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The Non-English Patient

On Saturday, October 7, took part in a panel discussion at the Frankfurt Book Fair entitled "The Non-English Patient" , on the state of translation in the globalised world. The event, hosted by media specialist Rüdiger Wischenbart, featured Esther Allen, compiler of an eye-opening study on translation and today's book industry; Susan Harris of Words without Borders; Anne-Bitt Gerecke of; and Thierry Chervel, founder of's sister site Full info and bios here.

The panel: Esther Allen, Susan Harris, Rüdiger Wischenbart, Anne-Bitt Gerecke and Thierry Chervel

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: Good morning ladies and gentlemen, my name is Rüdiger Wischenbart. Our subject today is one of the key issues of book fairs and today's reading globally in general. You can approach the issue of translation in two very different ways. The one is just with figures. We all know that many books are translated from English, and very few are translated back into English. For the case of German - or French and English: between 55 and 60 percent of translations into our languages have English originals. And at the same time there is a tiny line pointing in the other direction. We have only 3 to 5 percent - so one tenth -of translation back into English. To make things worse, just think of what it means to be Hungarian or Romanian, and how difficult it is not only to find someone to buy, read and translate your books into German or English, but just to communicate with your neighbour in Hungary, Serbia, or Poland. There are almost no translations on that horizontal level. So we are in a very odd situation.

But we can also measure the situation by telling stories. Let me give you one: you have all heard of the wonderful novel "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy. She was a writer in one of the poorest Indian provinces, in Kerala. And it was possible for her, and this is the benefit of globalisation, within a few years to become a worldwide star. However we have to bear in mind: that story could have never happened if Arundhati Roy had written her novel in the local language of Kerala, and not in English.

I have a very outstanding group of people with me. On my right, Esther Allen, who is preparing a centre for translation at Columbia University in New York. She did a survey on the status of translation, which she will present. To her right, Susan Harris, who started a few years ago a website called Words without Borders, a platform where you can find English translations from all over the world. Then to my left, Anne-Bitt Gerecke, who on behalf of Germany runs an initiative called, which promotes German literature for translation. And to my far left, Thierry Chervel, who founded a very important platform in Berlin,, which aggregates on a daily basis cultural news from the existing media. And one and a half years ago he launched a similar service in English, First I want to hand over to Esther, and ask what are the findings when someone starts to survey the status of translation worldwide?

Esther Allen: Well, I did less a survey of the status of translation worldwide than an attempt to establish some sort of definite figures about translation into English. I think it speaks volumes about the current situation that it's so difficult to find these figures. There doesn't seem to be any government organisation that's keeping track of them. Private organisations that try to keep track of them use many different methodologies. All the studies I've been able to locate agree on one thing, that the figures are shockingly low. You had said three to five percent, I think it's actually much lower than that. But no one is really keeping tabs on the situation, and I think that in itself is very indicative. Translation doesn't really exist as a category within the English-speaking world. Just to very quickly share with you a few figures. There is an organisation that keeps tabs on the United States publishing industry and the global English language publishing industry called Bowker. They issued a report in October of 2005 which says that the number of new books published in English worldwide in 2004 was 375,000. That's a fairly gigantic number of books. And I would hazard to guess that's probably more books than are published in any other language. Of these, 14,440 were translations, so significantly less than 5%.

But even that figure is misleading, for example in the US book market alone, there were 4,982 translations. This is everything, Japanese computer manuals, your new car guide from Volvo, everything. 4,982 translations in the United States in 2004. That's less than half of the 12,197 translations reported in Italy. And imagine how much larger the US book market is. So proportionally it's much less. In fact, it's only 400 more than the number of translations reported in the Czech Republic. Given the proportional sizes of the markets, it's very very low.

Now even when you think about a figure of 3% as being very alarming, when you look at literary writing, the figures become far more alarming. A study by the National Endowment for the Arts which focussed only on fiction and poetry for the year 1999, found that in that year, the total number of fiction and poetry translated from all languages in the US, was 297. And this was a year when well over 100,000 books were published in the US. And most alarming of all, the most recent study, done by the Center for Book Culture in Chicago, focussed only on contemporary fiction. Just to give you an idea, looking at the major languages. How many contemporary novels from Germany, Austria and Switzerland have been translated in the last six years? 36, which is an average of six a year. So if you think of the number of contemporary works of fiction that are coming out in those three countries every year, to consider that only six of them get into English is quite shocking. France has the most 8.7 per year, out of the last six years. 52 French novels translated into English in the last six years. And in fact if you know the field at all, it's very surprising to learn that there were as many as 52. It's a real global failure, a failure of globalisation. And it's very exciting for me to be here with three people who are doing something about it.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: Anne-Bitt Gerecke, listening to these figures I thought, you must have a wonderful job. Several of the largest US publishing companies are owned by German mother companies. And you you just need to sell six more books per year and you'll double your sales figure. You'll probably triple if very soon, right?

Anne-Bitt Gerecke
: No, I'm sorry to disappoint you. But I think that there is no link between the German publishers and German literature. Because they are focussing on their public in the US, and they want their books to be bestsellers, or at least a good sellers. And what Litrix is doing is not especially focused on the US market, or even the English speaking market. We try to establish intercultural contact with regions or countries where there hasn't been as much contact with German culture, and German literature especially. We first focussed on regions like the Arab world, and this year we are having an exchange with China. So certainly English is a very important means for us to communicate, but to reach our public in these regions we need other languages. Which means we present books both in Arabic and in Chinese.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: Now translating an entire book is of course a big chunk of work. The most basic requirement would be to spread the word about what's happening on a day-to-day basis. And that's what Thierry Chervel is doing. He started by aggregating cultural pieces from the German press into a website and newsletter. And then he said, oh, that's so interesting, I want to do that in English too. What's the first summary of your experiences?

Thierry Chervel
: The idea is to translate articles from German newspapers into English. Germany has an excellent, very open, very international press. In 2004 there were several very interesting articles by Ukrainian and Polish authors in the German press about the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. So it is in a way a positive step into globalisation. I think that Germany is a very important bridge between cultures, because it is far more open to Eastern Europe than Western European countries or the United States. I'm rather sure that, for example, Imre Kertesz wouldn't have got the Nobel Prize without being discovered here in the German market, and being translated after that into English. One sort of story that happened to is for example that Hans-Magnus Enzensberger wrote a big and important essay about Islamism. We translated it so Ensenzberger could present it in English in the Goethe Institute in New York and participate in an international discussion. Another example is that we translated - in this case from the Hungarian - an interview with Imre Kertesz, and we were called by a Swedish newspaper who translated that into Swedish.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: And we are not talking about the obscure German essayist who wants his little piece about the Black Forest read in New York. So far even Hans-Magnus Ensenzberger and other figureheads have not been read internationally. Is this correct?

Thierry Chervel: If you take a look at the last 50 or 60 years, you can say that the cultural influence of Western European countries was much stronger. Think of Camus, Sartre, Adorno or the French thinkers in the 70s, the French historian school. All of that is a bit lost. At the same time, all the European countries like France and Germany are directed in a sort of obsessive way toward the United States, positively or negatively. This goes so far that there's even a lack of communication between important European countries like France and Germany. The French debate on the European constitution had no echo in the German press, and everybody was extremely surprised at the French No. So there's a lack of awareness, even in important countries in the European Union.

And I think that you need to establish media that use the English language as a neutral base of understanding. India could be a model for other non-English communities. I think it's very important that non-English public spaces take a step into the English language. You know, the only newspaper in the world that would be capable from one day to the next of establishing a European newspaper is The New York Times. Le Monde couldn't do that, Süddeutsche Zeitung couldn't do that. But The New York Times has the International Herald Tribune, which is more or less a newspaper for Americans in Europe. But if they decided to hire European editors, it could very quickly become a European newspaper. This is rather strange. So I think we must take steps into English to be a part of the globalisation process.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: So when you mention the Herald Tribune, which is an icon. I think of Jean-Luc Godard's movie "A bout de souffle" where you have Jean Seberg distributing the New York Herald Tribune on the Champs Elysees. So you want to be the next Jean Seberg, distributing on the Champs Elysees of the Internet. But the question is, how do you do this? You publish the translations of the articles. But that does not mean you reach your audience. As the new Jean Seberg, what do you do for your good looks?

Thierry Chervel
: It's true that the international public is not waiting for But there are means in the Internet which allow you to disseminate information more easily than in traditional media. One of these means is for example magazines like Arts & Letters Daily. When they give a link to an article it's extremely powerful, it gives you 50,000 readers in a day sometimes. For example they gave a link to Hans Magnus Ensensberger's essay, and within hours he had thousands of readers. And this is a very important means. The other means is Google. We had for example a very good, important article which we translated from a Swiss newspaper about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist who died a year or so ago. And when you look for information on Zarqawi in Google, you will find, the translation of a Swiss portrait of Zarqawi. And these are the mechanisms that allow you to spread your message which were not known before the Internet.

Rüdiger Wischenbart: When you try to build a bridge, you start at one side of the river, but you'd better have a good foundation on the receiving end. And I think Words without Borders is such a foundation. Is that a good description of what you started to do, Susan Harris?

Susan Harris
: Well, I wanted to pick up on one thing that Thierry said, when you were talking about Imre Kertesz, and talking about how he was published in German and then picked up by a very small publishing house in England. That was my publishing house. But when Kertesz' Nobel came out, I was not able to celebrate because I had been fired, and my translation programme discontinued the previous March, because translation did not sell and was not worthwhile according to my university. But translation of course should sell. It sells intellectually, artistically, aesthetically. Sometimes it does not sell financially to certain levels. And as a result, if you are going to publish literary translation in the States in English, you need to find a medium in which to do so that will reach the largest number of readers at the lowest possible cost. Not only for the publisher, but also for the readers themselves.

This is much of our mission at Words without Borders. We're an online journal in literature and translation. We publish monthly. Every month has a theme, a country, a language or group of languages, or a topic. We also have 3 articles each issue that are non-theme. We are terrifically concerned about the future of foreign literature in English translation. You heard Esther's shocking statistics. You also know that there is much more interest in the non-English-speaking world in reading foreign literature than there is in the English-speaking world. What the website allows us to do is introduce - 10 to 12 every month - new writers who are not familiar, have perhaps never appeared in English, or have not appeared widely in English.

We're read not only by readers, but also by publishers and editors. And we have become a great source for those English-language publishers who are still working in translation, because it's sometimes very difficult to get an English sample of a book. Because English-language editors often cannot read in the original language, we provide an introduction to work that would otherwise not be available. We know of at least three books that have been bought for translation into English solely on the basis of an editor finding the extract on our site. And also we're very useful for translators. Other publishers come to us for recommendations for translators. So, we're trying very much not only to publish excellent work and be a thrilling publication, but also to serve as a clearing house and a central point for all activities of translation into English.

Rüdiger Wischenbart: Tell us a little bit more about your readership.

Susan Harris: The first month we published, we had 18,000 page views. That means total number of clicks onto a piece. Last month we had 200,000. We are free online. You need not be a member to read us. But we do have memberships. Our subscribers receive our newsletter. We have 6,000 subscribers - in other words people who have gone to the trouble of sending in their email address to get the newsletter. We also have blogs written by a number of writers in other countries around the world.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: What strikes me is that we have a very peculiar situation here, according to what all of you have said. On the one hand we have very clearly no publishers who consider it a good business to do translations. And on the other hand there is quite a substantial readership out there, who are trying to read that stuff. So just talking in a marketing perspective, that tells me there's a problem. The publishers obviously don't realise there is a readership for these books.

