Monday, January 1, 2018

The Translation Gap: The Lack of Diversity in American Publishing

The number of translations published in U.S. has steadily grown since 2008, but Americans still lag far behind other countries in the diversity of the international voices they read.

By Caroline Murray, fall 2017

A culture’s fiction and poetry can be key to connecting with and understanding another way of life, and without diverse authors on their literary landscape, Americans may be cut off from the world in a significant way. A widely cited Bowker study concluded that international translations make up three percent of the literature published in the U.S. Chad Post, a publisher at Open Letter Press and creator of the Three Percent database, which collects records of international fiction and poetry published in the U.S., estimates that even the three percent figure is inflated. Post said that if you only include original works never before published in English, the number ends up being more around 0.7 percent. This is compared to 27 percent in France and 40 percent in Turkey.

The number of literary translations published in the U.S. has been rising since 2008, but the diversity of voices that Americans receive is questionable. The top languages translated in last ten years have been fiction and poetry in French, Spanish, German and Italian. The languages with the most native speakers around the world, however, are quite different: The Washington Post reported the top four (excluding English) are Chinese, Hindi, Arabic and Spanish. The gap may exacerbate a lack of cultural understanding in the U.S. about the countries with the biggest roles on the world stage, those who perhaps Americans need to hear from the most.

“Literature and poetry has more of an ability to redefine how you think about the world or how you think about language or our ideas about what stories are,” Post said. “Getting those voices available is so, so important. They refuse stereotypes to be the only option for Americans.”

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Many obstacles currently stand in the way of more translations making their way onto the American landscape.

Elisabeth Jaquette, the managing director of the American Literary Translators Association and a translator herself, points out the simplest of roadblocks. Not many major American presses have editors on staff who speak a foreign language, creating an additional hurdle in seeking out international literature. In contrast, many editors in Europe are bilingual if not trilingual, with the ability to evaluate a manuscript.

“Translating literature is precise and an art. It can’t be done by anybody who just speaks the language. They have to be an excellent writer too,” Jaquette said. “Authenticity, flow, pacing, the original magic of the novel—all of that can be lost if you don’t have a good translator available to the publishing house.”

Even if literary translations are published, they typically don’t attract many reviews from major U.S. media outlets, they make less money, and they draw fewer readers. For those reasons, big American publishers rarely take an interest in literature that has not already received significant international attention. Small, independent presses end up taking up the task.

“Smaller presses are more nimble. They’re not a part of the money machine. They can get by selling a couple thousand copies for example. Since the stakes are lower, they’re able to do more,” Post said. “Smaller presses don’t have access to authors that will sell hundreds of thousands of copies, so we find a great book that people are talking about in Romania and that builds our reputation. We have more of an incentive to find those things.”

The rising star of translations in the U.S. is not so small, however; AmazonCrossing grew to be the largest publisher of translated literature in the U.S. over just three years. The translation branch of Amazon primarily seeks out blockbuster-style novels, like romances or thrillers, with themes easily understood across countries. The rapid rise of AmazonCrossing signals Amazon’s growing role in the cultural sphere of the U.S., but the company also embodies the larger diversity problem in American translations.

A language notably missing from AmazonCrossing’s translation catalog is Arabic. The lack of Arabic translations on the American literary scene is not uncommon among publishers. Despite its large number of native speakers, some experts speculate that original publishing in Arabic is struggling in the first place. Rana Idriss, the director of Dar al-Adab, a Lebanese publisher, told The Economist that censorship and piracy stall Arab publishing. Censorship prevents a lot of what Idriss called the “big three” basic attractions from appearing in fiction: sex, politics and religion. Many Arab countries also don’t have sufficient copyright laws to protect published material from being distributed without the author or publishers’ permission.

Even when a new work in Arabic is identified, beginning to translate it into English is another challenge. Some novels in Arabic are written in a kind of archaic Arabic rarely spoken, and Post estimates that there are only six Arabic translators who are well-known in American publishing and working on a regular basis.

“If those six people are responsible for promoting the entire Arab-speaking world of literature, that’s problematic,” Post said.

Jaquette, who is an Arabic translator herself, is more optimistic about the state of Arabic publishing and its future.

“Publishing in Arabic is definitely happening. Some inspiring stuff is coming out. The issue is that these European romance languages have long, historical relationships being translated into English, but Arabic is relatively new in comparison,” Jaquette said. “I think it will grow, because the interest [in American readers] is there. It will just take time.”

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Chinese is another language that is vastly underrepresented in the American world of literary translation. Censorship is a barrier in China as well, but as that begins to loosen, a new avenue for Chinese literature is flourishing. Thriving forums dedicated to translations of Chinese “web novels” are rising in popularity among foreigners, including Americans. Websites like Wuxiaworld, which receives more than three million page views each day, collect Chinese translations from a wide variety of genres.

“It’s a fascinating time to be a Chinese writer because frankly no country in the world is experiencing quite the same scale of revolution as China. It’s rising like crazy, and that perspective is what American readers need a dose of. So we’re taking advantage of every avenue, including online forums, to get new voices out there,” said David Haysom, a translator at Paper Republic, an organization that works to highlight Chinese translations.

As China’s role grows on the world stage, increasing the number of cultural representations from the country is at the top of many translators’ agendas. AmazonCrossing published seven Chinese novels out of 60 total translations in 2016, but the company has pledged $10 million through the end of the decade in part to expand its roster of languages, including Chinese.

“The world needs more perspectives, especially in literature. We can’t tighten up and remain reading only what is in our comfort zone,” Jaquette said. “Translations from around the world fuel our understanding of these different people, different cultures. This is really, truly a time of divide and we need as many bridges as we can get.”


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