October 5, 2016
National Book Foundation to study translation trends in the U.S.
by Kait Howard
As we’ve discussed on MobyLives before, it is hard to measure the success of translated books in English-speaking countries. Despite endless opinionating and a recent Man Booker study that looked at sales of translated fiction in the UK, one hears wildly different claims about how well translated books sell, what languages are best represented, whether fiction does better than nonfiction, etc. Sal Robinson has previously written about what Arabic literature makes its way into English, and we recently covered the forthcoming publication of Bakhtiyar Ali’s I Stared at the Night of the City, apparently the first Kurdish novel to be translated into English.
Now, a new study is aiming to get more solid data on translation trends in the US. The National Book Foundation, best known as the organization that bestows the National Book Awards, is turning its attention to the state of foreign literature in this country, reports John Mahar for Publishers Weekly.
The study, to be overseen by former NBF director Harold Augenbraum, will examine translation trends in America, including how much work in translation is published and purchased, how the availability of translated works affects readership, and how the network of translators in the U.S. functions. Additionally, the study will look at how the availability of translated work affects the way people read.
While the study will look at sales of translated books in the US, it will also analyze other aspects of the business, including “the diversity of translated works,” as well as “the characteristics of the publishers publishing them.”
In a statement quoted by Mahar, the NBF’s executive director, Lisa Lucas, described the organization’s new focus on international writing, despite its longtime “mandate of supporting and celebrating the best in American literature.”
“[W]e are also a nonprofit organization devoted to enhancing the cultural value of good writing in America,” she writes,“which means that as an institution, we have to think about all readers and all literature. ”
The NBF has weathered criticisms about its relevance—see Boris Kachka at Vulture, as well as William Gass’s classic 1985 critique of literary prize-giving—but it’s impossible to say whether their decision to focus on the state of translated fiction reflects any measurable trends. In any case, the results should add much-needed data to a topic rife with anecdotal evidence and difficult speculation.
Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.