OVER THE LAST FIVE years Robert Bolaño has been so fervently canonized in the United States that it’s easy to forget one sobering fact: at the time of his death in the summer of 2003, none of his books had been published in English. Within a few months New Directions released a translation of his tiny masterpiece By Night in Chile, followed by two more short novels, but it wasn’t until the 2007 publication of The Savage Detectives that Anglophone readers finally woke up to Bolaño, celebrating his work as if it were an unearthed treasure nearly lost to history. Never mind that Los Detectives Salvajes had won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos — one of the world’s most lucrative literary awards — back in 1999, and that Bolaño had already been sanctified in the Spanish-reading world as one of the most important writers of his generation.
Unfortunately, Bolaño wasn’t a rare oversight. For most world writers, translation into English will have to wait until the twilight of their careers, or in the most egregious cases, until after a major milestone like the Nobel Prize or death. Publishing folks call this “The Three Percent Problem,” based on the estimation that only three percent of each year’s English language books are translations. (Speaking strictly in terms of literary fiction and poetry, we could more accurately call it the “Zero-Point-Seven Percent Problem,” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring.) Season after season, only a handful of international writers will find English readers via a major publisher, aside from the occasional Murakami or Keret, and the occasional new translations of Tolstoy, Flaubert et al.
As with so many other literary enterprises, university and indie presses are left to carry the torch, often reliant on subsidies and grants. (For a peek behind the scenes, check out the $2.99 e-book The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation and The Future of Reading by Chad W. Post, director of Open Letters, the University of Rochester’s translation press — all proceeds benefit hungry translators.) Yet despite many valiant attempts to grow the audience for literature in translation, The Three Percent Problem remains a mere problem for an industry grappling with crises.
Now and then someone in the world literary community calls bullshit on this sorry state of affairs. You may recall back in 2008, when Horace Engdahl, Grand Poobah of the Swedish Academy that awards the Nobel Prize, ruffled feathers by calling American authors isolated and insular. “They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” Nobody likes to be called ignorant, especially not American bookworms who fancy themselves the last bastion of serious thought in a country where Netflix algorithms are primary tastemakers. But it’s easy to see why readers and writers worldwide share Engdahl’s opinion. While U.S. publishers remain notoriously averse to translations, they profit handsomely by selling foreign rights around the globe, and Anglophone authors consider it especially badass to have their work translated, showing off their international covers like passport stamps.
What’s curious is how many American readers seem hungry for stories about other parts of the world, provided the author is writing in English, preferably an Anglo...read more