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Is it Cultural? To my understanding, the top 5 reasons we don’t publish more nonfiction in translation.

Claire Pershan Posted by Claire Pershan, Editorial Intern, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Intern in the editorial department and a recent graduate of Pomona College, Claire is enjoying the cool weather in San Francisco before leaving to work as a Global Academic Writing Fellow at New York University in Abu Dhabi. 

Is it Cultural?   To my understanding, the top 5 reasons we don’t publish more nonfiction in translation.




             Though appreciation for the value and art of translation is growing in the United States, the number of translated books published in the US every year is small. Only about 3% of the books published in The United States, a country famous for its diversity and immigrant history, were originally written in other languages. (For more on this topic, by the way, read anything by Chad Post.)

            Most of these translated titles are fiction and poetry, leaving an even smaller fraction to translated nonfiction. University presses and independent publishing houses are responsible for putting out most of the works in translation we see.

            The world is shifting shape—it is increasingly globalized and cosmopolitan, and the audience for books by non-English speaking authors is increasing with these changes. So why isn’t there more translated nonfiction? Here are the most common publishing answers to this question, plus one more that I believe to be the biggest obstacle.

 1. Language barrier: Editors that can’t read the original language text have to decide if they’re going to invest time and money in translating a portion of the text for appraisal. Editors are forced to outsource their opinions, asking friends and colleagues who can read the necessary languages.

2. Cost: Translation costs are high, and there are few grants for nonfiction. For this reason, the presses publishing translations almost always rely on outside support. Particularly given this added price, publishers want to hold all of the rights to their titles. However, texts arriving in translation, if they have been published at a foreign press, may only offer the rights to certain regionsForeign authors are less well known: They lack a large platform in America. On top of which, its tough to get mass-market reviews. Review media outlets dedicate little space to translation. One interesting change in this area is that bloggers are more willing to review and feature books in translation.

3. Fear of bad translations: Good, faithful translations, it is said, are hard to come by. Personally, I disagree. First, the improvements in translation technology and language databases, though not the end of translation error, are a huge asset to working translators. Finally, if precision of language is the end goal, then why are works of translated fiction and poetry more popular than nonfiction, which by nature should rely less on sentence level fidelity?

4. Theory vs. practicality: The convergence of these factors means that the majority of foreign books that make it through to potential publication tend to be theoretical and complex—more academic or high brow in nature. They argue various facets and aspects of issues and have a much broader foundation of core arguments. American nonfiction audiences, by and large, are not looking for dense, theoretical arguments, but rather for simplicity and a narrow focus.


And finally, my theory, which I’m eager to hear your thoughts about: 


          Could it possibly be cultural difference?


          Whether you see language diversity as a cause or a merely symptom of cultural diversity, the truth is that books in translation come from different cultural contexts, different continents, different perspectives. To my mind, this is one of their added values. A book on leadership written by an Indian author will offer tools and practices that an American author might not consider. Same with a book on happiness by a French author, or a book on environmentalism by an Ecuadorian author.

          A lot of people have complained that the reason more nonfiction books by foreign authors, at least in the areas of business and economics, don’t get published is because of good old American hubris. But think it’s a bit more complicated. I disagree with the reasoning that American readers don’t read more translations simply because we are lazy or culturally biased.

         When it comes to a book, we have a precise notion of what that book should look like, what it should be about, how we should promote it, how it should operate in the reader’s hands. American publishers are used to publishing American books. Soon, perhaps, the whole world will be used to this as well. Yet increasing our search for and our discussion of translated nonfiction can help expand our cultural understanding of nonfiction, and strengthen our grasp of the book as a fundamental human resource. This growth will benefit publishers, authors, and readers the world over.