JUDGING BY bestseller lists, Americans like to read mysteries, books recommended by Oprah, and books about success and weight loss. Unfortunately, this leaves out a whole world of books: those published in other languages in other countries.
To close the global gap, the National Endowment for the Arts gives out International Literature Awards, grants for nonprofit presses to publish and promote translated books.
The endowment is righting a translation trade imbalance. Many books written in English are translated into other languages. ("Harry Potter" is a towering example.) But far fewer foreign books are translated into English. Precise counts are hard to find, but researchers tallying reviews in Publishers Weekly found that in 2005 only 3.5 percent of reviews were of foreign books, a figure that's consistent with other estimates.
Translating literature is tricky and fascinating, a matter not simply of getting the words right, but also of conveying the sense, tone, and associations.
". . . the closest thing to it was in those large English Victorian novels, brought forward by way of Faulkner," Edith Grossman told U S News and World Report in 2004, explaining how she translated Gabriel García Márquez's novel "Love in the Time of Cholera."
Another challenge is getting foreign books noticed in a world of IM-ing, Web-surfing, television-watching Americans. The endowment's grant is a good start. But others should join in -- including the nation's first lady/librarian, Laura Bush.
This year's newly announced $10,000 grants go to three publishers:
Archipelago Books, in Brooklyn, is publishing "Vredaman," a novel about a young boy written by Unai Elorriaga, a Basque writer. The translation is being done by writer Amaia Gabantxo. Her translations have appeared in journals and in a book published by the University of Nevada Press, "An Anthology of Basque Short Stories."
Dalkey Archive Press, in Normal, Ill., is publishing "I'd Like," a collection of linked stories by Greek author Amanda Michalopoulou. The stories are being translated by Karen Emmerich. On its web site, Dalkey's director John O'Brien says the goal is to be a permanent home to world literature. An international coalition of individuals and foundations helps pay for this house of books.
Etruscan Press in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is publishing "Amerikaniki Fouga" (American Fugue), a novel by Greek author Alexis Stamatis that takes place in the United States. Stamatis worked on the book during a residency at the University of Iowa. The translation is being done by writer Diane Thiel and her husband, Constantine Hadjilambrinos.
All the world is a book group -- or it could be if more Americans knew what people across the oceans are reading.