Thursday, 6 January 2011

Keeping translations alive

The following is mainly related to translations of poetry, though some of it may also be applicable to certain kinds of translated fiction. For some time now – at least during the past decade – I’ve become aware that trying to sell poetry in the form of printed books is increasingly an uphill struggle, and some alternative means of reaching a readership may need to be found.

The struggle has always has been there – for example, when I worked at the UK’s Anvil Press Poetry during the 1980s the firm produced no more than 12-14 titles a year,approcimately half of which were translations, and the notion of making a profit was out of the question. Like Bloodaxe, Carcanet and several other specialist publishers, Anvil survived mainly because of the Arts Council grant it received each year, which accounted for most of its income. In the second part of the 1980s and into the 90s, Bloodaxe Books, under its committed director Neil Astley, took a more aggressive approach to poetry publishing, endeavouring to embrace a wider audience and reach out to readers who didn’t normally read poetry at all. This project had some success – although still heavily AC-funded, Bloodaxe did manage to operate as a normal business, comparable to mainstream London publishers of fiction. Bloodaxe’s poetry translation list was (and still is) impressive, including a wide range of titles and poets. But the new vigour didn’t last – by the 2000s, one was again uneasily aware that the Bloodaxe operation was under something of a strain, and in the early part of the decade many Bloodaxe authors and translators were informed that the unsold copies of their back titles would either be sold to them at a discount, or pulped.

The situation with other poetry publishers was not much better, or even worse. Carcanet, which in addition to original poetry and translations also published fiction, seems to have got by on the strength of its fiction list. The smaller houses like Arc and Dedalus were also in trouble, and in 2008 Dedalus had its Arts Council funding cut drastically. After a long campaign, that funding was restored in July last year, but in the present economic climate the future still remains uncertain. Book publishing is currently undergoing a crisis, and because of their minority appeal published poetry and poetry translation are the the first to be seriously affected.

So what’s to be done? My own feeling is that with the increasing power and presence of the Internet, poetry translators, poetry editors and poets should start to take matters into their own hands. Online and ebook publishing may not be to everyone’s taste – I know that my colleague Eric Dickens heartily dislikes it – but at least it’s a way of sending the work out into the world, and can even be a commercially viable method of sale and distribution. I’ve already started to scan and put online the contents of some of my older Bloodaxe titles – the copyright in those translations rests with me, and the volumes in which they appeared are now of out of print.

Nordic Voices in Print is my first attempt in this direction – it’s only a basic blog, and is devoted exclusively to the reprinting of my translations of Nordic literature and poetry, but in time I hope to develop the project further and extend it into the area of ebook publishing. Above all I think it’s important to avoid the ghettoization of translated literature that’s evident in certain US-based publishing concerns (they shall be nameless) which enjoy a high profile in the translation world at present. While they may once have been inspired by selfless motives, I believe that those publishers are really taking advantage of the ever-growing marginalization of translated work. Poets and translators beware.


Lev said...

Every book should be digitized, I think. When I buy a book now I want to have a digitized version instantly: I may be reading a physical copy at home and I may continue reading it in office, for example.

David McDuff said...

Yes, I agree. Though in the case of poetry publications, where sales of printed books are likely to be limited, there's also a real need for a choice between buying a hard copy or an e-version, with the latter carrying a lower price than the former. And of course, one can always buy both.