Criticism & Features


Conversations With Literary Websites: Three Percent

By Mark Athitakis

This post continues a series on Critical Mass featuring websites dedicated to book reviewing online. Read previous Q&As with The Rumpus, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, and Open Letters Monthly.

Since 2007, Three Percent has been reviewing translated books and commenting on works in translation. (The site's name refers to one reported estimate that only three percent of the books published in the United States are translations.) Headquartered at the University of Rochester, the site is connected to the school's translation program as well as its book publisher, Open Letter Books, which publishes one new work each month (readers can subscribe to the series). Chad W. Post, director of Three Percent and Open Letter, is the former associate director at Dalkey Archive Press and cofounder of Reading the World, a collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote international literature. He answered questions from NBCC board member Mark Athitakis about Three Percent via email.

What was the impetus for creating Three Percent? Were you mainly frustrated with the lack of books available in translation or with the lack of coverage those books were getting in review outlets? How much of it was it a natural extension of your work at Dalkey Archive Press and Reading the World?
There were a few different reasons for starting Three Percent. I came up with the idea shortly after leaving Dalkey Archive for the University of Rochester to help start a new publishing house doing exclusively literature in translations. Obviously, putting together a press (much less one at a university), takes a lot of time and even after we had figured out a lot of the details for Open Letter, we knew that the first book wouldn’t be out until September 2008 at the earliest. This was in May/June of 2007, and to me and my ADD, this seemed like an eternity. As you allude to in your question, during my time at Dalkey I was involved in a lot of translation-related stuff, including the Reading the World program. I have a great love of international literature, and I also have a great love of talking with book people. My time at Dalkey made me harshly aware of how many translations just slip through the cracks, receiving next to no review attention. Out of these myriad concerns—lack of review attention, desire to communicate with cool book people, my inability to sit still—Three Percent was born. Initially our idea (our senior editor E.J. Van Lanen was instrumental in getting TP going, including designing the site) was to have a daily blog aggregating info about literature in translation from around the world along with weekly book reviews. Something similar to what Michael Orthofer does at Complete Review/Literary Saloon. Over time this has expanded to include the “Translation Database” (so we can figure out exactly what new translations are coming out, from where, and what the real percentage is) and the Best Translated Book Awards.
How do you decide which books to review at Three Percent every month?
It’s a mixture of my interests and the interests of the reviewers who write for us. I personally enter all the info into the Translation Database, and while doing so, pick out titles that I’d like to at least take a look at. I tend to look for a mix of “big” translations (like the Bolano books, titles coming out from Dalkey or Archipelago, etc.) and more university and small press books. I particularly like when we can review something that I sort of know won’t be getting a lot of attention, but sounds fantastic because of the plot, style, or author’s life. Since our readers are pretty diverse—and international—and include a lot of publishing folks and translators, I feel like it’s part of our mission to seek out these books.  
Where do you draw your reviewers from? What skill sets do you look for when it comes to reviewing works in translation that might not be as common among other reviewers?
A number of our reviewers are either booksellers or translators. Or really well-read people who have a special interest in international literature. I guess that’s really the special thing about the people who review for Three Percent—they tend to know a lot more about international writers and are able to create a context for these books. 

What do you think drives the relative disinterest among mainstream review outlets to cover works in translation?

A few years ago, I was on a panel with Daniel Soar of the London Review of Books that focused on obstacles in publishing and promoting literature in translation. I remember that Daniel was really surprised when in preparing for the panel he looked back over recent issues of the LRB and noticed how few international books they’d reviewed. He had naturally—as had I to be honest—assumed that they were doing a pretty good job. I don’t think that reviewers—or book review editors—are opposed to covering international literature, I just think there are some contextual issues that make it more difficult. For one, the vast majority of translations (about 85%) are coming from small, independent, and university presses. Presses that aren’t necessarily in the position to know a lot of book reviewers personally, or capable of throwing a lot of money at a book, etc. And not to put it too bluntly, but a lot of smaller presses are pretty mediocre at publicity, making them really easy to overlook. This ties directly into the second problem: when a book review editor receives a work in translation, it’s probably from an author they’ve never heard of before. Even worse when it’s an author from a country whose literary tradition is unknown to you. If the publisher doesn’t provide a lot of interesting, useful context-building information, it can be hard to decide where an author fits into a particular tradition—not just within his/her country, but in terms of World Literature as a whole. Contrast this with how an American author’s debut is introduced: excerpts appear in various journals well in advance; the author can be taken to various NY book parties and meet reviewers, editors, and the like; the reference points (author X is like author Y + Z – A) are much more obvious and known; and finally, the buzz that builds around these books makes them difficult to ignore. In many (most?) ways the marketing of a translation versus the marketing of a book in English is pretty much the same. But the ways that it differs—reputation recognition, general familiarity with a country’s literary history—makes marketing translations much more challenging. Add in the shrinking print coverage for book reviews, and it obvious why the majority of reviews for international works are appearing in online magazines and blogs. 
How does the University of Rochester’s translation studies program and Open Letter Books work together with Three Percent? Is there financial benefit for the website that comes through an affiliation with the university and press?
Open Letter and Three Percent are both run by the same people (namely myself, E.J., and Nathan Furl), and we’re part of the U of R’s translation studies programs. Our missions all intersect in various ways: the translation program is about training a new generation of translators and international literature aficionados, Open Letter wants to increase the number of works in translation available to English readers, and Three Percent wants to help raise awareness of international literature and publishing issues. All three work together really well (a very pretty Venn diagram!) to try and do a bit to open up American book culture to more diverse voices. Not so sure there’s a direct financial benefit to Three Percent, but I do know that TP brings some additional attention to the University of Rochester, which can pay off in a number of ways.

The site's name reflects the oft-cited statistic that three percent of the books published in the United States are works in translation. Since the site's launch in 2007, have you seen changes that suggest the site would need a new name to be accurate? (Two Percent? Four Percent?)
Actually seems like it should be much smaller . . . But it depends on how you look at it. Approx. 3% of all works of fiction and poetry published in the U.S. are in translation. At the same time, over the past few years, the overall number of books published in the U.S. has exploded—especially if you include self-published titles. That’s not the case with translations. Or at least they haven’t kept pace. The number of new translations coming out every year has remained pretty level, while publishing stats in general have exploded . . . Nevertheless, I like the name Three Percent. If nothing else, it’s a powerful symbol and points to the fact that there’s a lot more literature out there to explore and find out about.