Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Will `indy' e-books kill translated fiction?

The estimable Christa Faust wonders what the rise of electronic and independent publishing will mean for translated fiction:

“If `indy' eBooks are the wave of the future, will translation and foreign editions become a thing of the past? Will each country (or each group of people who share a common language) become like a literary island, reading only their own books?”
Christa's apprehensions appear to me plausible, at least in the short term. The exacting labor of translation seems ill-suited to the supposedly liberating amateurism of electronic self- and independent publishing.

Will translators want to bring their skills to bear on a publishing model whose financial return is uncertain at best? If not, what will happen to the market for translated writing?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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21 Comments:

Blogger Juri said...

I posted a short comment on Christa's blog. I said there this: what I believe is going to happen that big publishers are going to do only translations of bestsellers.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Juri said...

And, oh, congratulations on the choice of the illustration! :)

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had a feeling you might notice the illustration. Money Shot's German edition -- titled Hardcore Angel -- would not have worked as well to illustrate this post. Its title is too comfortably Indo-Eurpean for people to realize it's a translation.

My tentative guess is the same as yours. Now that e-publishing is a market force, economies of scale will operate as they always have, and bestsellers will get translated at the expense of midlist and smaller titles.

February 15, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

For that matter, and since the ultimate motive to publish is selling books, there is no reason why Independent publishers should not attempt to get a slice of the pie.
The point about translation cost is that this most likely comes out of the author's advance. In other words, advances from foreign publishers tend to be very modest.
Of course, if the Independent publisher already pays a tiny advance to authors who don't need translation, then there doesn't seem to be much point in it.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger C.B. James said...

I think it's too early for despair. There may be plenty of volunteer translators out there anxious for their chance to do a good turn and to get their name out there.

I'm thinking of Librivox.org which uses this model to get audio recordings of books on their site, all available for free. Granted, all of the books there are public domain at this point.

I'm hopeful. I'm also a fan of literature in translation.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

C.B., it may be too early for despair, but it's not too early for alarm. And it's never too early to dissent from giddy optimism that consumer electronics and technology will set us free and make this a better world..

Volunteer translators might help in the case of short stories or even, just possibly, of longer works by authors who might not otherwise be considered by bigger publishing houses. But how many volunteers will be willing to take on the work of translating a novel? And even if some do, the public might wind up reading student exercises rather the work of professionals.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Lauren said...

I translate bits and pieces in my free time for fun, and I occasionally get paid; I'm looking into doing it more seriously. But a lot of translators are freelancers, and have to earn a living somehow; translating novels for fun which may or may not be published is an awfully expensive hobby, simply in terms of what paid work could be accomplished in the same time.

And I have to say this - there are a lot of bilingual people out there who think they can translate. I'm sure they can in terms of getting information across, but producing a reasonable, readable book is a skilled piece of work, and just in my day-to-day life I see an awful lot of dreck...

(Whether my own work is dreck, I leave for others to decide - I haven't had many complaints thus far, but I'm just getting started on a very small scale. Actually, I'm translating a novel for fun, because I want the practice and really like the book - which I won't name here - but given the time I have to put in as someone with a full-time job versus the time it takes to do....I wouldn't count on this as a way to get a lot of translated fiction out there!

And for academics, the extent to which translations are valued are a career-boosting activity is highly variable - I wouldn't stake my research career on it.)

February 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Sorry, but I'm not getting the trend of this. Who is publishing translated works and paying for translators now? The ebook format doesn't really change this model. The big houses like Random House will take on the perceived moneymakers, and the small dedicated houses like Europa and Bitter Lemon will take the risks. Ebooks may actually help them cut down on their costs and risk to some degree.

I'm pessimistic for the continued printed book format, but not for the book in general, at least as things stand now. I'm seeing a lot of small publishers who basically do ebooks only, becaause it's financially possible for them to do it that way.

I don't have an ereader, but I do hear a lot of why people like them. Number one being that people who travel a lot can take a lot of books with them, second that they can spring for the ebook version of a hot new hardback more easily and sooner than waiting for the paperback, and third, that they are easier to hold while reading in bed. There's also the ability to change font size, and the built in dictionary. The appeal of the traditional book as book seems to have little sway with people who have made the transition. They seem to grow attached to their readers in the same way, or a similar way, that we holdouts have grown attached to the book as physical object.

I think my main concern is that non-bestsellers will gradually become only available in eformats, and those of us who want to 'read outside the box' will be forced to make that transition.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., do translation costs really come out of the author's advance? I'd find that shocking. If course, I also find it shocking that some publishers expect authors to pay for promotion, editing and indexing of their own books.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

... translating novels for fun which may or may not be published is an awfully expensive hobby, simply in terms of what paid work could be accomplished in the same time.

Lauren: Right, which is why I have to guess that at least in the short term, the amount of translated fiction will drop off, especially in the midlist.

