The Humanities Project’s latest roundtable discussion, “Commerce and Culture: The Impact of the Business of Books on the Literature of the Americas,” featured participants representing the various aspects of creating and selling a book this past Monday in Schlegel Hall.
The moderator was the University’s literary translation publisher and Director of Open Letter Chad Post. Open Letter is the recently-founded publishing house at UR dedicated to promoting and publishing foreign literary works. Other participants included Spanish literature translator Lisa Dillman, Canadian book review editor Jack Kirchoff, Director of Literature at the Americas Society Daniel Shapiro and co-founder of Talk Leaves bookstore Jonathon Welch.
The roundtable addressed the impact the book business has on how readers perceive and think about literature from the Americas. The American publishing industry not only gets to select the titles the public reads, but also influences how the media receives their choices, shaping Americans’ perceptions of the world. Many U.S. publishers disregard literary works from countries such as Canada, while other genres, like South American “magical realism,” are often categorized narrowly.
Fewer than 1,000 of the more than 250,000 books published yearly in the U.S. yearly are works in translation from abroad, ultimately contributing to an isolated cultural atmosphere for Americans.
“Publishers act like a gate keeper for culture, deciding which books make it into print, and so Americans increasingly live in an echo chamber to the blatant exclusion of all else,” Post said.
In 2004, 375,000 books were published in the English language throughout the world. Of that number, 14,440 were translations. In the U.S., only about three percent of books published yearly are works in translation. In terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is closer to 0.7 percent.
“[The U.S.,] by far, ranks the worst, and that means [Americans] are being left out of a vital growth process that the rest of the world is sharing without us,” Post said. “In countries ranging from Lithuania to Italy or France, translations make up more than 30 percent of the total books published yearly.”
These figures prove disturbing to Dillman when considering the recent trend toward multi-national literature throughout the world. She contributes this trend to people’s search for comfort and reassurance in literature.
As a translator, Dillman experienced the manipulation of foreign literature taking place behind the scenes. She recalled an experience in which revisions were made to a book. All interior monologues were changed to public speeches; the resulting translated story was nonsensical.
“The editors said that Americans find multiple positions off-putting,” Dillman said.
Publishers and readers have a moral and ethical obligation to resist overt domestication and Americanization of others, Dillman argued.
Kirchoff, however, claimed that publishing companies are reluctant to sell translations because it is a difficult genre to sell. In Canada, it is difficult to sell French books that have been translated into English. Ultimately, the publishing industry is still a business interested in making a profit, and translated literature is often overlooked as a less-than-profitable route. Kirchoff does agree that literary translations are harder to get published in the U.S. than in Canada, but, in the end, he believes it is about what will sell and what will not.
In an attempt to bring translations into the American mainstream, independent community bookstores, such as Talking Leaves, specialize in non-traditional books. Welch commented that the publication of books has always been a commercial enterprise.
“[But] commerce appears to be leaving culture in the dust,” Welch said.
What gets published is based on someone’s acceptance of risk. Welch commented that there is no sense of uniform taste and no typical book preference. As a result, publishers prefer to sell thrillers and historical fictions, which are the safest genres.
Overall, audience members found the discussion interesting and eye-opening.
“It was interesting that [the roundtable] had people from different perspectives,” senior Iskra Miralem said. “Even though we did not really find any solutions, we are more aware of the problem now.”
Other audience members enjoyed witnessing the interaction between the various participants.
“It was interesting to see the play between marketing and the translator,” senior Rhea Lyons said.
“[I liked] when the editor talked about the importance of smooth translations into English, and then to see the translator react to that, because in translation [it] is frowned upon to make [the translation] fluid, because why make something sound like it was in English first,” junior Melissa Schoenberger said. “It was cool to see it played out.”
This event is part of “Reimagining the Americas,” one of nine talks sponsored by the Humanities Project. The roundtable was co-sponsored by the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures and Open Letter.
Smith is a member of the class of 2009.