Monday, 6 April 2009

Old Books in German - A Rant

The latest issue of New Books in German is online and possibly in your letterbox now, in a jaunty silver to celebrate its 25th issue. As ever, it's full of good stuff - brief reviews of new books from Switzerland, Austria and Germany for publishers to snap up for translation.

But take a look at the section on recent and forthcoming publications. Wait, first get a big shot of alcohol ready to steady your nerves once you've read it. Ready now?

OK. Of the twelve titles listed, two are academic non-fiction, so we'll just leave them out of the equation, no matter how welcome they may be. So we're down to ten, a nice round figure for working out percentages.

And what are the percentages? 80% by dead white men (including Gerd Jonke, who died very recently, which is hardly his fault, but whose Homage to Czerny was first published in German as Schule der Geläufigkeit in 1977). 20% contemporary fiction (a psychological thriller and the winner of last year's German Book Prize). 60% translated by the same two people (the excellent Anthea Bell and HM Waidson, a professor of German literature). 100% published by presses with a strong translation focus (One World Classics, Dalkey Archive Press, Pushkin Press, Harvill Secker, Bitter Lemon Press).

I realise this isn't a definitive list of all the books translated from German and published in the UK this spring. I realise there may be a few that have slipped through nbg's net. I realise I'm a jumped-up oik who thinks the world owes me a living. But what the hell is going on here? Surely I'm entitled to live in a world where publishing people share my narrow-minded passion for contemporary German-language literature? Surely British people walk into airport bookshops on the way to a city break in Vienna, Munich or Berlin wanting to read something German? Surely there are readers out there who can't sleep for yearning for a spot of modern-day teutonic writing? Surely they're just waiting for big publishers they've actually heard of to pick up on some of the great literature being written over here?

And what do they get? Dead white men. Cheers.


Andrew Rickard said...

Hi Katy. Great blog you have here. Bookmarked!

I noticed that seven of the ten titles were written by authors who have been dead for more than seventy years. That puts their work in the public domain.

As Chad points out over at Three Percent, it's not unusual for a literary translation to only sell about 2,000 copies. Take a book that's retailing for $20. Subtract $2 for print costs, then take another $8 to $11 for trade/wholesale discounts, and the publisher is left with about $16,000 to pay the translator, overhead, editorial, marketing and so on.

Perhaps, for some publishers, it's only possible to turn a profit on literary translations when they don't have to buy the rights.

kjd said...

Hi Andrew,

I genuinely hadn't thought of that. How sad.

But to throw another aspect into the equation, many countries will fund translations out of their languages through grant programmes. Which at least significantly reduces one of those cost factors.