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May 30, 2010

Getting published in the United States of America via translation into English: An analysis



This is a written version of a presentation I made initially to the Scandinavian Crime Writers Association in Iceland during its annual conference in May, 2004. I would like here to thank once again Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson of the Icelandic Crime Fiction Society for his efforts enabling me to attend that conference; Linda Hartley of the United States Embassy in Reykjavik for her support in financially sponsoring me; and my colleagues at the conference from all the attending countries in welcoming me. However, as with my audience for that presentation, I expect a number of people reading this analysis will NOT have English as their first language. Accordingly, forgive some redundancy of phrasing toward my enhancing clarity for those readers.

Some definitions are necessary to lay the foundation for this analysis because, while some of the following sound alike, they mean very different things in context:

  1. A "literary" novel: Sometimes called "mainstream," it is a work that does not fit easily into a genre category (like crime fiction, science fiction, romance, etc.)
  2. A "literary" agent: A man, woman, or firm that represents an author's work to editors at publishing houses, the representation including initially submitting the author's work to the editor and negotiating the terms of the publishing contract.
  3. A "literary" translation: A careful, nuanced translation of a novel or short story into another language, with polished prose and dialogue (contrast here a "commercial" translation of a computer manual or intructions for assembling a child's toy).
  4. Publishers Weekly: The trade magazine of our industry in the United States (URL: www.publishersweekly.com).
  5. Publishers Lunch: An almost-daily, online newsletter about the publishing industry (e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Unfortunately, some statistics are also necessary to my analysis as well, so please bear with me through them:

  1. Of all books purchased by consumer/readers in the United States, the three categories of Mystery/Detective, Espionage/Thriller, and Suspense/Psychological comprised 13.1% in the year 2002. The next year, 2003, that percentage had climbed to nearly 15% of all books purchased in the U.S.A. (Publishers Weekly, April 19, 2004, page 5).
  2. Every three years, Publishers Weekly commissions a survey of readers' preferences. So-called "moderate book-buyers" are those Americans who buy between three and ten books per year. Despite this rather low number of books purchased by the average American reader, the last four surveys, covering twelve years total, have consistently reported that between 25% and 30% of these "moderate" book buyers chose crime novels. Therefore, we have a very wide, if somewhat shallow, "pool" of crime-novel "fans" within our nearly 300 million American population.
  3. Each year, the Drood Review (URL: www.droodreview.com), a very respected newsletter that reviews crime novels, compiles a study of all crime novels published for the first time in the United States. Approximately 44% are written by women, 54% by men, and the remaining 2% by male/female collaborators or authors whose gender is not revealed. (Mystery Writers of America, THE THIRD DEGREE, August/September, 2003, page 11).

I think the above three categories of statistics show that crime novels are clearly popular in America, and that male and female authors enjoy a rough parity in being published. We also have had a number of crime novels published in translation in the United States. Some, like Maj Sjovall & Per Wahloo's Martin Beck series sold well in the 1970's. More recently, Umberto Eco's THE NAME OF THE ROSE from Italy and Peter Hoeg's SMYLLA'S SENSE OF SNOW from Denmark even appeared on THE NEW YORK TIMES best-seller list.
Yet, of ALL books translated into ANY language (all the following statistics from Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2001):

  1. 50% are from an original English-language work;
  2. In a typical week, 50% of the best-sellers in France and Germany will be works in translation from languages OTHER than French and German (I alone have been translated into French and German, but also Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Turkish);
  3. However, only 6% of all books translated WORLDWIDE are translated INTO English, and only rarely does such a book reach national best-seller lists in the United States.

Why? In this increasingly global economy, why are fine works from other languages NOT translated into English, and, if they are, why do they NOT sell well in the United States? I will divide my analysis into the following four sections:

  1. Reasons for the difficulties in translating other-language works into English.
  2. Partial solutions to these problems.
  3. What YOU can do to help your own cause.
  4. Conclusion

  1. Reasons for Difficulties in translating other-language works into English.
    1. Most editors at American publishing houses can NOT read fluently--or even comfortably--a language other than English.
      1. English has become the language of international commerce, and so there is less pressure on Americans in general to learn even ONE other language. Regarding American editors in particular, even those editors who work for a publishing company owned by a foreign-language company (for example, the many American subsidiaries of the German media giant Bertelsmann) communicate with their European superiors in English.
      2. Foreign language study is often NOT required for admission to American universities from our secondary schools, and because of budgetary problems in those secondary schools, often no foreign language study is even OFFERED.
      3. In the past, many editors would "major" (concentrate heavily) in English literature during their university matriculation, and perhaps even pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in literature or creative writing. Now the graduate degree of many editors is a Masters in Business Administration, focusing on the financial "bottom line" at large publishing conglomerates such as Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin/Putnam.
        This lack of bi-lingualism (much less multi-lingualism) presents a classic dilemma, or "Catch-22": An American editor cannot read a foreign book in its original language to evaluate whether that book is WORTHY of a costly translation without first COMMISSIONING that costly translation in order to evaluate the worth of the book. Some American editors are now using people who can read a given foreign language as "guides" or "screeners" to the quality of a work in that foreign language. By contrast, however, every European editor I have ever met could read English, and therefore can make his or her OWN evaluation of whether a book originally published in English is worthy of translation into that European editor's home language.
        Accordingly, American editors tend to "internationalize" their author lists by publishing British, Canadian, Australian and South African books because, while novels from these countries may contain strange idioms or allusions, at least the text is in English as a starting point.
    2. Most American editors believe that "books-in-translation" will not make a profit for the United States publisher.
      1. A nuanced, stylistic LITERARY translation (as compared to a mere COMMERCIAL translation, like a computer manual or assembly instructions for a bicycle) is very costly, between $5,000 and $15,000 American dollars. That is more money than most first novelists in America receive as an "advance" for writing the original book, and it is also a significant additional PRODUCTION cost OF the book. Yet such a literary translation is absolutely essential for a novel to be published in the United States. To quote Valgerdur Benediktsdottir of Edda Publishing in Iceland: "A literary translator is to the author's original novel as a bow is to its violin."
      2. Many less expensive translations (say, "$80. American per thousand words of translation) are, bluntly, not very competent, especially in trying to capture the American equivalent of CURRENT slang or jargon in dialogue. (Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2001).
      3. Perhaps because most Americans never learn a foreign LANGUAGE, we are perceived to be not interested in the CULTURE of a country that uses that language. Also, we learn virtually nothing in our schools about the criminal justice systems of our European and Latin American friends. Even in our law schools, many foreign students, usually already lawyers in their home countries, attend to learn about AMERICAN law. However, when I attended Harvard Law School in the 1970's, there was only ONE course offered in "comparative law"--the laws of other countries--and that was a small-enrollment, non-required course.
      4. Americans are ALL the descended sons and daughters of immigrants, and so perhaps we have a subliminal preference for an optimistic, "happy" ending--or at least a "justice-is-served," satisfying ending. Many European and Latin-American crime novels do NOT feature such an ending, and indeed are more dark, fatalistic, and even unjust in their conclusions--the culprit WINS at the end. Because Americans in general are so optimistic, a "life is horrible and then you die" plot will not sell well here.
      5. American readers, raised on movies and television, prefer "action" stories (involving car chases, karate, and gunfights) to "cerebral" stories of detection and psychology. And even our more "cerebral" Americans can get enough "clever puzzles" from the various franchises of television series such as LAW & ORDER and C.S.I. (the latter standing for "Crime Scene Investigation" and dealing with the intricacies of forensic science).
      6. American publishers fear that a foreign-language author might not be able to promote their works efficiently in the United States due to airline and hotel costs as well as insufficient English for smooth "talks" and radio/television interviews.
    3. Many American editors are simply intimidated by the logistical, and perhaps legal, problems of dealing with works first published in another country.
      1. This is especially true for younger (say, under the age of 40) editors, because they have spent their entire careers dealing with literary agents, NOT authors directly, on issues of the amount of advance to be paid, the publishing rights granted, marketing and publicity, etc.
      2. Finally, since September 11, 2001, many publishing houses will not allow their postal mailroom employees to even OPEN packages with unfamiliar return addresses for fear of letter bombs, anthrax virus, or worse.

  1. Partial Solutions to the Problem
    1. Grants for translation costs.
      1. In many European countries, there are established, sometimes governmental, organizations that provide funding for the arts, including writing in general and crime writing in particular (Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2001). In the United States, however, such funding is generally limited to literary fiction and poetry. Crime writers are viewed as "rich enough" not to need financial aid from our government and its taxpayers (Mary Higgins Clark received an advance of $11 million American dollars for EACH of her last five books, and sales of Dan Brown's THE DA VINCI CODE have produced over $20 million American dollars for him in royalties alone). While these are NOT typical crime writers, they are the examples legislators and voters think of as counter-arguments to any proposal for funding.
      2. There are so-called private charities that contribute money to worthy causes of all categories. However, such "foundation" funding is very difficult to obtain, also, and general cuts in GOVERNMENT programs have multiplied the number of groups (advocating for theater and dance as well as feeding the homeless and pre-school programs for poor children) applying for, even BEGGING for, these private grants. And due to the decline in our stock market, many of these private foundations have suffered severe reductions in their endowments (Publishers Weekly, January 27, 2003, page 116).
      3. Our own AIEP--or IACW ("the International Association of Crime Writers," as it is known in the English-speaking world) has as one of its constitutional goals "the translation and promotion of works" by our members from Language A into Language B, so that more people in our branches and elsewhere can enjoy crime literature written in Language A. During my four-year term as president of AIEP, I contacted many of these private foundations in an effort to secure such funding. However, various tax law problems prevent our organization from qualifying as a "charitable corporation" under the foundations' charters. These same tax problems would mean that contributions to us, even from wealthy, individual authors, would NOT be tax deductible for the donating author.
      4. The PEN ["Poets, Essayists, and Novelists") American Center in New York City has enjoyed somewhat greater success in raising money for translations, though typically, again, literary fiction/non-fiction and poetry are those works chosen for translation into English. Visit their website (www.pen.org/transprize.html) for the first ten lucky authors and a short description of their works. However, even these translation awards average only $2,500 for each selected book (Publishers Lunch, an on-line newsletter, April 23, 2004).
    2. Smaller, but still commercial publishers; some independent, others smaller divisions of major publishers
      1. Some smaller publishers (gross revenue of less than $20 million American dollars annually) have found they enjoy "discovering" new authors in translation. Some examples I have in turn "discovered": The New Press: Henning Mankell (Sweden) Jean Echenoz (French) Akashic Books: Arnaldo Correa (Spanish) Grove/Atlantic: Johanna Sinisalo (Finnish) Harcourt,Brace,Jovanovich: Karin Fossum (Norwegian) Akira Yoshimura (Japan) Luther Blisset (Italian) Knopf: Arthur Japin (Dutch) Toby Press: Yasmina Khadra (French) Bloomsbury: Javier Cercas (Spanish) Seven Stories: Jorge Franco (Spanish) Doubleday/Talese: Margaret Mazzantini (Italian) Walker & Company: Helga Schneider (Italian) Random House: Boris Akunin (Russian) Ecco: Peter Esterhazy (Hungarian) Henry Holt: Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Portuguese) Dalkey Archive: Jacques Jouet (French) Penguin: Carlos Ruis Zafon (Spanish) Aliform: Jesus Zarate (Spanish) Soho Press: Many foreign language crime novels
      2. The problem?: Smaller publishers generally mean smaller advances and print-runs of copies, and often very little publicity or promotion. Also, to a great extent, Spanish is the "second" language of the United States, so potential translations from Spanish into English often dominate publishers' radar screens.
    3. University Presses
      1. Northwestern University Press in Chicago has said through its director: "We are a small powerhouse of literary translation."
      2. The problem?: Even smaller--or NO--advance, even smaller print-runs of copies, and virtually NO promotion or publicity from university presses.
      3. Also, a given university press may consider only translations of works from the "heritage country" of its students' ancestors (for example, University of Minnesota Press might be interested ONLY in works from Norway and Sweden).
      4. The emphasis is almost ALWAYS on literary or academic books (as in the quotation from Northwestern's director in item IIC1), above.
    4. Prize-winning books
      1. Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize, resulting in the English translation of his year 2000 book ALL THE NAMES selling over 30,000 copies in the United States. (Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2001).
      2. We discussed at our own AIEP conference in 2001 the prospect of encouraging translations in the United States of ONE crime novel from each of our (then) 22 member countries, preferably the book that WON that country's AIEP award for best crime novel. However, despite asking in our minutes over the succeeding years for branch presidents in each country to submit those award-winners to AIEP, and follow-up e-mails by me as (then) worldwide president, we have had no response to our suggestion. If such a response WERE forthcoming to our new president, Piet Teigeler of Belgium and Spain, perhaps a competent translation of the first few chapters of an award-winning work in, for example, German, could be sent to a "volunteer" North American branch member for slang/jargon and other stylistic "polishing" and then submitted to literary agents here toward approaching American editors with the "sample" of that novel.
    5. Publishing in translation in Great Britain
      1. Almost 120,000 books were published in Great Britain in 2003 (Robert McCrum, THE OBSERVER, Sunday, February, 2004). Publishers lunch put the total at nearly 125,000 different titles. And Mr. McCrum believes that "translations are snapped up on hearsay"--that is, without the English editor even reading the foreign-language work.
      2. The problem?: Probably also small advances and print-runs, but at least a publication INTO the English language (despite different idioms in Britain versus the United States), which will produce an English-language text of the novel readable by an American editor (a route pursued successfully by award-winning author Arnaldur Indridason of Iceland for his novel JAR CITY: English edition by The Harvill Press in 2004, forth-coming American edition by St. Martin's Press in 2005).

    1. What you can do for yourself.
      1. Obtain a literary agent.
        1. Since American editors ARE so comfortable dealing with authors through literary agents, more than half the battle of being published in the United States is to HAVE a literary agent. The Association of Authors' Representatives ("AAR") is the trade organization of literary agents, requiring its members to adhere to a code of ethics. Visit the AAR's website (www.aar-online.org) and search through the website's listings for a reputable, honest agent in the United States who expresses an interest in representing foreign-language authors. Notice also from the AAR website that agents generally require a query letter (or, in some cases, an e-mail) from a potential author/client BEFORE wanting to see even only a partial manuscript of the work.
        2. The problem?: Very few American literary agents, who are often former editors with publishing houses, can read a language other than English, so we are back to the Catch-22 problem of needing SOME kind of English-translation, though perhaps only as a "sample".
        3. The advance to be paid by the American publisher to the author of a work in translation might also be so small that the agent's (typically) 15% commission will be only a few hundred dollars for many hours of work on a difficult project to sell to an editor.
      2. Commission a translation yourself.
        1. In order to show an American literary agent or editor your work, you may have to commission a translation yourself of approximately the first 30 pages of manuscript of your book.
        2. I mentioned earlier the attempts of AIEP to get prize-winners from each branch country translated into English in the author's home country and then polished by a volunteer American author. If you have a friend in your home country who reads English well (especially someone who has lived for some time--preferably RECENTLY--in the United States), perhaps you can pay him or her enough to do the 30-pages translation, and then send it to an American colleague of yours for polishing.
        3. Perhaps that American colleague will even know an American literary agent or editor who might be interested in your work. And the way to meet such American colleagues is by attending the conferences of AIEP and other international writer organizations.
      3. Commission a translation of a short story.
        1. For several years, I have been able to persuade Janet Hutchings, the editor of ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE ("EQMM," URL: www.dellmagazines.com) to establish a "Passport to Crime" section in her crime-fiction magazine. She is hoping to publish one foreign-language-translated-into-English story per issue (or approximately 10 stories per year). The story MUST be in publishable, literary English AND have NEVER appeared in English before anywhere in the world. Also, you MUST be able to submit the story in BOTH hardcopy (paper) form AND via computer diskette or e-mail. Due to the dangers of computer virus, however, an attachment TO an e-mail will not be opened by EQMM, so you may have to COPY-AND-PASTE the text of the story into the body OF an e-mail.
        2. The problem?: The cost to you of a literary translation of the short story will probably equal--or even exceed--the payment from EQMM, but you at least will have an example of your work in English as published by a very professional magazine.
      4. Playing the Ethnicity Card.
        1. I mentioned earlier under item IIC3, above, that a university press might not be interested in novels set in countries where its students' ancestors did NOT live. The reverse, however, can be an advantage if your country--and the student body at a given American university--"match."
        2. Visit the websites of state-supported universities in regions where people from YOUR country have immigrated (an over-simplification, but: our West Coast for Pacific Rim countries; our Southwest for Mexico and the rest of Latin America; the Midwest for Scandinavia and Germany, etc.). Perhaps if that university is already publishing ethnic-specific literature, it would consider a crime novel from that ethnicity's home country (Publishers Weekly, April 19, 2004, page 33).
        3. Perhaps that university might even have a professor OF your ethnicity's literature who could perform a literary translation or arrange for one for your novel.
      5. Attend writers conferences in the United States.
        1. A calendar of these with contact information can be found by visiting the website of MYSTERY SCENE MAGAZINE (www.mysteryscenemag.com).
        2. Caution: Distinguish between a fan CONVENTION (like a Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime) during which established authors speak from panels to audiences of readers versus a writers' CONFERENCE (like New England Crimebake near Boston or SleuthFest in south Florida) during which established authors, literary agents, and editors speak from panels and workshops to audiences of aspiring authors as students. It is the writers' CONFERENCE where you will get the chance to meet agents and editors, and perhaps even have an interview with them toward "pitching" (presenting an oral summary of your book and why it would "sell" in America).
        3. Be sure to have a VERY polished translation of your first 30 pages of manuscript to show the agent or editor. AND be sure that the first THREE TO FIVE pages of manuscript are perfect, as the agents and editors know that American consumers generally decide on buying a novel by reading only the first two-three pages of the final, printed book itself.

  1. Conclusion
    Getting published in the United States via translation into English is NOT easy. It is even unlikely. But this is true of getting published in ANY language in ANY country.  The bright spot is that getting published in the United States is not impossible, and I will therefore leave you with the words of Winston Churchill. After the Second World War, he was asked by a journalist to give his three secrets to success in finally winning the war. Churchill thought for a moment, then said, "Never give up, never give up, never give up!"
Jeremiah Healy

Jeremiah Healy
1948 – 2014

Jeremiah Healy, a graduate of Rutgers College and Harvard Law School, was a professor at the New England School of Law for eighteen years before creating the John Francis Cuddy private-investigator series and (under the pseudonym “Terry Devane”) the Mairead O’Clare legal-thriller series, both set primarily in Boston.

Healy wrote eighteen novels and over sixty short stories, fifteen of which works won or were nominated for the Shamus Award. Healy’s later Cuddy novels included INVASION OF PRIVACY, THE ONLY GOOD LAWYER, and SPIRAL. His O’Clare books from Putnam/Berkley are UNCOMMON JUSTICE, JUROR NUMBER ELEVEN, and A STAIN UPON THE ROBE, the last optioned for feature film.

A past awards chair for the Shamus, Healy served as president of Private Eye Writers of America, as well as the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW), and sat on the national board of Mystery Writers of America. A sought-after speaker, Healy appeared at the Smithsonian Institution’s Literature Series, The Boston Globe Book Festival, the Sorbonne in Paris, and at conferences in England, Canada, Spain, Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. He was toastmaster at the 1996 World Mystery Convention (Bouchercon) and the American Guest of Honour at Bouchercon 2004 in Toronto. Books of his have been translated into French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, and German.

Website: jeremiahhealy.com/



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