The Infamous Three Percent

Martin Boyd

English OnlyIt is common knowledge, at least in the translation industry, that only around 3 percent of all books published in the United States are translations. Indeed, this rather dismal statistic has been enshrined in the name of one of the most important online forums for international literature, the University of Rochester’s excellent website Three Percent. In fact, however, a closer look at the statistics reveal an even worse state of affairs, as the three percent figure is bolstered considerably by technical manuals and other non-fiction texts: for literary fiction and poetry, the figure is actually closer to 0.7%.

And the figure is not much better in other English-speaking countries… even here in Canada, where the few literary translations published are mostly between the country’s two official languages, and with the support of the government’s cultural promotion body, the Canada Council. Conversely, the percentage of translations in non-Anglophone countries tends to range anywhere from around 28% (in the case of France) to 40% (in Turkey), although even higher proportions can be found in smaller markets, like Slovenia (70%).

A common argument in defence of the low proportion of translations published in English-speaking countries is that there is already such a rich diversity of literature written in English that publishers see little need for dealing with what the BBC’s Hephzibah Anderson calls “the bothersome burden of translation.” While it is true that literary production in the US and the UK is considerable, and that a certain degree of cultural diversity is assured with the contributions of authors from former British colonies like South Africa, India or Nigeria who have chosen to write in their second language, it is hard not to sense a certain complacent smugness in a language community that uses its own imperialist hegemony as an excuse to ignore voices in any language other than its own. If, as Daniel Damrosch suggests, the purpose of world literature is to offer “multiple windows on the world”, it would seem that the English-speaking world is content to keep most of those windows firmly shut.

An analysis of the very limited number of translated literary works in terms of the predominant source languages also reveals some rather telling tendencies. According to one recently published breakdown of literary translation figures, French and German are far and away the most popular source languages in the United States, each with around 10,000 published translations in the last 35 years, representing around 285 publications a year. Considering that around 300,000 books are published in the US every year, 285 is hardly an encouraging average, but it seems quite a robust figure compared to the number of books translated from Spanish: just 3,829 in the last 35 years, or around 109 a year. This figure places Spanish in fourth place among source languages for published translations in the US – behind English, with around 122 published translations per year. In other words, more books are being translated out of English into minority languages in the United States than are being translated out of Spanish into English! This is quite an extraordinary statistic, given that Spanish is the unofficial second language of the US (with around 40 million speakers), and the fact that the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world is its next door neighbour. Indeed, the obviously crucial importance of the US relationship with its southern neighbour is sadly not reflected in US literary translation: little more than 300 of those 3,829 Spanish-English translations of the past 35 years have been of works by Mexican authors.

In spite of such a dismal state of affairs for literary translation, there are some rays of light in the darkness. Notable among these is the positive role played by university presses in the US; 4 of the top 10 publishers of translations in the US are university presses, and in the particular case of Spanish-English translation the contribution of academic publishers like University of Texas Press has been inestimable. The democratizing effect of the Internet Revolution has also been good for literary translation, as websites like Three Percent and Words without Borders provide forums for the publication and promotion of translated literature. Such forums play a significant role in the ongoing battle to open up the many closed windows in the “English only” house of world literature.

3 thoughts on “The Infamous Three Percent

  1. As an English-Spanish-English translator, this was very helpful to me. Thank you very much for the information.

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