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At last, a mini-boom in translations

23 June 2014

A week or two back we linked to a recent article in Publishing Perspectives, Yawn No More: Americans and the Market for Foreign Fiction, about the annual BEABookExpo America, commonly referred to within the book publishing industry as BEA. The largest annual book trade fair in the United States Global Market Forum, this year focusing on books in translation, which showed that progress is being made to overcome American publishers' traditional reluctance to take on translated work from the rest of the world. Various different publishing models are being tried, which is important since the extra costs of translation have to be recouped somewhere.

Traditionally, translators have not been well-paid and a relatively small number of them have been able to make a living from this work alone. It's therefore good to be able to report a considerable improvement, with much more interest in translated titles. Literary translations will still carry a relatively big extra cost but what seems to have happened is that a succession of strong books have been successful in the UK and US in spite of the fact that they were translations.

Sieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is the most striking example of this. In the UK the books came from The Maclehose Press, the upmarket literary imprint, specialising in literary translation, which was part of Quercus Publishing. I would argue that the books succeeded across the world because of their sheer page-turning quality and strong characters, two things which translated well.

But now the Bookseller has produced a mostly unlikely headline to describe their story on translations: Sales of translated titles surge in 2014, evidencing the sales of two titles:

‘The first is heretofore unknown Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård's initial three titles in an unsparing, six-book examination of his own life, the overarching title of which, My Struggle (Vintage), is a provocative nod to the infamous autobiography of Adolf Hitler-who happens to be the main character of the second event: Timur Vermes' Stygian comedy, Look Who's Back (MacLehose).

What Vermes and Knausgård's books have in common-apart from referencing Der Führer to varying degrees-is that they are translated, a sector on the rise. For the first 19 weeks of 2014, books in translation shifted just over £3.6m through Nielsen BookScan's Top 5,000, a 6.2% value rise on the same period in 2013, against a Top 5,000 that has declined 3.8% year on year in 2014.'

Sales of highly successful Scandinavian crime writers such as Jo Nesbø rather prove the point made above, which is that the fact a book has been translated is no longer emphasised, the book is just published as good of its kind. But it probably still means that the book to be translated needs to have good sales prospects or for the UK and US publishers to be working together to commission the translation. The Society of AuthorsThe British authors’ organization, with a membership of over 7,000 writers. Membership is open to those who have had a book published, or who have an offer to publish (without subsidy by the author). Offers individual specialist advice and a range of publications to its members. Has also campaigned successfully on behalf of authors in general for improved terms and established a minimum terms agreement with many publishers. Recently campaigned to get the Public Lending Right fund increased from £5 million to £7 million for the year 2002/2003. Regularly uses input from members to produce comparative surveys of publishers’ royalty payment systems. says UK publishing's average fee for translators is £88.50 per 1,000 words, so the translation cost would be around £8,000 for a novel of average length. This is a substantial additional cost in publishing a book.

Still it's good to think that one aspect of globalisation might be completely positive for writers, potentially taking their work to a wider audience and providing more work for translators, as well as encouraging readers across the world to read more widely.