A major expansion of Amazon’s translation program will bring a lot more of the world’s literature to English readers

This is good news.
This is good news.
Image: AP/Victor R. Caivano
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This post has been corrected and updated.

Amazon is turning its attention to what was once its core business—books. The e-commerce giant announced Oct. 13 that its imprint AmazonCrossing will receive $10 million over the next five years to fund the translation of books into English.

Since it launched in 2010, the imprint has become the largest publisher of works in translation in the US. It has published 200 titles in translation to date, and plans to release another 77 this year.

“We launched AmazonCrossing five years ago to introduce readers to voices of the world through English-language translations of foreign-language books,” said Sarah Jane Gunter, the publisher of AmazonCrossing, in a prepared statement. “Translated fiction is still a tiny fraction of new publications. Today we are committing $10 million to translations to bring more international writers to new audiences.”

AmazonCrossing has produced the bestselling Hangman’s Daughter series by Oliver Pötzsch, originally in German, and is currently working on Pierced by the Sun, by Like Water for Chocolate author Laura Esquivel, written in Spanish and due out July 2016.

Amazon is already the 800-pound gorilla in the small world of translation into English, but this cash infusion will multiply the company’s impact. As Alex Zucker, co-chair of the PEN America Translation Committee, tells Quartz, $2 million a year is “an enormous amount of money.”

For a book of 80,000 words (which is slightly longer than a standard work), he estimates an upper-end translation might cost $12,000. ​Translators for AmazonCrossing agree in their contracts not to disclose their financial terms, so precise wages aren’t known, a practice he and other literary translators disagree with. ​According to a representative from Amazon, based on the feedback of translators, the company is “previewing a new version of the contract that no longer asks translators to keep financial terms confidential.”

Roughly 2.5% of books published in the United Kingdom were originally written in a language other than English, and estimates in the US are roughly the same. Alexandra Büchler, the director of Literature Across Frontiers, an organization dedicated to intercultural dialogue through literature and translation, called this stat “embarrassingly low.” By comparison, 10.5% of books released in Russia are translated works. In the Netherlands, it’s a whopping 75%, with English as the biggest source language.

Considering the global dominance of English, this makes sense to some extent—there are simply more books written in English. But Amazon’s instinct is right—great writing can come from anywhere, and crowding out non-English-language authors risks turning literature into a one-way street.

It’s unclear how much of the new funding will go to paying translator fees, or how many translated books it will fund. Last year AmazonCrossing was the No. 1 publisher of literature in translation in the US, with 45 titles, and it was No. 2, with 28 titles, the year before, according to the University of Rochester’s Three Percent (a group whose name refers to the low percentage of books published in translation in the US each year). If Amazon were to put most of its money toward paying translators, Zucker points out, “That’s 833 books. That’s an awful lot of books in five years. I don’t think that their editing staff is big enough to handle that.”

AmazonCrossing largely publishes commercial and genre fiction, which literary translators are less likely to work on. And some translators worry that the pace of Amazon’s output will mean contracts awarded to speedier translations, over quality ones.

David Bellos, the director of the program in translation and intercultural communication at Princeton, tells Quartz by email that “any professional literary translator who manages to produce more than four books a year is not doing a very serious job.” Translator Stacey Knecht, who will serve as a judge for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award in fiction (which Amazon underwrites), agrees, saying that a three-month turnaround for a 250-page book is “ridiculous.”

Still, Bellos says, “$10 million for translation can’t be a bad thing.” And for translators looking to make a living, some commercial work for Amazon could be a welcome windfall.

Correction (Oct. 16 9:17 am): A previous version of this post stated that AmazonCrossing requires translators to sign a non-disclosure agreement; in fact, translators agree in their contracts not to disclose the financial terms of their agreements.