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Cultural diversity? A pipe dream

Rüdiger Wischenbart gives a quick overview of the realities behind book translation.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions entered into force on March 18. Rüdiger Wischenbart gives a quick overview of the realities behind translation.

The most stunning figure I have come across lately is this: translations of books from English into German have decreased by roughly half in one decade. In 1995, 7,815 books were translated into German (of some 80,000 new titles that year). In 2005, despite more new titles than ever, only 3,691 new English translations were done. And Germany was and probably still is translating more foreign books than any other nation.

Paradoxically, in that same period, globalisation soared. The debate on US cultural dominance, or, think British, of Harry Potter, the smashing prevalence of Anglo-Saxon ideas and stories, was perceived as a threat of "homogenization" (this term for a truly global anxiety) against all other cultures and nations.

Yet, at least for books, be they fiction or non-fiction, the undeniable process of globalisation resulted in an overall decrease in the number of books being translated from one language into another. And the more one dives into numbers, the more complex – or confused – the picture gets.

Only one basic trend has been broadly debated, the global success of English. It is true that today, anywhere between 50 and 60 percent of all translations of books originate from English originals. In small markets the number can be even higher, as for instance in (politically pretty much anti US and anti UK) Serbia, where an online book retailer, based on statistics from the Serbian National Library, found that even 70 percent of all books translated into Serbian have English originals.

By contrast, only 3 to 6 percent of all translations are done into English. This also underlines how centrifugal forces are working against globalisation, resulting in culturally fragmented islands and regions, with few cohesive lines in between.

The British daily The Guardian recently noted: "What people in the countries think remains something of a mystery. British people travelling to those countries tell British audiences and readers what to think about them while the locals provide the sound bites." What people think and write, not in the Balkans but in the much wider, more diversified Arabic or Islamic world remains not only a mystery, but a sort of taboo - forbidden and inaccessible knowledge - as virtually no books are translated from Arabic originals into other languages, let alone into English.

The strange thing, however, is that building benevolent bridges does not really help. Serving as a director of communication at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2001, only a month after 9/11, I had to notice that nobody bothered to check out the stands and books of Arab publishers. Today, too, hardly anybody bothers to translate contemporary Arab or Islamic writing systematically.

After digging through a huge amount of statistics on worldwide translation, reading, bestsellers and book exports in order to better understand the international side of book markets, I come to a frankly blunt and sober conclusion: Translations don't follow cultural ideals, but power lines. People don't normally read what moral authorities such as political leaders recommend, but what they consider either "important", "opportune", "fun" or, ideally, all three.

Little echo of the heroic efforts of the past to foster national reconciliation between Germans and French after World War II through the translations of books can be found in today's book markets. In 2005, a mere 9.4 percent of all translations into German came from French originals (less than the numbers of children's books translated from various languages into German in that same year). Yet this still brings French comfortably to second place in the overall translation statistics in Germany, as compared to 2.7 percent for Italian (number 3), or Dutch (2.5 percent, number 4) or Spanish (2.3 percent, number 5). Sixty-two percent of all translations were of English originals. All other languages and cultural in-roads seem like peanuts in comparison, and no politically well intentioned process will ever mend this imbalance.

A very similar pattern is seen in a French translations. According to Livres Hebdo in 2006, 58 percent of French translations from English originals, as compared to 7.2 percent from German, or a mere 0.2 percent from Polish.

Even worse is the situation between smaller languages. Between neighbouring countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the 'horizontal' flows of books comprises a tiny trickle, making up on average less than one or two percent of all translations in those countries.

However, these trends are hardly noticed even by a culturally interested public. Translations only hit the headlines, as in Germany most recently, when publishers and translators confront each other over the poor economics of literary translation. In a controversy triggered by the stunning success of Alessandro Baricco's "Seta" ("Silk" - originally published in Italian by Rizzoli in 1996, and in a German translation by Karin Krieger by Piper in 1997) translators argue that their payment is simply unfair. Cases are put forward of award winning translators who earn an average income of not more than 1,000 euros per month. Their publishers answer with cost calculations per title, arguing convincingly that any further increase in translation costs may only end up further reducing the number of titles translated. Now both sides are pinning their hopes in a court settlement.

This is nothing less than absurd. At a time when the cake is getting smaller every year, translators and – predominantly independent - publishers are the ones who bear almost all the risk, for which in most cases they are not rewarded. On a terrain such as the book market where turnovers are steadily decreasing, neither side can win. The wrong battle is taking place between the wrong parties.

Over the past decade – just as book translations started to decline – reading has conversely become an increasingly multilingual practise. A glimpse at the international start page of Wikipedia points us to a polyglot world where 349,000 user-generated Polish articles match 202,000 Spanish, 328,000 Japanese and 543,000 German equivalents. The stage, however, is not set primarily by libraries, or publishers – not even those huge global and multimedia conglomerates that have formed over the past decade. Change is arguably more driven by companies that organize audiences, not content, like Google, Amazon or eBay.

The problem is less that translations or translated books are too expensive, but that they do not reach the interested, yet dispersed audience that exists for them.

A highly diverse and fragmented reading audience does exist, as is shown by the ever increasing complexity of bestseller profiles or by the only emerging patterns of preferences in the 'Long Tail' of globally millions of available titles. Independent music labels and movie festivals worldwide have brought about convincing evidence that audiences are in fact ready to get interested in new works, be they from Outer Mongolia or inner-city Paris. And reading platforms like are a huge success. Now readers will expect the same from books, to represent the entire world, and be available from everywhere, and anywhere.

The success of a few internationally acclaimed titles, however, masks the wider paradox of how free interchange between markets, cultures and languages is drying up. With the decline of translations of books, a centrepiece of book culture, namely their universality and diversity, is at risk. A turf war between publishers and translators can't resolve the fundamental riddle of the current implosion of the translation market. We probably need to acknowledge that for a growing number of books, we may have a potentially interested reading audience, but no viable business model in a purely market-driven book economy. Thus, the traditional rights markets alone are not enough to organize a universal network of books and ideas through translation. And the public funding offered by many countries for translations is not enough either to bridge the widening gap between cultural expectations and the economic obstacles.


The article originally appeared in German on Perlentaucher on March 16, 2007.

Rüdiger Wischenbart lives and works in Frankfurt and Vienna as a consultant and journalist. He is founder of the Department of Applied Cultural Studies at the Donau Universität Krems in Austria, which he directed 1995 – 1997. Rüdiger Wischenbart provides consultancy support to cultural and industry institutions in Europe and the USA through his organisation Content and Consulting.

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