The publication of translations of Korean literature in English

 

1. The current position of English translations of Korean literature

 

Between 2001 and the end of 2005, 66 volumes of Korean literature translated into English were published. Of these, 34 volumes were poetry, 30 were fiction, 2 were drama.

 

3 of the volumes of poetry were published in Korea.

4 volumes (1 drama, 2 poetry, 1 fiction) were published in the United Kingdom.

 

The rest (59 volumes) were published in the US, including 29 volumes of fiction:

 

12 were published by American university presses or university East Asian or other institutes.

 

The others were published by small, privately run í░non-profití▒ presses:

14 were produced by presses that have a good reputation in the United States, publishers of a considerable number of significant writers from a variety of countries, such as Green Integer, Archipelago, or White Pine.

Over 30 were produced by really small presses that are not at all remarkable for the number or quality of the writers in their catalogue, or for their production and marketing, such as Homa & Sekey, Jain, and EastBridge.

 

However, no book was published by an imprint belonging to a major conglomerate, that is to say by a recognized í░commercialí▒ publisher.

 

2.  Some American publishersí» thoughts on publishing translations

 

(a)  In his Center for Book Culture, an American publisher, John Oí»Brien (of Dalkey Archive) has analysed in a series of online articles some of the main problems, though only with regard to í░westerní▒ fiction since his figures do not extend to Asian or African literature.

 http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no19/translations_5.html

 

Statistics of translated fiction published in the US in the years 2000-2005

 

COUNTRY: LANGUAGE

TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH
IN LAST 6 YEARS

AVERAGE PER YEAR

Albania: Albanian

3

.5

Argentina: Spanish

5

.8

Belgium: Flemish

1

.2

Bosnia & Herzegovina: Bosnian

1

.2

Brazil: Portuguese

7

1.2

Bulgaria: Bulgarian

1

.2

Chile: Spanish

6

1.0

Croatia: Croatian

6

1.0

Cuba: Spanish

12

2.0

Czech Republic: Czech

12

2.0

Denmark: Danish

5

.8

Ecuador: Spanish

1

.2

Estonia: Estonian

1

.2

Finland: Finnish

1

.2

France: French

52

8.7

Germany/Austria/Switzerland:
German

36

6.0

Greece: Greek

8

1.3

Hungary: Hungarian

7

1.2

Iceland: Icelandic

1

.2

Italy: Italian

39

6.5

Latvia: Latvian

0

.0

Lithuania: Lithuanian

1

.2

Macedonia: Macedonian

1

.2

Mexico: Spanish

8

1.3

Netherlands: Dutch

18

3.0

Norway: Norwegian

12

2.0

Peru: Spanish

2

.3

Poland: Polish

13

2.6

Portugal: Portuguese

6

1.0

Romania: Romanian

3

.5

Russia: Russian

29

4.8

Serbia and Montenegro: Serbian

8

1.3

Slovak Republic: Slovak

1

.2

Slovenia: Slovene

2

.3

Spain: Catalan

2

.3

Spain: Spanish

12

2.0

Sweden: Swedish

7

1.2

Turkey: Turkish

6

1.0

Uruguay: Spanish

4

.7

 

 

A now-famous National Endowment for the Arts study in 1999 showed that only 3% of the fiction and poetry published in the United States that year were translations. The actual number was 197 books, which stands in sharp contrast to the practice in other countries, where that percentage can be as high as 50%.

 

In catalogs from Knopf, Norton, Viking, Harcourt, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for the past two years there were altogether 31 translations of contemporary foreign fiction and poetry. Americans are particularly disinterested in the literature from foreign countries, for much the same reasons they are not very interested in their own literature (in a country of 250 million people, a literary novel that sells 15,000 copies is a walloping success).

