Crossing Cultures: AmazonCrossing makes a big impact on the world of literary translation
In 2016, AmazonCrossing, the publishing arm of the online retail giant, was the largest US publisher of translated fiction for the third year running. Although some may see this as a welcome development, helping to remedy the fact that translated literature makes up a very small part of the English language market, others have been more sceptical.
Historically, English-speaking readers have been reluctant to engage with foreign fiction, with only three percent of all books published in English being translated from other languages. Amazon’s foray into the market has therefore been welcomed by some in the literary translation community, such as Chad Post, an academic at the University of Rochester and advocate for the translation of foreign-language fiction into English. In an industry that is traditionally highbrow, not least in its choice of titles for translation, Amazon has chosen to translate genre fiction. In this way, it may be seen as filling a perceived gap in the market, and gaining more readers for translated titles. In addition, the internet giant is throwing its considerable financial weight behind literary translation. In 2014, it announced a $6.5m investment over the period up until 2023 “to increase the number and diversity of its books in translation.”
Nevertheless, not everyone has welcomed AmazonCrossing’s entry into the literary translation market. Its method of selecting translators, which uses a bidding system, has been particularly controversial. Although some see the company in a positive light for allowing literary translators to gain experience, it has faced harsh criticism for undermining translators’ rates of pay and working conditions. As well as facing suspicion from translators due to its exploitative practices, Amazon faces similar opposition from other publishers in the literary translation industry. This is due, in part, to its practise of making small publishers pay “advertising fees” to allow it to sell their books at discounted prices.
The company has also been making waves through its unconventional method of selecting titles to translate. As well as using recommendations from literary agents and foreign publishers, it takes the opinions of authors publishing on Kindle Direct and those of translators into account. It also allows translators to put forward new projects by translating sample pages and submitting proposals. Though AmazonCrossing may be controversial, it is clear that its unorthodox approach is the source of some important changes in the literary translation industry.