Feature article by Chad W. Post

By Chad W. Post

In 2008, when I first designed the Translation Database and posted in on the Three Percent website, I had one very clear, simple motivation: To find out how many translated works of fiction and poetry were being published in the U.S. for the first time ever. At that point in time, there had only been a couple informal studies that simply stated the idea that 3% of all the books published in America were in translation, but, like most humanities studies of the time, these studies focused much more on the ramifications of such a statement (“we’re cut off from the rest of the world!” “translations must not be profitable!”) without a lot of detailed data.

Which books made up this mythical 3%? Where did they come from? Which languages are most popular? And how many actual, individual titles make up 3%? 50? 500? 5,000?

Looking back from an age of algorithms, “Big Data,” and excessive quantification (see: FitBit, Apple Watch, calorie counting apps), this seems really rudimentary and simplistic. At the beginning, there was no intent to develop a way of analyzing the translation industry—I just wanted a simple number that I could use in grants and fundraising materials.

In finding answers to those initial questions in 2008—281 works of fiction, 88 of poetry, 38% of which were translated from French, Spanish, or German; 74% of which were written by men, with women doing 40% of the translations—I realized that this could be a much more powerful tool in understanding the industry. Especially once there were at least 10 years of data.

Which is now the case. The Translation Database is now hosted on the Publishers Weekly website (https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/translation/home/index.html) where anyone can do research, add titles that are missing, or uncover publishing trends. With over 7,300 records, there’s a healthy amount of analysis that can be done.

Although there are many interesting trends to be discovered (follow the Three Percent website for periodic breakdowns of different segments of the translation industry and more data analysis), for the purposes of this article, I’m going to restrict everything to just works of fiction translated from the Spanish.

As someone who reads—and publishes through Open Letter Books—a lot of Spanish-language literature, I’m always interested in digging into this and seeing what comes out. Let’s start with the top-level—how does Spanish stack up against other languages?

Since 2008, French is the only language that has more works of fiction in translation than Spanish (853 French books compared to 608 Spanish ones, with Germany finishing third with 601).

Given the hold French literature and culture has had on the West for centuries, it’s not terribly surprising that Spanish has a ways to go to catch up. But those numbers don’t say much about what’s actually going on with Spanish-language literature. Are publishers more interested in doing those books now, post-Bolaño? Or has the market reached a saturation point and is turning its focus toward other languages?

As you can see in the chart below, there has been a steady growth in the raw number of Spanish-language titles being published in translation, with larger spikes in 2013 and 2016. (This mostly correlated with the growth in translations overall, with Spanish literature making up between 11-13% of all fiction titles in any given year.)


This can be broken down further though, allowing us to see how fiction from Spain does when compared to fiction from other Spanish-speaking countries. Without the Translation Database, this information would be incredibly difficult to uncover, but with it, we can see that Spain is actually the most popular Spanish-speaking country in translation, making up over 34% of all Spanish-language translations.

  • Spain 196
  • Argentina 127
  • Mexico 92
  • Chile 58
  • Cuba 34
  • Colombia 21
  • Peru 15
  • Guatemala 10

Given the prominence of authors from the Southern Cone—the aforementioned Bolaño, Rodrigo Fresán, Samanta Schweblin, Alejandro Zambra—this is maybe a bit surprising (note: books translated from Catalan are not included in this total), but is a testament to the wealth of interesting writing going on in Spain.

And to pivot away from data crunching—although it would be easy to find out how many more books written by men have been translated into English, or to figure out which American publishers are the most interested in literature from Spain—I want to spend a few paragraphs highlighting some recently published Spanish authors, and maybe a few forthcoming ones.

One of the bigger releases of 2019 is Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, which was translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and released in a gorgeous three-volume, slipcase edition from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Imagistic and poetic, these three books construct a world from juxtaposition and almost surreal set-pieces, calling to mind writers like Enrique Vila-Matas and Borges.

The recently released 10 of 30—a project of the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID)—highlights ten Spanish authors under the age of 40 who are attracting attention both in Spain and abroad. Translated by Katie Whittemore, the ten authors included in the anthology—Aroa Moreno, Almudena Sánchez, Miguel Barrero, Inma López Silva, Inés Martín Rodrigo, Alejandro Morellón, Natàlia Cerezo, Cristina Morales, Pablo Herrán, and Marina Perezagua—are likely to have titles available in English in the not too distant future. In fact, Aroa Moreno’s The Communist’s Daughter is forthcoming in the UK from Tinder Press.

Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías—two of the most-read Spanish authors, along with Carlos Ruiz Zafón—both have new titles coming out in the U.S. in 2019, although there is a sense that the next wave of Spanish authors to make their way into English will be both young and female. Sara Mesa is poised to break out around the world, with Open Letter bringing out a couple of her titles next year, and the growing interest among readers in edgy female authors bodes well for the younger generation of Spanish authors, like Lara Moreno, Elvira Navarro, Nuria Labari, Laura Fernandez, Pilar Adón, and others.

Overall, it’s a great time for Spanish-language literature. There’s a growing interest among publishers, more talented young translators than ever, and a wealth of great works likely to appeal to international audiences.

Chad W. Post