Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Hosts of Book Fair Hold World's Publishing Crown


IF the worldwide publishing industry can be said to have a hometown, it is Frankfurt, which has just played host again to the world's largest international book fair.

With its strong bookselling infrastructure and its affluent population, Germany retains a special place in the global publishing market. The German-language market has a strong appetite for literature and other works in translation. With their home-grown authors in something of a slump, readers of German absorb books and ideas from other countries like a sponge.

About these ads

For authors writing in languages with only a small number of speakers, translation into German is often a first step to translation into other languages and to worldwide recognition.

Like apple pie and baseball are in the United States, bookstores are an inescapable part of Germany's cultural identity. Eugen Emmerling, spokesman for the German publishers' and booksellers' trade associations, says that in Germany one is typically not more than 15 to 20 minutes away from a bookshop.

The association is in effect a cartel, with fixed prices (as is the case in most of the European Union). And books here get a special low value-added tax rate of 7 percent.

It all adds up to a fairly strong print market, nearly $12 billion annually, with 3 percent growth last year and 2.5 percent expected for 1995. ''In the second generation since television, reading is alive and well,'' says Mr. Emmerling.

The daily newspapers are filled with ads that make the authors look as glamorous as movie stars, but more thoughtful.

In smallish type across the bottom of the first page often reads that this or that work is translated ''from the English'' or ''from the Italian'' - or ''from the American.''

One book in 7 in Germany is a translation, Emmerling says, and some sources estimate a higher figure. The trend has been upward over the past decade, and in such areas as fiction and poetry, translations are more than 40 percent of the whole.

About these ads

It is not this way in the United States, where, as one American editor puts it, ''You don't get translated unless you're Heinrich Boll'' or some other Nobel Prize-winner.

Not that English-language publishers don't make a lot of money selling rights to translations, but the English-language market is big enough to be a world unto itself, in a way that the German-language market is not. But the German market is big enough - with 100 million native speakers, plus an estimated 100 million additional speakers of German as a second language, especially in the new markets of Eastern Europe - to be worth trying to sell to.

Still, one has to ask, Where are the German authors?

''That's the question our critics keep asking - and our readers,'' says Susanne John, a spokeswoman for Carl Hanswer Verlag in Munich, who estimates that there are 3 translated books for every 2 German originals at her firm.

All too many contemporary German authors write in a style too complicated for typical readers to enjoy, she adds. ''We try to find books of literary quality that are still entertaining to read - issue-oriented but readable.''

Uwe Wittstock, an editor at S. Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt, says too many contemporary German writers seem stuck on personal problems or their problems as writers, and so ''Germans prefer the Anglo-Saxons - John Updike, Philip Roth.''

''We need a change,'' he adds. ''Serious literature must be entertaining to read. Serious American authors understand this.''

About 70 percent of translations in German are from English. This proportion holds in other parts of Europe, Emmerling, the publisher's spokesman says.

''We look first to English,'' Ms. John says, ''because that's what we know; that's our first [foreign] language. But we also look to Danish, Norwegian - languages that fewer people know, but that have strong literary traditions.''

Translation into German often serves as a ''door opener'' for a new book, so that it is further translated and more widely distributed.

''It's very different in eastern Germany, where so many people grew up with Russian or Czech instead of English'' as their second language, she adds. Accordingly, publishers in eastern Germany tend to have more translations from those languages.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.