American readers and foreign fiction

Less than 3 percent  of all the books published in the U.S. every year are works translated into English from other languages. Many are reprints of classics like Kafka or Tolstoy and others are often academic works.

Why don’t American readers have more of an appetite for foreign fiction? An article from The Beast tried to find an answer but discovered that while various theories have been put forward, it’s impossible to find a definitive answer. Is it the result of a lack of foreign language teaching in schools, the low percentage of citizens who hold a passport or the multi-cultured nature of the country?

It’s a question that could well be asked of readers in Britain. I don’t know the statistics but from my experience of book shopping both sides of the Atlantic, it’s easier to get books in translation here than in an American bookshop. That doesn’t mean the shelves are groaning with translated works (hence why I’ve struggled to get some of the titles on my Reading the Equator list) but there is more choice.

For those of you who hail from across The Pond, I’d love to know what your experience is if you have an interest in writers from other parts of the world. Do you feel constrained in your selections at all? What do you think of the  theories in The Beast?

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on February 4, 2015, in world literature and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. The UK isn’t that much better – I think about 5 or 6% of books published here are in translation. Proximity to mainland Europe and being a former colonial power I think mean we should be way better at it than we are. It’s getting a tiny bit better recently, I believe, thanks to the popularity of scandi crime, but I still find like some other commenters here that most people I speak to are put off reading a book if it’s a translation, as if that automatically makes it in some way “hard”. I’m not sure how to counter that other than talking the good stuff up as much as I can!

    • I’ve encountered that reaction also. If I say I’m reading a book by an author from anywhere other than UK or USA I get the furrowed brow look. I don’t read much crime fiction but I have a strong feeling that if I mentioned one of the Scandi authors then their very popularity would make them acceptable,

  2. This question is really a question from the English-speaking world.

    I’m French and in France, there’s no issue. Bookstores are full of translated fiction, mostly from the English but also from other European countries. Here you buy a book, not a translated or non-translated book.
    It’s a real cultural difference because our literature is rich enough to read just French books your whole life but no reader would do it.

    PS: I’m used to subtle book covers (for example, white with the title and a work of art as Stu pointed out) and I find UK and US covers for literary fiction terrible. They are often corny and convey a false image of the novel they’re supposed to advertise. They let the book down and book covers become packaging like for cookies. They don’t give the impression that what’s behind the cover is art or an attempt at art.

  3. I love translated literature. I’ve run the Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its final run, for eight years. I’ve read the books on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize list for two years. But I think my passion lies in part from feeling “an alien in a strange land.” (I read that in Exodus last night, isn’t it a great phrase?!) The problem is that I don’t feel very American, if American is defined as loud and big and vulgar. I crave quiet and introspective, which doesn’t feel very American at all, or certainly is in the minority of what is heard.

    The other problem lies in having so little access to translated literature. I live in a town, city really, of over 250,000 people, yet our prize winning library (by whose standards, I have no idea) carries hardly any translated literature. I have to order it for my kindle, which gets expensive, all the things that roughghosts said above.

    Still, I am undaunted. When I was seventeen I was the only girl I knew to have read Madame Bovary in our high school; I won’t stop looking for books outside what “everyone else is reading” now. 🙂

    I’m so glad to have a place, our blogs, to share this passion with others such as yourself. xo

  4. I think there are a lot of little things that add up. On the whole, I don’t believe Americans are adverse to literature in translation. It is very hard to find out about books in translation here unless you go looking for them specifically. Americans also tend to like to read books by authors they have heard about before so when people from other countries win big awards and the publicity gets out, the author/book has been “approved” and being known is more likely to be read. And I think roughghosts’ observation that we tend to like books with redemptive or moral qualities is true. And while I enjoy books with an ambiguous ending, most people I know want their books to be wrapped up in a neat package with no strings hanging. On the bright side, after Modiano won the Nobel, I checked my public library for his books. They had a couple on order and the hold requests for them were already getting large.

    • Ease of availability does seem to be one of the big issues and not just over your neck of the woods Stefanie. I was in Oxford about a year ago and went into Blackwells with a list of African authors absolutely sure that I would find them given the city’s status as a premiere centre of learning. No such luck though I did walk away with a few Japanese authors. I repeated the experience in Foyles in london – same thing. I got to wondering whether it was literature just from certain countries that was the issue.

  5. For me it’s the sheer overwhelming number of books that are published every year in America. Translations aren’t highlighted as translations except on the covers and often times I’ve been surprised to find the novel I’m reading has been translated.

    This goes nothing to say for the insulation of the country, especially when it comes to books published in foreign languages. I know I struggle to find books in Spanish, although it has grown exponentially since high school, and this changes geographically as well. I know Boston has more than where I grew up in NC and I’m sure Texas has even more, but libraries are generally well stocked.

  6. I think part of the reason is the size of the US. You can find fairly distinct literature within this country… literature from the South is different than literature from the West, for example. On top of that, I agree that this country is fairly insulated. I can drive for 20 hours and still be in the same country; if I drive for 20 hours in Europe, I am likely to be in a different country. I wish there were a greater overall curiosity about life outside of the US. It was interesting to read in The Daily Beast that publishing houses here usually don’t have an editor for foreign literature. That’s too bad!

    • If you drive for 20 hours in continental europe you may well have crossed more than one country! Fair enough that west coast USA is rather different from east coast or the midwest but the tv stations are still the same and the chain stores sell the same stuff..

