December 2009, No. 26
Editors: Vera Ebels, Christina Zorich
One charge that is often made against British and American publishers is that they show a lack of curiosity about foreign literatures and rarely keep up with new books from other countries. This is only partly true; while some of the great publishers of the post-war period in Britain were European émigrés or came from European families, such as George Weidenfeld or Fredric Warburg, and were committed to translation, nowadays it is not so much a lack of curiosity or complacency that prevents publishers from publishing literature in translation, but an environment and a culture that is dominated by high-volume bestsellers, heavy trade discounts and quick returns.
It is not really possible to divorce the question of British translations from the effects of the ending of the Net Book (price) Agreement (NBA) in Britain in 1997. That decision has brought about profound changes in the book trade, many of which have worked against the publishing of books in translation.
The end of the NBA meant that retailers could discount books heavily in order to increase sales of individual titles and achieve a higher market share (a trend greatly accelerated by the selling of books in supermarkets and on Internet). Publishers were complicit in this decision because they believed it would allow them to sell more books without affecting prices too heavily. Mid-sized presses vanished or became imprints of large publishing conglomerates, which wanted to get a greater share of the market.
Publishers were increasingly trapped between trying to get their books in store promotions, where they were heavily discounted but would sell lots of copies, or ignoring promotions, and run the risks of the books remaining invisible. Promotions also often resulted in high returns, as the retailers pre-ordered large numbers but then failed to sell them, and sent them back, with a shorter and shorter time between pre-orders and returns, and a longer and longer time between dues and payments.
Simultaneously, the pressure on publishers to produce dependable bestsellers meant that they became much more risk-averse. They could no longer afford to publish books that might not sell 10.000 copies or more because the margins on each copy sold were so small. Translations, which involved an additional fee to the translator and the uncertainty of publishing an author that the editor might not be able to read in his original language, represented a largely unaffordable risk.
The end of the NBA also allowed Amazon and supermarkets to undercut booksellers. Discounts that were once the preserve of subscription book clubs now became mainstream, and publishers started to give away their bestsellers at very low prices. This price-slashing reached its logical conclusion when copies of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ were selling so cheaply in Asda and Tesco that independent booksellers bought their copies from the supermarkets instead of the wholesalers.
With such low margins, such short periods for books to appear in stores, and high returns, many small and medium-sized publishers found it impossible to survive. The same was true of independent bookshops. It is estimated by the Booksellers Association that over 500 bookshops have closed since the end of the NBA.
While proponents of the current trends in book trade tell us that more books are published than ever before and readers have a greater choice, the demise of bookshops, especially independent bookshops, means that a narrower and narrower range of titles is actually recommended to book buyers. Coupled with a widespread reduction of review space for new books in newspapers, this means that only the most heavily promoted titles usually gain any visibility. Libraries have also received less funding during this period, resulting in a lack of specialist knowledge about books in translation.
While many ‘literary elite’ writers, e.g. Milan Kundera or W.G. Sebald, are available in English, either in the UK or US, the number of bestsellers is extremely low (there have been notable exceptions recently, with the success of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘Shadow of the Wind’ and Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium’ trilogy). What this suggests is that translations are published in the UK for a niche audience, and deliberately promoted to a limited readership rather than the mass market. Publishers apparently rarely believe that a translation could become a bestseller and therefore do not commission them or promote them on that basis, but as books with a limited appeal.
Of course this is not true of all publishers, and certainly not of individual editors, some of whom champion translation very passionately and expertly, especially among the remaining independent small presses which publish disproportionate numbers of translations. But editors within bigger imprints or divisions in the major houses are under constant pressure to produce a certain number of sales for all their titles and have to argue their case for each book in terms of its sales potential. Even for the most articulate and passionate editor this is a very difficult case to make. And if a translation fails to pay for itself, this makes future commissioning even more difficult. Ultimately, if the publisher’s sales and marketing departments aren’t as passionate about a title as the editor, it won’t be well published and is unlikely to achieve strong sales or review coverage.
Despite all of these changes, many publishers are bullish about the strength of the UK market. In 2006-2007, circa 206,000 books were published in the UK, more than in the United States. But this enormous number also leads to a kind of overcrowding in which only the most heavily publicised titles stand a chance of reaching a wide readership. More books are being published, but this does not necessarily represent a genuine choice for readers.
The Net Book Agreement allowed publishers to some extent to subsidise less profitable or riskier titles, including translations, from their bestsellers, allowed independent bookshops and small publishers to compete in the open market and offer readers a wider choice of books, and this in turn gave editors more time to concentrate on finding new authors and developing emerging talents. Publishers were able to take more editorial risks because books could sell far fewer copies but still make money or break even. Bestsellers brought in much greater revenues, comparatively, than they do now because margins were greater.
