We’ve often been told that only 3% of the fiction on sale every year in the English-speaking world has been translated from any other language. I can tell you it’s true. Agents try to be optimistic: “There is an increasing audience for translated fiction,” we say. “Look at Murakami and Stieg Larsson’s sales in the U.S. and U.K.”
But the 3% is still there. In most European countries, though, translated fiction is around 30% of the fiction published yearly—and consider that most Europeans (outside the United Kingdom and Ireland) can read two or three or more different languages easily and can buy the original editions.
But as daunting as the numbers seem, making the sale is never impossible. Example: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (which could be the English language title) is the debut novel by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson. It’s not crime fiction, it’s not a thriller, but just pure entertainment. In Sweden, the novel sold a million copies and has been #1 on bestseller lists for hardcover, paperback, and audio. At the Pontas Agency, we have represented Jonas Jonasson internationally since January 2010. Translation rights into 24 languages sold quickly to an amazing list of publishing houses (most of them winning auctions) while not one English-language publisher was interested. A success all through Scandinavia, the novel was published in France in March 2011 and in Italy in April. Five months later, sales were more than 80,000 copies in both countries; in the Netherlands almost 50,000 copies sold in a few months, and in Germany, a first print run of 30,000 copies hit stores on August 28, 2011. “The funniest and most intelligent picaresque novel in a long time! Just great!” said a bookseller from the city of Brühl. A second printing is expected and critics have been overwhelmingly positive. We have also sold film rights to a Swedish production company (at auction, too), and now several Hollywood producers are discussing the remake rights with them.
Meanwhile, we were receiving e-mails from unknown people who found us linked to the novel on the Internet: “I have just returned from holiday where I heard a woman laughing out loud on the beach. She was reading this book. When can I read it in English? SOON Please!”
Nearly every U.S., Canadian, U.K., Irish, Australian, and New Zealand publishing house was sent the proposal, sometimes twice or even more (we have to be persistent!). But despite the great international success, we kept receiving rejections from the big groups to the independent ones: “Thanks for the updates. It’s with regret that I won’t be moving forward on this novel. Though I do see the potential, I’m afraid it’s a tough sell without a proper English translation.”
A proper English translation? The author had invested in a full draft translation into English anticipating just this response. (In non–English-speaking countries, we sold the rights without any translation.)
Luckily, this story has a happy ending. We did sell the English world rights to Jonasson’s novel: Hyperion bought world rights and Hesperus Press got the U.K. and Ireland. We are very happy. It took hundreds of e-mails, dozens of phone calls, and meetings in New York and London (besides meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair and other events around the world) to sell the English rights to this proven success. Can you imagine how huge a mountain it is to climb for any literary agent trying to sell something with less of a pedigree?
But here we are. Ready for the next mountain, trying to sell wonderful French novels, amazing Brazilian discoveries, Catalan treasures, and Arabic contemporary classics, and when we get a translation contract in the English-speaking world, we plant a flag saying: “We made it, one more!” Who knows, maybe the English-speaking citizens of the world will make the effort to learn more languages and buy books abroad so the exports will go in other directions. Now that would be interesting.
Anna Soler-Pont founded the Pontas Literary & Film Agency, based in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, and since then she has fought every day to get international fiction translated into all markets.