Two of the panels I attended at this year’s ALTA specifically addressed one of the central problems of publishing work in translation: finding the funds to pay for it. The PEN Translation Committee-sponsored panel “Translation and Money,” moderated by Jennifer Zoble, brought together representatives from two funding agencies (Jadranka Vrsalovic Carevic of the Institut Ramon Llull, and Denis Quénelle from the cultural service of the Consulate General of France), two publishers (Russell Scott Valentino of Autumn Hill Books and Gabriella Page-Fort of Amazon Crossing) and two translators (Valentino, wearing one of his other hats, and Jason Grunebaum).
The biggest kicker of the panel came at the end, when Zoble asked the audience how many of them live entirely off their translation work, i.e. don’t have day jobs. Approximately 25% of the 110 people in the room (Translationista estimate™) raised their hands; but when Zoble asked how many of those lived off literary translation, only three hands stayed up, including one belonging to someone who quickly went on to explain that her spouse’s higher salary made her choice of profession feasible.
There are a number of subsidies available to help support translators, and apparently not all of them are being fully taken advantage of. The Institut Ramon Llull has long been known for its support of translations of Catalan literature, and the French government, also a long-time subsidizer of translations, has recently undertaken an initiative to expand its outreach about its funding programs; Quénelle said that approximately 20% of the translations published in the U.S. are of books written in French. Both Vrsalovic Carevic and Quénelle reported that reaching potential beneficiaries was a recurring concern in their line of work. Both agencies offer not only subsidies for the translations themselves but also travel grants for authors and grants to publishers to use for promotion and marketing, since publishing a book isn’t enough to guarantee it will reach its audience. Valentino said he regularly organizes reading tours with authors and/or translators when a book he publishes comes out.
In fact a substantial portion of the discussion centered on the need for marketing. Valentino quoted translator Ellen Elias-Bursac, who’d recently pointed out to him that British publisher Christopher MacLehose pretty much invented the concept “Scandinavian Crime Fiction.” Page-Fort, whose imprint publishes translations of popular fiction as well as well as more literary titles, said that translators approaching publishers should always talk about who the likely audience for the work is. And it clearly can’t hurt to investigate in advance whether any subsidies are available to help with a publisher’s expenses.
Finally the question came up of the fundamental inequalites in the translation of international literature: Obviously books from countries whose governments offer subsidies get translated at a much higher rate than those from countries lacking this assistance. So what does this do to to the landscape of international literature as viewed from, say, Chicago? Valentino pointed out that for this very reason the selection process for NEA Translation Grants tends to favor lesser translated languages, and I have informally observed the same phenomenon while serving on the jury for the PEN/Heim grants. I think it’s important that we all (as translators, publishers and readers of international literature) keep reminding each other of all the wonderful books constantly being written in the languages that happen not to be economic blockbusters. And don’t forget that the arts council of the state you live in might offer grants as well, as does NYSCA for example – it’s not only on the national and international levels that help can be found. ALTA really ought to put together an updated list of grant opportunities, perhaps inspired by the one the French Embassy’s Cultural Services division has put online.
And remember that literary magazines remain a valuable way to get the word out about foreign-language authors whose work excites you. The upshot of the “Literary Magazine Editors Roundtable” I went to (the one concentrating on prose translations) was that magazine editors remain extremely receptive to receiving submissions of work in translation. The most important thing is that it be work you’re passionate about and that the translation display the energy of your enthusiasm – an editor should be able to grasp pretty quickly, reading your translation, why this author’s work has you so excited. Most magazines ask you to accompany submissions with a letter certifying that you have permission to publish the work in translation. This request is based on a misunderstanding, so that’s something I’ll write about in another blog entry soon and link back to it here when I’m done.