have strange, esoteric tastes. We crave something new and different. But we're not publishing unreadable books. I hope the general public understands how varied the offerings are. There are great books in every genre from countries around the globe. 

Thanks for your time and your words, Chad.

Thank you!