When I first created the Translation Database at the Three Percent website*, my main motivation was to get some sort of handle on how many translations were being published in the United States in a given year. For ages, people had cited the “three percent” figure, claiming—without any hard data— that only three percent of all books published in America were originally written in another language. This is a powerful number, helping craft a narrative about American isolationism and the need for increased funding for literature in translation, but it was also a statistic based on estimates and unparseable data.
In 2008, the first year that I started collecting data for the Translation Database, we identified 361 works of fiction and poetry that appeared for the first time ever in English translation. There were a couple reasons that I had decided to ignore retranslations of classics and focus solely on fiction and poetry, the biggest being that I wanted to get a read on how many new voices were making their way to English readers.
Obsessed with data as I am, right from the start I tracked a lot of different pieces of metadata for the translations being published, from the country of origin to the sex of the author and translator. As a result, we can now use the database to help parse out trends in the publishing world.
For example, thanks to the database, we can now detail how few books by women are translated into English. Between 2008 and the end of 2016, 4,222 works of fiction and poetry in translation were published. Of those, only 1,199, or 28 percent were written by women authors.
Focusing in on Korean literature, since 2008, eighty-one works translated from the Korean have been made available to American readers. Fifty-nine of those are works of fiction, with twenty-two being works of poetry. That makes Korean the thirteenth most translated language over this period, behind French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Norwegian, and Hebrew.
In relation to the earlier mention of women in translation, Korean has fared much better than most languages, with thirty-four (or 42 percent) of these translations being written by women.
When it comes to which publishers are doing these books, the list is pretty top heavy. Thanks to the Library of Korean Literature project, Dalkey Archive is on top, having published twenty-seven works over the past nine years. White Pine is second with ten books, followed by Action Books and MerwinAsia with five apiece.
Looking toward the future, there are a couple of really interesting trends in the publication of Korean literature in translation. First of all, twenty-nine different publishing houses have published at least one Korean book since 2008. So, although the list of who’s publishing Korean literature is rather top heavy, there’s a substantial number of presses interested in considering Korean literature.
Additionally, the number of titles coming out every year has increased substantially since 2008, when only four works of Korean literature were published in translation. Looking just at the number of titles published in English translation, this is a pretty good trendline: 2008, 4; 2009, 7; 2010, 6; 2011, 6; 2012, 3; 2013, 13; 2014, 12; 2015, 12; 2016, 18. Even if you remove all the books published by Dalkey Archive, the rise in interest is notable, going from three translations in 2013 to eleven in 2016.
Although it started as a simple exercise, the Translation Database has grown substantially and become more and more valuable over the years—especially for trying to get a handle on publishing trends and future possibilities. Continuing with the positive trend, I hope the graph of Korean books published in the United States will keep climbing and that American readers will become more familiar with Korean literature. The Literature Translation Institute of Korea will have a big role in keeping this slow but steady growth alive.
Chad W. Post
Publisher, Open Letter Books
* All of the data mentioned—and much, much more—can be found online under the “Translation Database” tab at Three Percent (http://www.rochester.edu/threepercent)