Why Sandor Marai is not translated into English

For someone who practically reads only literature translated from other languages into English, the good news is that Sándor Márai’s The Rebels is finally being published in English.

The bad news, as I realized while browsing a German translation of Sándor Márai’s Embers, is that there are at least 14 titles by Márai that are available in German, compared to only two in English- (Conversations in Bolzano being the other one besides Embers.)

Indeed, though a number of classics are being retranslated into English, it turns out that that new works in other languages are not exactly flooding the market.

The reason, in case you are wondering, is economics:

My theory is that there is a vicious cycle working against the publication of translations, which results in a state of economic censorship. It costs around $25,000 to publish a book. For a work in translation that figure is closer to $35,000. So before even coming out with a book, publishers are spending an additional $10,000 to do a work in translation.

Most works of serious literature (in contrast to mainstream books), sell about 3,500 copies in the United States. For literature in translation, bookstores will usually take fewer copies because they believe the book won’t get many reviews and that people are scared of translations.

Reviewers, in fact, review far more works written in English than translations. As a result, fewer readers find out about these works in translation, and the final sales figure is closer to 2,000 copies. After costs, the average publisher gets back around $8.50 for every hardcover sold, and approximately $5.00 for every paperback. 2,000 copies sold generate between $10,000 and $17,000.

An editor convinces the publisher to publish a book in translation that costs the company $35,000, has poor advances, almost no reviews, sells 2,000, and brings in $17,000, losing the company $18,000. Next time this editor will have a much harder time convincing the publisher to take a chance, to lose another $18,000 in the name of cultural worth. This is what I refer to as economic censorship. In order to avoid losing money, publishers avoid translations, and fewer and fewer find their way into print.

Perhaps rather trite an explanation, but helps explain why there is not enough of Márai translated into English.

A related post on other Hungarian gems waiting for translation into English.

Link to Sándor Márai’s The Rebels via Sándor Márai Blog.

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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