 

Between 2000 and 2005 only 18 Dutch works of fiction were published in the United States—though that perhaps compares favorably with the 8 from Greece and the 7 from Sweden. By contrast, during the same period, American publishers published 52 French, 39 Italian, 36 German, and 29 Russian volumes of fiction in translation. These figures do not include old classics or popular fiction, only serious modern fiction has been counted. In addition to those much-translated literatures, the list show that Cuba, the Czech Republic, Norway, Poland, and Spain each had a dozen volumes published, but no other country produced more than 8. (Note: Compare these figures with the 29 volumes of Korean fiction published in the US during the same period).

 

Why are so few translations published in the US?

 

The only foundation in the United States that has a program for supporting translations is the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Otherwise, support has to come from outside the US.

 

We mostly publish books from Europe or Latin America. It is not uncommon for foreign (government) agencies we have worked with to feel that they are providing enormous support by producing sample translations in English—of books they themselves select—and then, if an American publisher is foolish enough to sign on a book based upon such a small sample, giving a grant that covers only about 50% of the cost to have the book translated, ignoring all the other costs involved in producing the book, that are only rarely recouped.

 

At the end of the day, this means that the American publisher invests a significant amount of money and time (much more than it would on a book written in English) on a book that will sell, almost inevitably, far fewer copies than a book by an American.

 

The economics of book production

 

The average cost for a small press (such as my own Dalkey Archive) to publish a translation is approximately $35,000-$40,000. Typically, a foreign government will donate, letí»s say, $7,000 (usually 50% of the total) towards the translatorí»s fee (usually only paid some time after publication), and first-year sales will generate approximately $14,000. Thatí»s a loss of nearly $20,000 and assumes sales of about 2,000 copies. Often translations only sell a few hundred copies and the loss is much greater. Once again: with a typical literary work in translation, the approximate cost to the publisher is $35,000, with the expectation that (with luck) $12,000 will come back (eventually) through sales. Which leaves a gap of $23,000. How does this gap get filled?

 

How will foreign publishers discover the works they should publish?

 

To the foreign countryí»s question, í░Why doní»t Americans publish more of our books?í▒ the only answer is, í░Because you make it so difficult to find out what we need to know, and then scarcely help in allowing the publisher to so much as break even financially.í▒ Several thousand miles separate us and there is no easy way of finding out about a countryí»s literature and whatí»s really going on in it, short of actually going there and meeting and talking with as many publishers and critics as possible. A common response, however, is that í░we doní»t have such a program.í▒ Instead, you are handed a catalog filled with the books that someone somewhere thinks Americans will like.

 

What level of support is needed for the publisher of translations?

 

Is subsidizing the translation enough in order to offset the costs of publishing a translated work? Simply put, no. On average, an editor (if he or she cares at all about the book) must spend two to three times more time working on a translation than on a book originally written in English; most editors I know have argued, at one time or another, that they—rather than the translator—have translated the book, given how much rewriting the translation requires. So, that is one of the extra costs. But a second extra cost is the nearly inevitable low sales of a translation. On average, a very good novel from another country will sell fifty percent fewer copies in the United States than a rather mediocre novel written by an American.

 

It is not enough to publish a book, it has to be sold and read

 

(b)  M. A. Orthofer (on the same site, in response to Oí»Brian): Getting books translated isní»t the sole or possibly even the main problem: what is needed is to find readers (and to connect the readers with the books). Even if more titles are translated, the question remains as to whether the audience for translated literature in the U.S. would grow merely by making more titles available.

 

While thereí»s something to be said for making worthy books available even if practically no one cares to read them, it is surely preferable to increase demand for translated literature (which would then also make translated literature a more appealing business risk for publishers to take). Increased demand does not necessarily (or, in this case, even likely) follow from increased supply, but increased demand would almost certainly also lead to increased supply: if thereí»s a market for translated literature, if readers are clamoring for it, then publishers will respond by making more available. Clamoring crowds of readers seem unlikely, but the demand side is the one to focus attention on.

 

 

(c)  What follows is from an article by Stephen Kinzer that first appeared in The New York Times on July 26, 2003. http://www.transcript-review.org/section.cfm?id=157&lan=en

 

When Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, Mr. Kertesz's work was virtually unknown in the United States. Only two of his novels had been translated into English. The more successful one, Fateless, published by Northwestern University Press, had sold just 3,500 copies. After the Nobel was announced, Northwestern quickly printed more copies of Fateless and ultimately (at least claimed to have) sold 40,000. Even that, however, was not enough to change the press's decision to pull back from publishing contemporary world fiction. "We were seen as a leading university press for literature in translation, but we've decided to make it a smaller part of our program because it just is not viable," said the director of Northwestern University Press. "It's expensive, and the sales aren't there.í▒

 

In comparison, readers in other developed countries still have appetites for translated literature. German publishers, for example, bought translation rights to 3,782 American books in 2002, while American publishers bought rights for only 150 German books. You'll find the same thing in France or Holland or most other European countries. (These figures are for every kind of book; literature will not be more than a small proportion.)

 

Since English is the lingua franca, translating a book into English puts it in a position to be translated into many different languages. The United States is the clogged artery that prevents authors from reaching readers anywhere outside their own country.

 

In interviews publishers cited many reasons for their increasing reluctance to bring out books by non-American writers. Several said a decisive factor was the concentration of ownership in the book industry, which is dominated by a few conglomerates. That has produced an intensifying fixation on profit. As publishers focus on blockbusters, they steadily lose interest in little-known authors from other countries.

 

Some publishers said that they had no staff editors who read foreign languages and that they hesitated to rely on the advice of outsiders about which foreign books might capture the imagination of Americans.

 

Others mentioned the high cost of translation, the local references in many non-American books and the different approach to writing that many foreign authors take: "A lot of foreign literature doesn't work in the American context because it's less action-oriented than what we're used to, more philosophical and reflective," said Laurie Brown, senior vice president for marketing and sales at Harcourt Trade Publishers.

 

"As with foreign films, literature in translation often has a different pace, a different style, and it can take some getting used to. The reader needs to see subtleties and get into the mood or frame of mind to step into a different place. Americans tend to want more immediate gratification. We're into accessible information. We often look for the story, rather than the story within the story. We'd rather read lines than read between the lines."

 

 

(d)  The issue of the American Publishersí» Weekly that appeared as the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair was closing contained an article that said:

 

             While the American publishers in Germany last week might not have noticed it, the United States was not the center of attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This year, that honor went to Korea, which shelled out an estimated $13 million to conduct symposia, build and staff booths and mount extraordinary exhibitions on Korean literary history in a hall the size of a football field.

 

It's no secret that most large and medium-size American publishers are not exactly devoted to publishing literature in translation. And it's unclear that a program like this is going to change anyone's publishing program. Of the several editors I asked, none was taking a special look at books by or about Korea and Koreans, and some seemed surprised that I'd even asked. (That a couple of titles by Koreans or Korean-Americans were just bought or are currently on submission was deemed a coincidence.) While open, in theory, to the idea, publishers say, the realities of the marketplace—surprise!—win out. "We have a hard enough time getting our own books to readers," one cynic told me. "Books in translation are a very hard sell."

And while it's true that the average American publisher can probably count on one hand the number of translations that have turned bestseller (Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Hoeg, the recent Carlos Ruiz Zafón), there is a sense, at the fair, that the American failure to embrace non–English-speaking authors is yet another function of our arrogance and xenophobia. After all, the thinking goes, the Spanish, French and particularly the Germans buy our books all the time; it's as if we're expected to return the favor. But publishing, for all its admirable, high-end and altruistic qualities, is not about politically correct favors, it is—or it should be—about publishing books that will sell.

 

 

3.  Summary Conclusions

 

1.  It is clear from the above discussions that in actual figures, the number of volumes of translated Korean fiction published in the United States since 2000 (27 volumes) has been much more considerable than is often realized, far exceeding the figures for all western countries other than France, Germany, Russia, and Italy.  It would be interesting to have figures for American publication of literature from China and Japan. To this must be added the rather extraordinary number of volumes of Korean poetry (30) published in the US in the same period.

 

2.  The grants offered to translators by the Korean funding agencies are far more generous (at least double) than those offered by almost any western governments, and they are paid directly, in part even before the translation is completed. This can be explained by Koreaí»s deliberate policy of spending generously in order to make up for its low profile on the international stage. However, subsidies offered to publishers to support the actual costs of producing the translations are far too small in realistic terms, even if the figure of $35-40,000 for one book quoted above may be somewhat exaggerated. $5 - 7,000 per book still seems to be the standard subsidy offered by the KLTI and Daesan.

 

Some contradictory attitudes

 

Koreaí»s cultural authorities (like those of most countries) see the publication of literary translations mainly as  a form of promotion / publicity for their country and its literature.

 

But--

 

American publishers (like those of most countries) see the publication of books as a commercial activity that can only be justified in terms of sales.

 

Governmental funding agencies want to support the translation of works / writers that are popular / esteemed in their country.

 

But--

 

 Publishers want to publish books that they will be able to sell well in their own culture.

 

The Korean authorities want as many translations of Korean literature as possible to be published.

 

But--

 

Publishers want to publish books that have a good chance of being bought, and know that markets are limited, easily saturated.

 

Common sense says that it is a waste of money to support the publication of books that have no hope of being bought, read and admired.

 

But--

 

Non-Americans cannot easily sense what kind of writing will appeal to American readers.

 

 

4.  The most important questions seem to be :

 

1) Who best makes the decision as to which works are to be translated / published?

 

a.  In most cases, at present the translators of Korean literature choose a work on the basis of their own and Korean public opinioní»s positive evaluation of it, and their choice is sanctioned by the KLTI. The completed translation is then submitted to any publishers overseas who are prepared to consider it. But in the United States, major publishers and even some small presses refuse to consider í░unsollicited submissionsí▒ and only deal with agents.

b.  There is as yet no program of the kind proposed above, by which representatives of major foreign publishers are invited to Korea to meet publishers and writers, so that the publishers can see what is currently being published and choose for themselves works that they think might be worth translating and publishing.

 

2) What readership is expected to buy translations of Korean literature and how can it be expanded?

 

a.  In the US, a clear distinction should be made between an academic (above all a Korean Studies) readership, which buys textbooks, often published by university-based presses, listed by teachers and available in university bookstores, and a general readership, which needs to hear about books through publicity, reviews, or word of mouth, and wants the books to be distributed to and stocked by bookstores nationwide.

 

The second kind of readership is that we should be aiming at, if our aim is to make Korean literature part of world literature. It is much more difficult to penetrate that market. Visits by writers, good publicity, having books featured on radio and TV, book-reviews in newpapers and literary reviews all encourage bookstores to stock a book and readers to go in and ask for it. It is too much to expect a small press with no staff to do very much to promote and advertise every book it produces, and most have no time or interest in organizing reading tours by Korean (or any other) writers.

 

 

5.  Suggestions for the KLTI

 

1.  One important method of increasing awareness, suggested during our discussion, is to encourage translators to submit small samples of their translations to the multiple literary magazines that exist in the US, and elsewhere. Serious lovers of literature read them, and publishers also read them. The KLTI might try to compile and provide a list of reviews that are open to translations.

 

2.  More work needs to be done to send Korean writers to participate in those literary festivals that are author-centered (many í░book fairsí▒ are entirely business-oriented). No form of publicity can rival the impact of a writerí»s physical presence. In particular, the writers should be able to express themselves in English (or another useful language), though the actual readings should be done by a native of the country involved; younger writers, in particular, should be selected.

 

3. As suggested by John Oí»Brian, KLTI should have a program designed to bring representatives of suitable American and British publishers to Korea so that they can meet Korean publishers and (especially) dynamic, younger writers, and gain first-hand knowledge of what is being published here. This will give them an awareness of Koreaí»s existence and motivate them to take Korea more seriously. There would be no point in inviting "famous" publishers who will never publish a book by unknown writers from little-known countries..