September 3, 2014
Do books in translation sell? A chestnut considered
by Sal Robinson
Pity the poor publishing trends journalist. From time to time, maybe especially in the silly season, they’ll end up writing an article about translated books and sales, jousting with the straw man that books in translation don’t sell in English-language markets. And sure enough, two back-to-back articles at the end of August by Dalya Alberge in the Guardian and Steven W. Beattie in Quill & Quire weigh on this topic with a little phoning it in, as well as some surprising conclusions.
But first, it seems necessary to state the obvious, just so that the conversation can move on. And that is that books in translation do sell, and at bestseller levels (which is often the focus of such trend pieces). They’ve been selling for years. The Name of the Rose sold. Smilla’s Sense of Snow sold. The Elegance of the Hedgehog sold. Suite Française sold. It seems, in fact, fair to expect that every couple of years will bring a bestseller in translation, and the more worthwhile question to consider is not whether books in translation sell, but whether those bestsellers are predictable, whether there are cycles, and in that context, whether the present moment is exceptional.
This is a far greater task than a post by a feckless daily blogger can take on — the folks at the British Centre for Literary Translation, the American Literary Translators Association, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, and the many other organizations and individuals that follow translation and publishing history consistently would have real data, and indeed Literature Across Frontiers is just about to release what a study on the rise in the number of translations published in the UK. But as an attentive amateur observer, it seems to me that the books in translation that are successful, sales-wise (also an extremely vague term for certain reasons, as Michael Orthofer has pointed out, and a problematic standard for others, as Tim Parks has done similiarly), break down into three camps:
1) Euro Crime and Thrillers—your Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø, Joel Dicker.
2) International Literary Brand—these are the authors whose entire catalogues are published in English. Sales may vary, critical reception is ecstatic, and some of their books do sell in large numbers. So, Bolaño, Murakami, Knausgaard, Marias, Krasznahorkai. (It is disturbing that this bunch seems to be so male-dominated recently, though why that is is another Large Question.) It doesn’t matter how long their books are, or how stylistically forbidding: these are hallmarks of ambition, and may even recommend the books to both serious and faddish readers. (Though of course it does matter to the publishers who have to pay to translate and print them, see the Knausgaard Kickstarter.)
3) International Reader’s Choice—this is the category of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Herman Koch’s The Dinner, Jonas Jonasson’s ’s The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, and farther back, books like Like Water for Chocolate.
In any one year, there’s a few books by someone from category #2 being published, and maybe every few years there’s a #1 and #3. Meaning that the English-language market is probably far more primed for these books than is often assumed—they appear to form an essential (if limited—there’s room for one #1, or maybe, maybe, two a year) part of American and British publishing’s ecosystem.
So, given this rough sketch, is this actually an especially good time for translations, or just what might be expected? This year, there’s been Murakami (expected), Knausgaard (expected), Piketty (anomalous, but topical—not to discount sheer quality, for this or any of the above titles), a short stint by Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat as a bestseller (anomalous, but cats). The ultimate test probably lies in the midlist, not in bestseller territory— are more translated books being picked up by bookstores, selling to readers, and being reviewed than before? In this regard, a quote from Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White in the Guardian article is particularly telling:
[White] said that, blockbusters apart, there are “plenty of translated titles we’ve discovered recently which have sold in their thousands”. He singled out The Collini Case, a legal thriller by Ferdinand von Schirach, one of Germany’s top authors, which has sold 29,385 copies – “more than the last John Grisham” – eclipsing some homegrown novels that barely sell a few hundred. “The perception of translations isn’t what it was perhaps 10 years ago,” he said. “They are just treated as great books.”
One German legal thriller does not a spring make, but a bookseller in a major chain who says that numerous translated titles have sold in the thousands– now that’s a good sign.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.