Rant/Addendum to “The View from the Other Side”


The one thing I often get told when I talk about the US/Anglophone dominance of the spec-fic market is some variant of “good translations are expensive, and the market is stretched so there is no money for it”. I’m sorry, that’s just not a valid reason.

Yes, I fully agree that a good translator is expensive. Translating, say, from French to English is more expensive than taking an English author direct. In this we totally agree. But…

But wanna take a guess as to how much a good translator from English into French costs, and how much cheaper it would be to buy a local author? ‘cos it’s known as a symmetrical problem, and we all have the same problems: the literary market is somewhat small (as opposed to TV, for instance), and overstretched.

Most non-Anglophone publishing houses have a fairly large Foreign Rights/Foreign Acquisitions department, which also handles translations. It’s an accepted part of the budget as much as paying authors for books and paying artists for cover art. Most Western Anglophone houses… don’t exactly seem to have the equivalent department. So the “we don’t have any money for translations” thing? Please don’t try to tell me that. It doesn’t stand.

I’ll accept the “there is no market for translations” as a valid point–but then I’ll ask you to start wondering: why is there no market for translations in the US/UK, and plenty in other countries?


  1. I think it may be just a “dominant culture” issue. If a culture is dominant (usually because it’s got a huge economy behind it) then its offerings are prestigious and attractive. The output of a less well-known culture may be exotic and attractive. Right now, Japanese popular culture has that cache, and so some of it is being translated and made available to US audiences. But it’s not symmetrical. I wonder how many of the translations being acquired by European houses are from English, and how much from other European languages?

  2. Another example of when they can do it if they want to: one of the biggest authors in the world right now wrote in Swedish – namely Stieg Larsson.

    I can’t speak for other English-speaking countries, but don’t expect things to improve in the UK right now. Since the then government made foreign languages optional instead of compulsory for GCSE examinations six years ago, the numbers of students taking languages has dropped and some universities are closing some of their foreign-language departments – as reported in the UK press only this week.

    At the risk of going off-topic, I should add that there’s a hierarchy of interest in anglophone countries too. Think how much easier it is to get hold of US and UK books than it is to obtain Canadian, South African, Australian or New Zealander books if they don’t get UK or US editions. I’m going to be in Australia next week, and one thing I’m going to be looking out for are locally-published books not easily obtainable here.

  3. Keyan, definitely a dominant culture problem. I checked when I was writing the article, and for France, I think the proportions are about 14% of literature is translated, out of which a whooping 60% is from English into French (don’t know the distribution for the other languages though).
    Gary: Stieg Larsson is definitely a (good) exception, though don’t get me started on why Hollywood felt the need to remake the Swedish movies into all-American ones… And there’s definitely a hierarchy of Anglophone countries. The US is massively privileged, the UK a bit less so. I don’t see so many Australian or South African authors on my bookshelves… (let’s not even speak about Indian authors, because it gets depressing really fast…)

  4. The USA has even been known to alter non-American anglophone stuff. A famous example is the first Mad Max film, which was for a long time only available in the UK and USA with a redubbed American soundtrack, lest too much broad Aussie defiled delicate ears.

    South African SF/F writers? Not many. I had this conversation with Catherine Hellisen (online correspondent and crit pal) who lives in Cape Town and who has just sold a YA fantasy to a US publisher. One example is Lauren Beukes, also from Cape Town, and with whom you share a UK publisher.

    I can think of more Australian/NZ writers, but agreed, they’re less in evidence than UK/US ones.

    Apologies to India – I forgot that English was an official language there, and there are people writing in it.

  5. Indeed, the ratio of translations to local authors is often reversed in non-anglophone countries.

    In Germany, for example, it used to be very difficult for local SF, fantasy or romance authors to get published, because publishers would rather buy the rights to a proven US/UK bestseller and pay for a translation (and literary translators generally aren’t paid very well) than take a chance on a local unknown. The situation has improved somewhat, at least in speculative fiction, but particularly with genre fiction you often have more translations than local authors on the shelves.

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