No Translation Takers

Joe Woodward
From the July/August 2005 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

To encourage dialogue between cultures and foster a deeper understanding of the Middle East—Iran, in particular—the Association of American Publishers (AAP) is offering $10,000 to U.S. publishers willing to translate, publish, and promote contemporary Iranian fiction. The initiative was funded by a $50,000 grant from the Open Society Institute, a private foundation created by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to promote democracy and civil society reforms.

According to figures compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 50 percent of all translations published worldwide are translated from English, while only 6 percent are translated into English.

Although $10,000 seems like substantial support, no commercial publishers have come forward since the AAP announced the initiative in late 2004. The International Freedom to Publish committee (IFTP), a group founded in 1975 by the AAP, is heading up the translation program. In consultation with a group of scholars and writers in the United States and Iran, IFTP chose The Drowned by Moniru Ravanipur, The Empty Palace of Soluch by Mahmoud Dawlatâbâdi, and Christine and Kid by the late Houshang Golshiri from a list of six to eight titles. "These are literary novels in the sense that they're well written works by respected Iranian novelists, works that we all agree deserve translation," says William Strachan, an executive editor at Hyperion and member of the IFTP.

Jeri Laber, a human rights advocate and consultant to the IFTP, says the goal of the initiative is not only to familiarize English-speaking readers with contemporary Iranian writers whose works "will serve the cause of promoting greater understanding between Americans and the Iranian people," but also to increase the profile of translations in this country. "Although U.S. literature is published in translation throughout the world, a shockingly small number of foreign works are translated and published in the United States," Laber says. "It is our aim to help correct this imbalance and forge closer literary ties among all people."

A National Endowment for the Arts study found that only three hundred or so of the ten thousand fiction and poetry books published in the United States in 1999 were translations. And according to figures compiled by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 50 percent of all translations published worldwide are translated from English, while only 6 percent are translated into English.

The IFTP's inability to find publishers for the novels illustrates the fact that books in translation remain a difficult sell to American readers. "We're fighting the classic problem that little gets translated here," Strachan says. "A lot of publishers have asked to see these works, some have already said no, and we're still waiting to hear from others. I'm very hopeful." While it is likely that university and small presses will take up the novels, Strachan says IFTP does not want to give up yet on finding commercial publishers, who could offer more exposure and wider distribution for the translations.

The committee has already used $10,000 of the Open Society's grant to underwrite partial translations and synopses for the three novels in hopes of enticing American publishers to take on the books. "This is the first such initiative that I know of in America—providing publishers with sample translations, underwritten by nonprofit organizations," says IFTP chair Hal Fessenden. Translators solicited for the project include M.R. Ghanoonparvar for The Drowned, Judith M. Wilks for The Empty Palace of Soluch, and Roxanne Zand for Christine and Kid.

After the books were selected and the sample translation completed, the committee asked New York literary agent Charlotte Sheedy to represent the novels, which she agreed to do on a pro bono basis. Her agency has represented a number of international authors, including last year's Goncourt Prize–winner Laurent Gaudé, Romanian-born Dumitru Tepeneag, and Albanian writer and photographer Ornela Vorpsi, among others.

While there have been no takers for the novels, the IFTP recently gave $10,000 to New York City–based Arcade Publishing to help offset the cost of publishing and promoting a book it had already scheduled for release: Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature, edited by Nahid Mozaffari. To celebrate its April publication, the PEN American Center, a membership organization of writers and editors, hosted a reading by several of the book's contributors during PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature, at the New School in Manhattan.

Publishers interested in reviewing one or more of the partial translations and synopses of the Iranian novels should contact the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency in New York City.

Joe Woodward is the author of Small Matters: A Year in Writing.