Half of all translated books in the US come from just nine countries

Over 600 translated books were published in the US in 2018.
Over 600 translated books were published in the US in 2018.
Image: AP/Jens Meyer
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In 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations, quite the feat for a country that has long been accused of having an insular book culture. By comparison, less than 400 translations were published in each year from 2008 to 2010. The data are from Publishers Weekly Translation Database, which goes back to 2008. (Accurate data before 2008 are not available.)

What accounts for the huge increase? Chad Post, the maintainer of the Translation Database and the director of the press Open Letter Books, believes it’s a combination of two factors. One, a large number of new new translation-focused publishing houses opened over the last several decades, which Post thinks might be a result of the US becoming more engaged in world events after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Two, the huge popularity of a few recent translations like Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, led publishers to see translation as increasingly commercially viable.

Yet even with rise in numbers of translations, those books still come from only a few places. Of the nearly 5,800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China). Over 10% of books were originally published in France alone. Over that same period, only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar.

Some of the disparity is driven by the much larger number of books published in certain countries than others. According to the International Publishers Association (IPA), almost 107,000 were published in France in 2015 and nearly 90,000 in Germany. IPA does not report numbers for countries like Benin and Ethiopia, but they are almost certainly much lower, even including informal publishing.

As a result of this concentration, all but three of the most translated authors of the last decade are from Europe.

Authors with the most translated books published in the US from 2008 to 2018

The share of books from France, Germany and Spain—the three greatest sources of translation—was actually higher from 2014-2018 than it was from 2008-2013. The only non-European countries countries that saw a significant bump in their share were Mexico and South Korea.

Post points out that large increases in translation are often driven by a a country’s government offering grants for translating their country’s literature. This is the case with South Korea, where the government is paying for translations, in part to try to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Post thinks Mexico’s rise may be a result publishing houses looking for the next Valeria Luiselli, a Mexican novelist whose books have been commercially successful.