As you suggest, good translation is an exacting skill not easily adapted to the unpaid, good-enough-for-Wikipedia ethic that seems to prevail on the Internet. Nor do see it, at least for now, being of much use to authors who are working hard to publish their own work in e-zines. The shift to electronic publishing may put more short fiction out there than before, but I'd wager that almost none will get translated.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I think Christa's concern is more that as the shrinking number of publishers and the greater emphasis on best-sellers forces more and more authors to publish their work themselves, less and less of that work will get translated.

I know almost nothing about the economics of publishing, but I wonder where those smaller publishers who do e-books only will be able to contribute to the cost of translation.

I think my main concern is that non-bestsellers will gradually become only available in eformats, and those of us who want to 'read outside the box' will be forced to make that transition.

I agree with this, too. I hope I never have to make that transition.

February 15, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Peter, my advances from foreign publishers run between 1,000 and 5,000 dollars. The explanation is, of course, that the publisher has to pay a translator. Just how much a translator makes I don't know.

However, a good translator is absolutely crucial to the success of the book. I give credit to my French translator, for example, for the success of the series in France. (That, and the fact that my French publisher actually promotes and gets the books reviewed in the press). My German translators were inadequate to the job, primarily because they were unfamiliar with the culture. The series failed there.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., your comment highlights a question I had left unspoken: To what extent do conditions vary from country to country? Did you just luck into a good French translator and publisher, or do French publishers in general handle such matters better than publishers elsewhere?

February 15, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Right, but I think the big publishers being risk averse is the factor, not ebooks. I'd like to blame ebooks for everything, but I really can't. Ebooks are simply a format. Big houses, little houses and self-publishers all use them and will use them more. If a little indy book suddenly becomes big, ala Larsson, trust me, the big houses will find a translator for them. But Americans are not the best supporters of works in translation at any time, in my experience. There are certrain trends and fashions that break out, but they don't seem to lead to a more cosmopolitan world view over the long run. I know--a vast overgeneralization.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the proper target is probably self- and independent publishing rather than e-books. It's common to argue that publishers are becoming more risk-averse, that writing fiction as a profession may be dying, and that fewer and fewer mid-list authors are being signed and promoted. I'm not saying these arguments are true, just that many people make them. I think Christa simply takes these observations and wonders how they will affect translated fiction.

I hope to get some non-Americans to weigh in on how this issue comes to bear on their countries. And I agree that current trends might lead to a narrowe world view -- precisely the opposite of what the technology boosters will tell you.

February 15, 2011  
Blogger Lauren said...

One thing I can see happening more in the short term is an expansion of that annoying habit of publishing books from series in the order "most likely to be a hit" instead of chronologically. Which works sometimes, but in other cases can really frustrate the reader.

Obviously there's much more translation going on *from* English than *into* it, and I can't see that changing in a hurry, because even very fluent speakers of a foreign language often prefer to read for fun in their native language. So it's English speakers who will (continue to) miss out. There's no real reason, based on population/market share, that I can already read twice as much Nordic fiction in German than in English - except that if you're already set up to translate from one major language, it doesn't require a major mindset shift to translate from others too.

And as has already been mentioned here, you need good translations to interest readers - and hoping for enthusastic amateurs and/or paying peanunts is not going to do it, and could in the longer term do even more damage to the cause. That is, if a bad translation sells badly, it won't have the ideal effect of encouraging better translation; it'll probably lead to some publishers giving up on translations altogether.

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

hoping for enthusastic amateurs and/or paying peanunts is not going to do it, and could in the longer term do even more damage to the cause.

One author who responded to this post via e-mail makes the point that most foreign rights are sold not by the author but by publishers to other publishers. Combine that with a shift to independent publishing and, at the very least, I would not see the situation improving in the immediate future for translated fiction.

February 16, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Another factor here is the role of government arts councils. In Canada the cost of translation can be paid for by the Canada Council. At the moment only qualified publishers can get this money. Usually qualified means they pay an advance and have a minimum print run of a thousand copies.

But as e-books (and POD) take up more of the market print runs won't be such an issue.

It will certainly take a while for organizations like the Canada Council to catch up, but they might.

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, John. I'd never considered that. Government cultural institutes also help pay for a lot of the translations that Bitter Lemon Press publishes. I have no idea how open arts officials would be to considering changes in publishing when they make their grant decisions.

February 16, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I know that in Canada the film grant agencies have started to make adjustments for online distribution and other changes to that industry (and I can't imagine Canada is a leader, we must be following someone else's lead).

But for whatever reason, self-made movies, like self-recorded music have always been treated differently than self-published books.

February 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"(and I can't imagine Canada is a leader, we must be following someone else's lead)."

Typical self-effacing Canadian.

"But for whatever reason, self-made movies, like self-recorded music have always been treated differently than self-published books."

Perhaps because books enjoy a cachet that other forms of cultural production don't. Record an album in your garage and distribute it yourself, and you could be a genius. Do the same with a book, and you're a nut. A hurdle for authors to overcome?

February 16, 2011  

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