Don't blame the readers for lack of interest in translations - the fault is institutional

John O'Brien • 07 November 2014

John O'Brien of Dalkey Archive Press reflects on the background to the Library of Korean Literature series, a collaboration between Dalkey Archive and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.
The grand illusion about literary translation into England and the United States is that it is increasing, that sales are increasing, and that, at long last, these two English-speaking countries are opening themselves to the literature of the world. The problem with these beliefs is that they are ill-founded, and the worst interpretation of them is that they are purposely misleading.

The best guesses are that in the past seven or eight years, the number of literary translations of new works has moved from 300-plus to 400-plus when combining both countries. Let's even assume here that the counting isn't always accurate because the numbers can be hard to come by, and so double the number and say 900 are being publishing of fiction and poetry. In America, that's 900 of over 300,000 books currently being published. Cause for celebration? Victory? The brave warriors have triumphed? This is all self-promotional nonsense. Yes, we can say that the number of translations has grown an enormous 25%!

But this is Amazon's method of calculation. Give a percentage but not a number. And if one doesn't jump on this bandwagon of silly optimism? One quickly becomes the enemy, as was the case when I recently presented these numbers and percentages at a meeting in Seoul. The criticism came from New York, not Seoul.

These unbased claims come from the so-called translation community, and then get picked up by an unsuspecting media. But the claims, at least of late, are bolstered by the French, who cannot accept to what degree the recognition of French culture at large has shrunk in both Europe and the United States. Arrogance does not easily adjust to reality.

Or see how sharply Arts Council England has reduced its support of translations in favour of home-grown talent. Once a priority, translations have scant mention in ACE's new plan of support for literature, and one must question how small the Council can make the "L" in literature.

What gets most overlooked or disparaged is anything unconventional, anything unfamiliar, anything that challenges an audience. And what might that be? According to the latest statistics available in the United States, a country that loves statistics if they can be used to manipulate people, 34 Korean literary titles were published, for an average of 6.8 per year. If Dalkey Archive Press is taken out of this mix, then only 19 were published in this five-year period. That's how much of Korean literature is making its way into the States and England on average.

Why did Dalkey Archive undertake the publication of 25 Korean titles in a four-year period? Two reasons: first, because the books should be translated and published; and second, because the Literature Translation Institute of Korea is both realistic and visionary in providing the necessary funds to publish these books. And by "necessary support" I do not mean the 60% of the translation costs alone that France provides and takes such pride in, nor the even lower support of Germany and Austria, nor any number of other countries such as Flemish-speaking Belgium, or the Netherlands, or Sweden. I could go on, and on.

I should say too that enormous sums of money are not a solution. Some countries (Korea, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Slovenia, for example) make things easier in rather small ways (sponsored trips to their country in which they quite actively arrange for meetings and provide a great deal of information) and bring flexibility to the process, and they are open to new ways of doing things. Others are top-heavy with bureaucratic nooses. What almost all ignore are the publishers. The countries organize or help to organise meetings and conferences concerned with translation issues, but publishers are usually not invited or are far outnumbered by translators, translation associations, and the ubiquitous PEN and its growing demands on behalf of translators. Government agencies rarely provide more than about 10% of the total costs of publication, and yet then want to dictate how books should be done and even how much translators should be paid, even though the countries provide only a portion of those costs.

Asking publishers would seem the most obvious single thing that countries could do if they seriously want the number of translations into English to increase.

At no point in this diatribe have I criticised the readers. With all the self-interest involved in this rather small world of translation and literature, readers are the innocent by-standers. Yet they are the ones that institutions blame for an apparent lack of interest in literature from non-English countries. Readers are at the mercy of the media that makes known (or doesn't) which books are published, and equally at the mercy of funding agencies (have I mentioned the French?) to support their own literature into the current lingua franca. And to the somewhat less responsible bookstores that do not stock translations in adequate numbers - less responsible because they have little choice but to respond to the lack of media coverage and the absence of support from home countries, who usually express bewilderment at the lack of publishers' interest in their literature.

Photo: At the Korean Cultural Centre, from left, the event's translator; Cailin Neal, Dalkey Archive Press; Hailji, author The Republic of Užupis; and Richard Lea of the Guardian