Compared to the rest of the world Americans have a track record for not reading foreign books. Our global reputation for being self-centered only adds to this I’m sure, but there is something that we can do as readers and writers to change the stigma against international books. In 2015, only 570 translated books were published in the U.S. This number comes from University of Rochester’s translation press, Three Percent, which is named after the margin typically associated with the number of translated books published in the US (although LitHub estimates the number is around 0.7% for literary fiction and poetry). Why are Americans uninterested in translated fiction? Why do people often claim they want to read a ‘real’ book instead? What does our lack of interest in foreign authors convey to the global literary community?
Let me be clear that readers are not the only ones at fault here. In my hunt for translated books, I have rarely seen them advertised and even less often seen them in stores. There is definitely a systematic problem at hand here. However, despite the additional difficulties that translated books may present to a publishing house or a marketing team, I believe that we as readers have the power to influence how frequently translated books make it into our country and onto the bookshelves. If more Americans were to actively read translated fiction, we could change the stigma against it for the betterment of our community at large.
I started to take an interest in translated books in my first creative writing class when our professor asked us how many of us read non-American authors. She said, “If you think the publishing world is intimating now”–and as seniors and grad students preparing to face ‘the real world’ we certainly found the idea terrifying–“imagine how difficult it would be to publish a book to the English-speaking world if your writing wasn’t in English.” This idea sat with me for a long time. I realized that I couldn’t recall a single author from outside of the US or Western Europe. I realized that I couldn’t recall a single story I’d written that took place outside of the US or Western Europe. Both of the universities I had attended emphasized how they were turning us into global citizens, but in that moment I didn’t feel like a global citizen at all.
This realization was particularly puzzling because it felt so against the reason most people give for reading books: to escape. If readers crack open the cover of a book looking to be transported somewhere else, why do we tend to only read authors who look, think, and speak like us? If so many Instagramers are filled with wanderlust for new places, why don’t they let books take them there? Why have writers exhausted the ‘Americans travelling abroad’ trope, yet writers who live in other countries rarely have a voice in our fiction?
There are some readers who have responded to the lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in our literature in fantastic ways, like the organizations Words Without Borders and World Literature Today. One reader and writer, Ann Morgan, recently completed a challenge she set for herself to read one book translated from every country in the world. Last year she completed her goal and during her journey, her idea was received so positively that some countries even sent her books for free. Though I doubt I can carry on at the same rate as Ann Morgan, I have begun my own challenge of a sort by trying to read at least 2 translated books a year. Next month I’m excited to start Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan translated from Indonesian to English by Annie Tucker. If you’re interested in changing the current stigma against translated books, I highly encourage you to invent a similar challenge for yourself. And if you do, please let me know in the comments what translated book you plan on checking out next!