Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Bypassing London and New York: the trials of publishing translations

A couple of months ago, I gave a presentation at the Children's Book Council of Australia biennial conference in Melbourne as part of a panel talking about 'Different Cultures, Different Perspectives.'

The point I made, as far as children's books are concerned, is that Australian children don't get a chance to experience and enjoy as many different cultural experiences as they could do.

While most of the books released in Australia originate from overseas, they come predominantly from the UK and US. While there are some notable exceptions (such as the US publisher Kane Miller), most British and American children's publishers aren't hugely interested in publishing many books that stray from established Anglo-American tastes and which don't reflect and reinforce Anglo-American perspectives.

That shouldn't surprise us, and I'm not pretending to condemn it. After all, publishing something new or different is risky, and a publisher's first duty is to make enough money to stay in business.

However, when I travel to Frankfurt each year, the resounding chorus I hear from European and Asian publishers is that 'the British aren't buying our books.' This disappoints them not only because because they have good books to sell, but also because they buy a lot of British books. (In Germany, for example, there are perhaps ten English-language books being translated into German for every one book going the other way.)

If the British don't buy books from Europe or Asia (or South America or Africa), then they don't get translated into English and, due to Britain's long-established and rather arcane hold over the Australian book market, they don't get released here in Australia. The Americans are actually a little more open-minded in their publishing, but less of their books make it to Australia due to territorial copyright restrictions.

Each year at Frankfurt I see wonderful children's books. But Australian children are likely to read only a fraction of them merely because these books were originally published in a language other than English.

That's a shame, because you learn two things when you read a book from a culture other than your own.
  1. You learn that you share a planet with people who have different perspectives to you and
  2. You also learn that you have a whole lot in common with them.
I believe these are two important things for all children to learn, and they can learn them from books.

That's why I started publishing picture books from non-English-speaking cultures a few years back. I was actually encouraged to do so by a bookseller, who saw the first book I found, by Slovenian illustrator Lila Prap, and gave me a handsome order that enabled me to fund its first printing. With the additional support of Australia's independent booksellers, her book Why? has gone on to sell about 10,000 copies here and is still selling strongly, making Australia the second largest market for this particular book after Germany.

Since then, we have published books from Korea, Italy and France, including Waiting for Mummy which is shortlisted for this year's Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, Germany's national children's book awards.

I'm not the only publisher doing this kind of thing in this region. Some books do get through. For several years Allen & Unwin has published translations of European young adult novels and New Zealand publisher Gecko Press is also developing its own picture book list along similar lines to my own. Fortunately, there is no shortage of quality foreign language books for all of us to consider. I am currently looking at new books from Spain, South America, Taiwan and Italy and I never know what I'm going to find next, nor where I'm going to find it.

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