America Yawns At Foreign Fiction
'"It is not an exaggeration to refer to this as a national crisis," said Cliff Becker, literature director at the National Endowment for the Arts...'

By Stephen Kinzer. This article first appeared in The New York Times (July 26, 2003).

When Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, the response from many Americans was "Who?"

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 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 Donna Shear, director of Northwestern University Press. "It's expensive, and the sales aren't there. This is definitely a trend in the university press world."

This trend has spread from university presses to publishing in general. Writers, publishers and cultural critics have long lamented the difficulty of interesting American readers in translated literature, and now some say the market for these books is smaller than it has been in generations.

"It is not an exaggeration to refer to this as a national crisis," said Cliff Becker, literature director at the National Endowment for the Arts. "I am a citizen of the most powerful country the world has known, a country that asks me to be part of its decision-making process on a whole range of things. If I'm not able to experience other cultures, not even from a place that is as easy to reach as the printed page, that is outright dangerous."

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," said Riky Stock, director of the German Book Office in New York, who provided the figures. "A main reason for it is simply that America dominates the world, whether in film or literature or politics."

The difficulty that many foreign authors face in having their works translated into English has effects far beyond the United States.

"Since English is the lingua franca, translating a book into English puts it in a position to be translated into many different languages," said Esther Allen, a translator who is chairwoman of the PEN translation committee. "We're the clogged artery that prevents authors from reaching readers anywhere outside their own country."

"It's a great paradox of American life," Ms. Allen said, "that on the one hand we feel very cosmopolitan, with Mexican restaurants and cab drivers who speak Swahili, and we feel that we inhabit a mind-boggling multicultural universe, but at the end of the day, it breaks down to different ways of being American."

Some major American publishing houses still seek work by foreign writers. The Winter Queen, a briskly selling murder mystery by the Russian author Boris Akunin, was published by Random House. Alfred A. Knopf, W. W. Norton and Farrar, Straus & Giroux also make special efforts to publish works in translation. Many other large houses, however, shy away from them.

"This hasn't always been the case," said Jill Schoolman, the founder of a new nonprofit publishing house, Archipelago Books, that is devoted to bringing out works in translation. "In the 40's and 50's, Helen and Kurt Wolff stirred up quite a bit of excitement around the world with Pantheon Books. New Directions, Knopf and Grove stirred up more. Many large houses and university presses kept the doors to international writing open into the 1970's. Now the doors are virtually shut."

She added, "I believe the publishing community is partly responsible for nurturing this ethnocentric literary culture drifting further and further away from the rest of the world."

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."

Another new reality that publishers must face is the increasing imbalance between the United States and the rest of the world, politically as well as culturally.

"The U.S. is so big, and there are so many more writers published here than in any other country," said Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, who has made a special effort to publish work by non-Americans. "My guess is you'd have to lump all of Europe together as a unit to match it. Translations are published relatively quietly here. They go up against tough competition, partly because so much of American literature is tailored to be meaningful for American people - very little gets written from a truly international perspective - and partly because the publishing industry has an ingrained fear of translations and doesn't always do enough to promote them. The only way to get certain writers to find an audience is to have them win prestigious prizes."

A few of the world's most famous non-American novelists have large followings in the United States, among them Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass, who were both popular even before winning the Nobel. Others, like Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt and José Saramago of Portugal, reached broad American audiences after they won the prize.

Each year several translated novels do break through to popularity in the United States. In 2002 they included Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Sijie Dai, about two teenagers surviving the Cultural Revolution in China, and My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, a story of love and murder in the Ottoman court. They are rare because they introduce American readers to distinctly non-American characters and situations.

"We have always been sort of monosyllabic in terms of languages, and that extends into ignorance or wariness of other cultures," said William Strachan, executive editor of Hyperion Press. "People look at a work in translation and quite often think, `These themes don't speak to me, these situations don't speak to me.' And the hard fact is that given the reality of the world, we simply don't have to be concerned about Laos, but people there might well want to be or have to be concerned about America."

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