  7. I wonder if the closeness of England to continental Europe, geographically, also has something to do with it? So many Brits, not just the wealthy, holiday regularly in Spain, France, Majorca, Croatia, Germany, etc., whereas in the US it’s a lot harder and more expensive for most people to get to another country, so there’s just less exposure.

    That’s one theory, anyway, but I grew up in the US and now live in the UK, and I’ve certainly found that the idea of going to another country is a Big Deal in the US in a way that it just isn’t, over here.

    • we are certainly in a privileged position in the UK because within a few hours we can be in an entirely different country. It took me many years before I learned one reason why Americans didn’t travel much outside the country – holiday entitlements from their employers are so much lower than those in Europe.So if you have only 14 days holiday a year then blowing it all on one trip to Europe isn’t that appealing. Which means they don’t get exposed to other cultures.

  8. This is something i often wonder about. Why don’t we read more books in translation? And more to the point, why don’t I? For one, there are so many great books written in English that I know i will never get to them all. Secondly, they aren’t covered in the press, so they are harder to ‘discover’. Recently a lot of Scandinavian crime has been appearing everywhere, but that is a genre I’m not likely to read. But i do need to do something to resolve this issue.

    • very true Tanya, works in translation don’t get much coverage so they are much harder to discover, especially through mainstream media which barely cover books anyway let alone ‘foreign’ ones. If it wasn’t for a number of bloggers who do read works in translation then I wouldn’t know about many of them

  9. I’m not sure I have any answers from you except perhaps that England is by proportion made up of many different nationalities and therefore there is a bigger perceived market for people wanting fiction from their ‘homeland’ even if they now speak English? Reading your post and the comments has been really interesting!

    • UK is indeed very multicultural but then the author of that article in The Beast said the same thing about USA – after all there are high levels of people with Irish, Italian origin just to name a few countries.

  10. I have a few thoughts here. Americans can be very insular (and I am American born though I have spent most of my life in Canada which is also dominated by US media, literature). There is also often a preference for literature with a redemptive or moral message, something that is not always evident in the literature of countries with more recent challenging circumstances. This is a pet peeve of mine with Canadian literature too where a great book is so often dragged down by the need to have a meaningful denouement, paddling off into the sunset. I am drawn to literature that leaves the reader with something to chew on, even if it is unsettling. International literature seems to offer more interesting and intriguing work in that regard. Yet, as Stu points out, people often assume that works in translation are all dense heavy tomes, a la the classics of Russian literature. Many are brilliantly spare, short and easy to read. But they transport the reader to different places.

    Another issue is access. One of my pet areas of interest is South African literature. Now I have plenty of access to blogs, literary reviews and online discussions of literature in South Africa. But what I can access varies greatly. Sometimes I can get French or German translations but not the English (even if English is the original language or an English translation of an Afrikaans work exists). I have no issues with ordering from the UK, but ordering from SA is sketchier. As a result their literary authors don’t get the exposure, reinforcing the idea that it is a small market and, interestingly encouraging the publication of more mediocre works because expectations are low at home.

    I don’t have much income at the moment but as books are my only luxury (read: obsession) I am trying to support the small publishers who are taking a risk with interesting work (in English as well as in translation). For instance I recently read The Alphabet of Birds by SJ Naudé (SA, translated from Afrikaans) which is published by And Other Stories. This little UK/US publisher focuses on bringing original and translated work to a wider audience and does so in part through subscription support and reader engagement. I subscribed to support 4 books per year. It cost about $60 CDN but that will mean I receive 4 titles about 3 months before release date, delivered for free. If I can find paper copies here they run about $20-$24 each. Not a bad deal and exciting to feel part of a process. With online blogs and journals that focus on works in translation I believe the market is potentially one of growth, but the work, even in e-book format, has to available to interested readers.

    Sorry, I think I wrote more than your original post. 🙂

    • No apology necessary ‘Rough Ghosts’ when you’ve given us so much to think about. Availability is certainly a factor. The day after Modiano was announced as the Nobel winner this year I went looking for something by him. But even though I was in a university city none of the three book shops I tried had a single work to offer me.
      I’ll have a look at that publisher – it sounds good value.

  11. I don’t think I have any good answers — but it is a good question. When I was young, lived abroad and then returned home, I found my countrymen to be horribly insulated. Some remain that way. Yet, I know so many well-travelled friends and young people. Travel and tourism are so available, I wonder why the literature hasn’t spread in the same way the travel has. One answer may be that mid- level books are evaporating so small publishing houses are left to offer many of the international titles. That chipping away at the middle level may weigh heavier against the chances of international lit getting published than English lang. lit. I did try Europa books two years ago, (a small American house that specializes in International lit) but felt I was reading those books in a vacuum; no one to share thoughts with.

    • I’m sure economics and the accountants have an influence Barbara. The money people at publishing houses will challenge choices of lesser known authors on the basis why take a punt on something thats unknown when you can go for a sure fire success from one of the big names.

  12. Er I think it’s hundred little things some big some small to why America maybe more than UK reads less books in translation for me main problem is how translated fiction is viewed and that is as challenge or alien in a lit of readers eyes five years into blogging about books in translation I do see small changes especially here in the UK

    • I asked a question at our book club last year Stu whether people were put off from reading a book if the author had a foreign sounding name (we were reading Chimimanda Adichie’s Americanah at the time. surprisingly to me, the majority of people said yes and in fact a number of people had decided not to read the book just on the author’s name.

      • I do wonder if french way of producing books with little cover art and all fairly similar cuts this out . I seen some shops sell books wrapped with just labels with snippets about book no more

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