By several metrics, 2018 was a great year for literature in translation. The National Book Foundation successfully reinstituted its translation prize, with Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, receiving the award; the HBO adaptation of My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, received rave reviews, strong ratings, and a renewal for a second season; and a number of best books of 2018 lists contained at least one title in translation.
Many in the industry see an uptick in interest in international literature among reviewers and booksellers. “Booksellers—some of the best readers out there—were the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of translated literature, and they are a major reason why literature in translation is finding a wider readership these days,” said Mandy Medley of Coffee House Press. “Since the 2016 election, American readers have also started looking beyond the traditional—white—American canon to international literature, not just for new perspectives and ideas but for great storytelling. And thanks to the work of a lot of independent presses, they don’t have to look far. Translated literature has found recent mainstream success partly because books coverage, like Congress, is catching up to the changing culture of America.”
Unfortunately, these successes are not reflected in the 2018 data from the Translation Database at PW, which gathers information on first English translations of fiction and poetry titles distributed through normal retail channels in the U.S. (U.K.-only publications and retranslations are not included.) According to the database, 2018 was the second year in a row when the total number of new translations published in the U.S. declined, despite the appearance of a number of new translation-centric presses over the past few years, such as Deep Vellum, New Vessel, Restless, and Transit Books. Production statistics are not necessarily the best measure of the health of this subset of the publishing industry (overall sales would be a better indicator), but given the general growth in the number of translations offered on the market over the past 11 years—from 369 titles in 2008 to 609 in 2018, with a peak of 666 titles in 2016—the recent decline is worth noting.
When it comes to the most frequently translated languages, the top three—French, German, and Spanish—have remained the same since 2008, but in 2018, Spanish overtook French, with 101 Spanish translated titles compared to 97 French. German was a distant third with 53 titles, with the following languages rounding out the top 10: Japanese (47), Italian (33), Norwegian (23), Chinese (22), Swedish (21), Russian (19), and Arabic (18).
As has been the case since 2014, AmazonCrossing brought out more works in translation than any other publisher. This past year, it published 41 titles, significantly more than Dalkey Archive, which was second with 18 titles. The rest of the top 10 were New Directions (17); Europa Editions (16); Seagull Books (14); Farrar, Straus and Giroux (13); Minotaur (10); New York Review Books (10); and Archipelago, Oneworld, and Snuggly, which were tied for #10 with nine titles each.
Independent presses (including AmazonCrossing) and nonprofit presses published most works in translation: 86%, compared to 14% from the Big Five. This has been true since the Translation Database launched in 2008 and is reflected in the number of Big Five titles on the longlists of the National Book Award for Translation, the National Translation Award, and the PEN Translation Award. Of the 25 titles on these three longlists in 2018, only six were from the Big Five.
The gap between translated books written by men and those by women decreased slightly in 2018. Last year, 59.9% of the titles in the Translation Database were written by men and 35.7% were written by women. (The remaining 4.4% were anthologies featuring works by men and women.) This gap of 24.2% is alarming, but it is much smaller than it was in 2017 (35.9%) or 2016 (32%). Given the new initiatives by publishers to increase the number of titles by women in translation, there’s reason to be optimistic that the gap will continue to shrink.
Publishers, translators, authors, booksellers, and readers can enter titles into the Translation Database at publishersweekly.com/transdb. After the information is vetted, it will appear in database searches.
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