It seems unlikely that the NBA will ever be restored in Britain Ultimately, though, the removal of an agreed price structure leads to the destruction of independent bookshops, huge discounting, and less freedom for editors to publish truly original or groundbreaking work. Other countries considering the removal of a voluntary price control agreement should study the impact this has had in the UK before they decide to go ahead.
By Charles Beckett, Literature Officer at the Arts Council England, London
Edited version of the speech given at the conference ‘On Translation’ on 13th November 2009, organised by Rüdiger Wischenbart, CulturalTransfers.org at BuchWien 09
“Angelus” is a prize awarding authors for the best prose book published in the Polish language in the past year, the only prize in the world for books by Central and East European authors. This year, Angelus introduced a new prize for the translator of the prize-winning book. In the event that a Polish author should win the Angelus Award, the jury selects a book best translated into Polish.
Books written by living authors from 21 Central and Eastern Europe countries are submitted by publishers and by members of the Angelus jury. Each publisher can send in a Central European and a Polish title. The jury consists of poets, novelists, playwrights, screenwriters, translators, publishers, literary critics and scholars from Poland and abroad.
Angelus was founded in 2006 by the city of Wrocław in South-West Poland to honour authors “who, in their books, deal with the most important issues of our times, enticing reflection, deepening our knowledge about the worlds of other cultures.” The new translation award was founded by the Angelus Silesius StateVocational School in nearby Wałbrzych. The Angelus prize for authors comes with a statuette designed by Ewa Rossano and a check for PLN 150 000 (€ 35,825). The prize for translators amounts to PLN 10 000 (€ 2,380). The ceremony takes place in the first weekend of December during the Wrocław Promotion of Good Books.
The first winner of the Angelus was Yuri Andrukhovych for his novel Twelve Rings. In 2007 the winner was Martin Pollack’s The Dead Man in the Bunker: Discovering My Father. Then came Peter Esterházy’s Harmoniae celestic. This year the Angelus went to the Czech émigré author and publisher Josef Škvorecký, living since 1968 in Canada, for his monumental novel about life under the Nazi and the Communist occupations and in exile, The Engineer of Human Souls. The award was received on behalf of the author by the book’s Polish translator Andrzej Jagodziński.
The award is an excellent idea and it is good that it exists. High quality literature needs and deserves support and promotion. But since the very beginning, the organization of the award and its promotion have been marred by ugly flaws. This year – the first year of the prize for translators – it was even worse. The organisers do not seem to understand the pivotal role of translators, and how much depends on their talent, initiative, and conscientiousness. In the past years they were not even invited and came at their own expense to support their authors as the organisation failed to provide interpreting. This year the organizers presented the translated books without mentioning the names of the translators, and those that were later mentioned were garbled. The city of Wrocław seemed not to be aware of breaches of copyright, as the translators were never asked for their permission to use long fragments of their translations for promotion of Wrocław. They were not even thanked for it.
Following a letter from the Czarne publishing house (whose authors won two Angelus prizes), protesting against this abysmal treatment of translators – „the ‘best ambassadors of foreign literature’, modest, hard working, who always remain in the shadow” as Richard Kapuczynski is quoted saying on the website of Wrocław, in short, the very people without whom these books would never exist in Polish” – the city of Wrocław will hopefully mend its ways in the coming years.
Translation by Sasza Małko
Sources: wiadomosci.gazeta.pl, culture.pl, wpdk.pl, and Monika Sznajderman, Czarne Publishing House
In October 2009, the CEEBP awarded twelve grants, out of which eleven for books, and one for translation costs of a Belarusian journal. Nine of the grants for books were awarded for West – East translations, and two for East – East translations. Eight of the grants for books concern works in the humanities, and three are titles in belles lettres.
Nine of the grants for books were awarded within the framework of the European History and Literature program sponsored by the Allianz Kulturstiftung, Munich.
- Ivo Andrić, Travnička hronika. Serbian – Albanian translation by Virgjil Muçi, Institute of Dialogue & Communication, Tirana
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. English – Serbian translation by Adriana Zaharijevic, Karpos, Loznica
- Robert Calasso, K.. Italian – Serbian translation by Aleksandar Stefanović, Arhipelag, Belgrade
- John Felstiner, Paul Celan. Poet, Survivor, Jew. English – Polish translation by Tomal Maciej, Austeria, Cracow
- Patrick Geary, Europäische Völker im frühen Mittelalter – Zur Legende vom Werden der Nationen. German – Albanian translation by Musa Ahmeti and Etleva Lala, OMBRA GVG, Tirana
- Edmund Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Erstes Buch: Allgemeine Einführung in die reine Phänomenologie, German – Romanian translation by Christian Ferencz – Flatz, Humanitas, Bucharest
- Pavle Levi, Raspad Jugoslavije na filmu: estetika i ideologija u jugoslovenskom i postjugoslovenskom filmu (Disintegration in Flames. Aesthetics and Ideology in the Yugoslav and Post-Yugoslav Cinema). Serbian – Slovenian translation by Jurij Meden, Društvo za širjenje filmske kulture Kino!, Ljubljana
- Monika Maron, Stille Zeile Sechs. German – Belarusian translation by Vasli Siomucha, Kovcheg, Minsk
- Ian G. Simmons, Global Environment History: 10,000 BC to AD 2000. English – Croatian translation by Damjan Lalović, Disput, Zagreb
- Georges Vigarello, Histoire du viol. French – Polish translation by Anna Leyk, Aletheia, Warsaw
- Max Weber, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. Die protestantischen Sekten und der Geist des Kapitalismus. German – Polish translation by Bogdan Baran, Aletheia, Warsaw
- Arche, Minsk – Translator’s and translations editor’s honoraria for Arche Monthly in 2010
On 1st December 2009, the Czech Literature Portal launched its new English version (www.czechlit.cz/en).
