Why Americans Don’t Read Foreign Fiction [Discussion]

skills for publishing

This is a guest post from Tom Chalmers, Managing Director at IPR License.

Before Christmas I wrote about some of the issues surrounding books in translation, especially within the English Language markets. I will not go any further into my Hasselhoff effect theory but will many challenges remaining for international publishers to break down these boundaries it was with great interest that I stumbled across a recent article entitled – ‘Why Americans Don’t Read Foreign Fiction’.

The link to the full article from author Bill Morris is here but for the purpose of this short blog I would like to highlight some of the points outlined in this excellent and extensive article stemming from some ignorance around Patrick Modiano after his 2014 Nobel Prize win.

Without spending the entire piece debating the merits of his particular victory, or any other obscure victor of the prize itself for that matter, the article investigated why the vast majority of foreign authors remained a mystery to US readers and also looked at general attitudes to works in translation.

Why are there so few translated books in the American market?

Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, which is said to be consistently among the top American publishers of foreign fiction in translation, tried to provide some answers. She was quoted as saying. “I think it’s getting easier to get books in translation into the hands of reviewers. They’re excited—not only receptive, but very kind. But the reading public? That’s the million-dollar question.”

Another theory posed was that it’s difficult to get foreign books translated into English because so few American editors speak foreign languages, while many foreign editors are fluent in English and any number of other languages.

To which Gurewich responded: “It’s not that Americans don’t want foreign fiction. But they’re intimidated. This is the difficulty. How does one cross that bridge?” To underline this she gave an example of publishing All Days Are Night by the German writer Peter Stamm. After winning comparisons to Kafka, the book getting a host of big reviews and being named a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, she admitted: “I can’t sell it and I have no idea why.”

Adding that, “America is a puzzle of very complicated groups. Readers are receptive if it lands in their hands. What is the secret to putting books in their hands? How do you find people who want to find out how other people think?”

Unfortunately these quotes really serve to underline that there are no easy answers and that goes for the UK as well as US marketplace. As such we have to continue to learn from other markets, for instance Germany (though there is an interesting challenge in reverse for the German market), as to how they continue to overcome any resistance to works far from the native tongue. Thankfully, on a plus note, many more markets are evolving and embracing works in translation and whilst showcasing and marketing the best works in translation remains a challenge, growing numbers of international publishers are successfully bridging these gaps on a daily basis.

Related Articles

Sign up to our Newsletter


* indicates required

BookMachine Ltd. will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing. Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at hello@bookmachine.org. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices.