Amazon expands literary horizons, making big imprint in translation niche

By Hong Dam-young

Published : Apr 20, 2017 - 17:06
Updated : Apr 20, 2017 - 17:09

SEATTLE - The literary translation community in the US has a tradition of being highbrow, a carefully tended yet narrow reflection of the stirrings of global culture beyond the Anglosphere.

Then Amazon.com jumped in, like a whale into a koi pond.

Armed with financial might and an intimate, machine-learned knowledge of reader behavior, the e-commerce giant made a big splash.

Gabriella Page-Fort, the editorial director for AmazonCrossing, poses for a portrait on March 8, in Seattle, while holding a copy of the book “The Gray House,” by Mariam Petrosyan. (Seattle Times/TNS)

That annoyed some literary types, wary of the leviathan that has shaken up almost every aspect of the media world.

But AmazonCrossing, the publishing unit devoted to scouring the world for good tales, has in a short time become the most prominent interpreter of foreign fiction into English, accounting for 10 percent of all translations in 2016, more than any other publishing house in a field populated by small imprints.

It helps that Amazon is rather numbers-driven about its tastes, which tend toward blockbuster genre fiction -- crime thrillers and romance novels -- although it also picks well-regarded literary jewels its editors feel would do well with an English-speaking audience.

The goal “is to find great stories, and we think you can find them anywhere,” said Gabriella Page-Fort, AmazonCrossing‘s editorial director.

Amazon’s rapid rise to prominence in the translation of foreign prose is yet another sign of its growing cultural significance.

In Hollywood, this newfound power has been recognized by critics and industry peers: In February Amazon Studios garnered three Oscars. Series such as “The Man in the High Castle” and “Transparent” have earned Emmy and Golden Globe awards.

In the book world, Amazon has enabled hundreds of thousands to self-publish their works on Kindle, its digital reading platform. Some of these works -- such as Andy Weir‘s “The Martian,” which became a best-seller and a movie -- have made an impact.

It also has several imprints devoted to various genres, including literary fiction.

Yet Amazon’s shine has been tarnished by a contentious relationship with New York publishing houses, bookstores and some authors. Many bookstores -- hurt by the online retailer‘s dominance in book sales and its pricing power -- have boycotted titles published by Amazon. They’re also less likely to get reviewed by the traditional literary outlets, experts say.

But some members of the literary-translation community, long beset by indifference from major publishers and a lack of resources, appreciate Amazon‘s foray in their field.

“It’s kind of amazing. They have the resources and the ability,” says Chad Post, an academic at the University of Rochester who publishes Three Percent, a blog about international literature that draws its name from the estimate that only 3 percent of all books published in English are translated from foreign languages.

In the blog, Post keeps a thorough database of literary fiction translations into English -- which clearly shows Amazon‘s trajectory to the top. In 2010, AmazonCrossing’s first year, the imprint published two of 340 foreign translations, or less than 1 percent -- one from German and one from French. In 2016, there were 607 fiction and poetry translations and Amazon was responsible for about 10 percent, in languages as diverse as Finnish, Hebrew, Indonesian and Chinese.

By focusing on genre fiction, Amazon is “filling a huge gap” and helping people in the community get “more experience, become better as translators,” Post said.

Not all have super-warm feelings for the Seattle behemoth, however.

Susan Bernofsky, who teaches literary translation at Columbia University‘s master of fine arts writing program, says Amazon is still perceived by many translators as having an exploitative relationship with the literary world. The company “has been financially throwing its weight around,” and is viewed with suspicion by many who perceive it as seeing books as mere products, she said.


Teutonic touch


AmazonCrossing began in 2010 as a bid to bring undiscovered foreign-language fiction to the electronic bookstore’s huge English-speaking audience. It was the company‘s second imprint, after Amazon Encore, an outfit that sought to resuscitate out-of-print books and give a boost to promising self-published oeuvres.

AmazonCrossing’s team of editors is based in Seattle, London, Madrid, Milan, Munich and Paris. They look everywhere for stories: book conferences, pitches from an extensive network of freelance literary translators and, of course, the company‘s own data.

Amazon’s presence in most European countries gives the editors a good perch to see what is working for readers in other languages. One big book market in particular has proved to be a rich source of material for the venture: Germany.

German customers love reading, and what they like also jibes with Americans’ own tastes, says Page-Fort, a New York University graduate with a passion for literature and languages who came to Amazon after a long stint in New York’s publishing world.

Germany gave the imprint its most significant blockbuster: “The Hangman‘s Daughter,” a historical series by Oliver Patzsch. The English translation made by AmazonCrossing has reached 1.5 million readers in print and through digital downloads, Amazon says. Another series, “The Glassblower Trilogy,” by Petra Durst-Benning, scored 700,000 readers.

So while French and Spanish-language literary works are generally the most often translated into English across the wider publishing industry, Goethe’s language dominates AmazonCrossing‘s catalog. About half of the titles it published in 2015 and a third of those published in 2016 were originally written in German.

That said, AmazonCrossing is an increasingly polyglot affair. In 2015 the imprint announced it would spend $10 million through the end of the decade in part to expand its roster of countries and languages. Fifteen languages other than English were represented in 2016, up from two in 2010.

In a way that befits Amazon’s online roots, AmazonCrossing has set up a website that allows authors and translators to submit books for consideration to be translated into English.

There’s also an invitation-only program for translators to be matched with projects. It has received some criticism from translators who perceive they’re bidding against each other for jobs, according to Bernofsky, the Columbia University academic. “A lot of translators absolutely refuse to do that,” she said.

Page-Fort contends that the website lets translators discover new projects, translate sample pages and submit proposals. “Crossing editors then review how a translator will approach the specific text and choose the translator who best complements the voice and tone of the author,” she said.

AmazonCrossing is also globalizing, translating from English into French and various other languages. Overall the imprint has translated more than 900 books into five languages by authors from 35 different countries and 21 languages.

That hasn‘t come without challenges.

In 2014, the French Literary Translators Association in an open letter balked at low pay, nondisclosure clauses and incompatible views on the translators’ rights to their work. Amazon says the letter had misrepresentations about its program. The company, however, opened a dialogue with representatives of European translator unions and says it has made “a number of translator friendly updates” to its terms in recent years.


Gut feeling

While AmazonCrossing relies on a wealth of data to make its picks, there are still considerable challenges in selecting titles for translation, and gut feeling is important.

And while most of AmazonCrossing‘s catalog is genre fiction, it has also published famous literary leading lights, such as Mexican author Laura Esquivel (the Amazon translation of her book “Pierced by the Sun” was reviewed by the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Review of Books.) There’s also Marc Levy, a best-selling author in France.

Another literary rock star is Russian author Andrei Gelasimov, translated by Austin, Texas-based Marian Schwartz.

A longtime translator and past president of the American Literary Translators Association, Schwartz first ran into AmazonCrossing editors at a literary conference a few years ago.

“They were alone in the lobby. Like six of them. They just wanted to meet people, hear about projects,” she said.

Schwartz had translated on spec a book about the Chechen war by Gelasimov. She pitched it and Amazon took it.

Since then, she’s done five other books for AmazonCrossing. The latest is “Madness Treads Lightly,” a crime novel from one of Russia’s top-selling authors, Polina Dashkova.

Schwartz said that Amazon has “always paid me quite well.”

And as for product quality, “I’ve never been better edited,” Schwartz said. “They’re absolute sticklers.”

By Angel Gonzalez
The Seattle Times

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