Esther Allen: I can respond to that with my own experience. There seems to be a problem of mentality within the US publishing industry that isn't really borne out by fact. One experience I had demonstrates that. For many years I was in correspondence with the Spanish writer Javier Marias. He did not have a publisher in the United States. This was a particularly extraordinary situation, because in 1996 he won the world's richest literary award, the Dublin Impact Award, for 100,000 Irish pounds, for the best book published in English that year, The Harvill Edition of "A Heart So White". So, he had been consecrated as the author of the best book published in the English language in 1996, and could not find a publisher in the United States for several years after that. Finally he was picked up by New Directions publishing. While I would not say he has achieved bestseller status, once New Directions began publishing him with commitment and enthusiasm and energy, he has found a very large number of readers in the United States, and last year was the subject of a profile in the New Yorker.

So what every publisher I took him to in the last three years said was impossible was in fact perfectly possible, with belief and energy and commitment. And I think that the publishing industry in the US is unwilling to invest that commitment in anything but some instant bestseller. So there is that kind of structural issue. And one of the ways we've been trying to address it within the US, is a literature festival at the PEN American Centre which Thierry was a part of, signandsight supported us last year. And what we've proven with that literature festival is that there is a public. Thierry was there, and we filled town hall - which is a 1,500 seat auditorium - to capacity, with people standing in line down the street. So the notion that seems to be very prevalent that there is no audience for this kind of material is completely contradicted by our experience with the literature festival. There is an audience, there is a public, and what we have to address is this kind of structural imperfection that is keeping that audience apart from the work that it's clearly so interested in.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: This reminds me of an analogy. If you go back 15 years or so, before the euro, there was no international currency aside from the US dollar. There was a substantial, self-reliant euro-dollar market - a dollar market outside the US - that was a powerful tool for conducting international business. What I realise out of our debate is there is an English-language readership partly living in the English-speaking world, and partly any place on the globe. And when we talk about translation, and English-language reading and so on, we only think of the two constituencies in the US and the UK. So is there an international English-language readership way beyond the domestic home bases?

Anne-Bitt Gerecke
: Yes, absolutely, as we can see when we get emails from our users from all over the world, from Slovenia, Brazil, Japan. They read our sample translations of German authors in English, and really get caught by these small pieces. And they say "Oh, when will the book be published?" And I know for example in the Scandinavian countries that there's a big group of readers who read English texts as if they were written in their own Scandinavian language. So there is really a readership for whom English as their language of exchange with the world.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: I would be very curious to hear your comments and your thoughts.

Question 1
: I agree we have to work to achieve this change of mentality, because there's a real mental obstacle. I'm from the Institut Ramon Llull, and am in charge of the literary programme of Catalan culture as guest of honour next year here at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And our daily experience is that Catalan authors are well-translated into French, Spanish, German and italian. But there is this obstacle of the English language. And this is why we decided not to concentrate only on our problem, but to address the global issue. We commissioned Esther Allan, who is writing a report which will be ready by January 2007. It's a very challenging report and it's able to raise awareness, because we are not only worried for European literatures which are not translated into English. We are worried for English because we all know that a literature which does not translate is getting weaker and weaker.

And Roberto Calasso was saying in New York just a few months ago that in North America there are many authors who are issuing books that are bad copies of those European authors which are not translated. And he was giving names. And it's a real challenge for all of us. We are going to raise the international awareness of this issue, and we believe that with these counterparts within the US and all the English-speaking countries we can achieve a change of mentality. This would allow publishers in those countries to see that there is a real readership and that it can increase.

Thierry Chervel: That reminds me of the list published in Prospect a year ago of the 100 most important intellectuals in the world. It listed 14 English and 38 American thinkers. 54 of the 100 most important intellectuals in the opinion of Prospect are English-speaking intellectuals. We have to see that as a chance for us. Because we see all the intellectuals they ignore. Let's think only of Hungarian literature, which is extremely rich. Peter Nadas, Kertesz, Esterhazy, all these people were not on this list, but we know they are very important. And so as Europeans we have a knowledge that we can transport, but I think it would be silly not to do it in English.

Question 2
: I'm editor of the Hungarian edition of Lettre International, which used to be a European initiative against the so-called provincialism of the big languages, to demonstrate that there are very valuable literary products in the other, non-English languages. I think it's very symptomatic that this journal exists in several languages except English. I would also like to mention one project meant to promote our literatures and intellectuals. It's called the Hungarian visiting card. These are samples from 77 Hungarian authors translated into 22 languages. And this is practically only a sample of another bigger initiative, which is called Babelmatrix. It's a free online page, and in principle it's able to present samples from all European literatures translated into all European languages.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: And how do you finance all these translations in so many languages?

Question 2: Actually the natural allies for our initiatives are the national book institutes. Because they are all interested in promoting their own authors. So I think it's a little bit similar to the original initiative of Lettre International. Because those who are funding this kind of promotion are mostly interested in their own languages. We work for example with the help of the International Visegrad Fund, which is a combination of the Visegrad countries and their state money. I know the Scandinavian countries also have common funding for their literature.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: A last question to the participants: What can we do to make it easier to finance translation?

Susan Harris: If I knew that, we would not have to be free! We're non-profit. We're entirely grant-supported. We have very little revenue stream. We have a lot of government money. But government money for translation, as Esther can attest, is also rapidly dwindling. We do a lot of foundation work. And I think it is incumbent upon those of us in this community to find, approach and cultivate new sources for funding.

Esther Allen: Well, I think that part of the reason for doing this report is to get a pool of money available within the United States to fund translations. We have a very small pool of money. Somebody actually came forward, it's quite an extraordinary story. Four years ago I wrote a letter to the editor because I was angry. Somebody had written an article about the paucity of translations in the Arab world, with the kind of arrogance: "Of course we who are cosmopolitan and diverse..." So I wrote a letter and said frankly there are no more translations into English than there are in the Arab world, and here are the statistics to prove it. The surprising thing about translation in the English-speaking world is that nobody is aware of the situation. People in the English-speaking world experience their world as diverse, as cosmopolitan, and have quite simply forgotten that there were all these other languages! And someone came forward and gave the organisation I work with 700,000 dollars. Out of the blue, completely unexpected, and said we have to set up a fund and support translation into English. So there is an awareness on the part of donors is that this is this is a very pressing issue. And what we're trying to do with this report is get more money and really create a fund that could have a significant impact. Because I feel I'm being contradicted by God: "No, you will not have a significant impact."

Thierry Chervel
: It's clear that today there is also a revolution of information economies. All newspapers are afraid of loss of sales, and advertisement. The Internet creates a radically new situation. It's clear that services like eurozine or or Words without Borders can't work without funding. I'm afraid that the EU is extremely bureaucratic, and you have to hope there will be other sources in Europe where it is more easily available. It's very interesting to see that for example a Catalan institute makes this sort of active policy. And perhaps you might find funding easier in such regional contexts than in international contexts. So perhaps you have to try to bundle regional forces to get more weight in funding.

Anne-Bitt Gerecke
: I think the idea of building bigger networks is important. We've already started a little cooperation with Words without Borders. We provide them with sample translations of German authors that they regard as important for US readers. And we have links to each other. I think it's important to show there's a global interest in literature being translated from different languages into different languages, that it's not a one-way street only translating things from other languages into English.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
: I'm happy we can close on a positive note, and also that we know and can prove that there is readership, a substantial readership - 200,000 page visits per month in just a few years. So please, keep reading. Thank you very much, and have a nice fair.

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