The regularly updated portal offers information about contemporary Czech authors and their works, and Czech literary life at home and abroad.
The daily updated News section maps literary events, interviews and articles about Czech literature, information on Czech literature abroad, and calls for proposals within the grant programmes of the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic.
The New Books section takes note of new books, both fiction and non-fiction. It covers production from the Czech Republic as well as books by Czech authors and books published abroad about Czech literature.
The Authors section offers information about authors and their works, with currently 250 authors profiled, giving a brief biography, awards, bibliography (books published in the Czech Republic as well as abroad), annotations, extracts, contact details (author, agency/publisher), and links to authors’ websites and reviews.
The Literary links list literary periodicals, awards, festivals and fairs, libraries and archives, educational and research institutes, literary agencies, grants and scholarships.
Literature after 1945 presents the development of contemporary Czech literature (also in French and German versions).
Czech literature abroad gives an overview of support for the publishing of Czech literature, promotion of Czech literature, and information about Czech studies.
Bibliography covers a selection of works of Czech authors in foreign languages in a database searchable by author, original and translated title, publisher, translator, and year of publication, both of the original title and of the translation.
The Portal sends out a regular e-mail newsletter in a Czech and an English version, with information from the News and New Books sections, and profiles of new authors.
The Portal, run by the Arts Institute and financed by the Czech Ministry of Culture, cooperates with the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers, Czech Centres abroad, the Institute for Czech Literature of the Academy of Sciences, literary agencies, cultural and literary periodicals, the daily press, and individual scholars and translators.
Nathalie Clayer, Aux origines du nationalisme albanais. La naissance d’une nation majoritairement musulmane en Europe, translated from the French into the Albanian by Artan Puto: Në fillimet e nacionalizmit shqiptar. Lindja e një kombi me shumicë myslimane në Evropë, Botime Përpjekja, Tirana 2009
Slavenka Drakulić, Two Underdogs and a Cat. Three Reflections on Communism, translated from the English into the Slovak by Jana Juráňová: Myš v Múzeu komunizmu a iné životy pod psa, Aspekt, Bratislava 2009
Georgi Gospodinov, Estestven roman, translated from Bulgarian into Polish by Marta Hożewska-Todorow: Powieść naturalna, Borderland, Sejny 2009
Vasily Grossman, Zhizn i sudba (Life and Fate), translated from Russian into Bulgarian by Zdravka Petrova: Zhivot i s’dba, Fakel Expres and Janet 45, Sofia 2009
Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times. A Twentieth-Century Life, translated from English into Croatian by Damjan Lalović: Zanimljiva vremena. Život kroz dvadeseto stoljeće, Disput, Zagreb 2009
Dževad Karahasan, Izvjestaji iz tamnog vilajeta (Reports From the Dark World), translated from Bosnian into Bulgarian by Paola Ivanova: Vesti ot t’mnija sviat, Paradox, Sofia 2009
Audre Lorde, Poems. Selected and translated from English into Slovenian by Kristina Kočan and Samo Šalamon. With a note & an afterword by Kristina Kočan: Postaje, Založba Škuc & Lambda / 79, Ljubljana 2009
Amoz Oz, Sipur ‘al ahavah ve-hoshekh (A Tale of Love and Darkness), translated from the Hebrew into the Czech and annotated by Michael Žantovský: Příbĕh o lásce a tmĕ, Paseka, Prague 2009
Wilhelm Reich, Die Massenpsychologie des Faschismus, translated from German into Polish by Ewa Drzazgowska and Magdalena Abraham-Diefenbach: Psychologia mas wobec faszyzmu, Wydawnictwo Aletheia, Warszawa 2009
Sasa Sokolov, Škola dlâ durakov (A School for Fools), translated from Russian into Hungarian by Rita Haffner: Bolondok iskolája, Napkút Kiadó, Budapest 2009
For a list of all books published with CEEBP support see our website under BOOKS
- Allianz Cultural Foundation, Munich
- ERSTE Stiftung, Vienna
- Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, The Netherlands
- Matra program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands