Who Is the Biggest Publisher of Foreign Literature in the U.S.?
By STEPHEN HEYMANAPRIL 29, 2015
Photo Laurent Cilluffo
It’s not Random House, and it’s not a specialized indie outfit like Europa Editions or New Directions. It’s Amazon.com. Last year, the company’s translation imprint, AmazonCrossing, brought out 44 new English translations from a diverse slate of literature, including Icelandic, Turkish and Korean. That’s more translated titles than any other American publisher, according to data from Three Percent, a literary translation blog at the University of Rochester.
This year, AmazonCrossing says it expects to increase its output, projecting 70 new translations into English and 200 into German. The company has also added a dozen or so translations into a new target language: French.
Those numbers might not seem huge until you consider how statistically marginal literary translation is to the publishing business, at least in the United States. Last year, fewer than 600 books of translated fiction and poetry were published there, which was actually a marked increase from 2009, when only 340 translations were published in total.
Chad Post, the editor of Three Percent, cheered both the overall uptick in translations as well as the boost provided by Amazon. His blog was named for an oft-cited statistic that 3 percent of all American books are translations. Mr. Post notes that the ratio for fiction and poetry is even smaller — close to 0.7 percent.
While AmazonCrossing has translated literary prizewinners and worked with such distinguished translators as Marian Schwartz (Russian), John Brownjohn (German) and Howard Goldblatt (Chinese), most of its titles would be qualified as genre fiction.
Mr. Post said, “They’re doing a lot of things that most translation publishers don’t do: romance, thriller, young adult books, things that are definitely in that chick lit category.”
Nevertheless, he cautioned against dismissing these books as commercial ventures with little literary value. Mr. Post cited the translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, who has argued that lowbrow authors are as important to translate as literary giants.
“To fully understand a culture, to understand literature the whole way, you need more than just the best books,” Mr. Post said. “You need the book about Spanish history along with the book about zombies.”
AmazonCrossing’s biggest hit so far is probably “The Hangman’s Daughter,” written in German by Oliver Pötzsch. Its success illustrates how AmazonCrossing capitalizes on its parent company’s global footprint to decide which books to translate. This historical mystery, published by Ullstein Verlag, sold unevenly in German bookstores but managed to gain traction with readers on Amazon’s German site.
“We noticed that Oliver’s books were getting rave reviews from customers, who said things like ‘I can’t put it down,’ ‘It’s incredible,’ ‘I want to read more,”’ said Sarah Jane Gunter, the publisher of AmazonCrossing.
She and her editors decided to publish “Die Henkerstochter” in English in 2010, and the series went on to sell more than one million units, mostly through the Kindle store.