Analyzing the 3% Problem with Open Letter's Chad Post

How many English translations of French literature were published last year? Who is publishing Romanian poetry in English? Where can English speakers read the work of new voices from Ukraine or the Congo? Are US companies publishing more or fewer translations than five years ago?


Amazon doesn’t know the answers. Google couldn’t tell you either. In fact, no one knew until the people at Open Letter, a nonprofit literary translation press at University of Rochester, began cataloging the information and publishing it in 2008. Thanks to the Open Letter’s 3% Translation Database, literary and publishing communities have access to eight years of accurate industry data to tell them who is publishing what, from where, and by whom That wealth of data is already helping to identify trends and changes in the landscape of literature in translation.




It’s often quoted that only 3% of the books published in English each year are translations and when Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter, first heard the number he was suspicious. “We thought it was probably too high,” he said. Open Letter publishes ten books of translated literature a year, creates and manages the 3% database, and operates the 3% Blog, which publishes reviews of new translated books, industry news, and other commentary about translated literature. Open Letter recently published Post’s ebook The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading, which was largely created from 3% blog entries.



The people at Open Letter wanted to know exactly how many books of new, original literature were being published each year and they quickly discovered that none of the systems designed to catalogue books tracked the information. So they decided to go after it themselves. Once they got the word out about what they were doing, publishers started sending catalogs and contacting Open Letter whenever new books were published.  The database was and still is compiled by hand mostly by interns or by Post himself.


“It’s not that hard when there are only about 580 books a year,” Post said.


The database includes books of original poetry and fiction that have unique ISBN numbers. Self- published books, memoir, nonfiction, and children’s picture books are typically not included. Because they do all the work and carefully evaluate each entry, inaccurate entries such as retranslated books, informational books or textbooks, and classics get weeded out.


The database is online as a downloadable Excel spreadsheet that Post exports from the software on his computer. He would love to make the it available online in searchable, real-time format. “I have access to so much more information than what others can easily see online,” he said. Right now, creating the database requires time and effort, but additional funding for technology and development would be needed to bring it to the next level.


Niches and Growing Interest

So what has eight years of data gathering told us? That’s a tricky question.


On one hand, we have learned a lot. We know the number of translations has increased since 2008—growing from 361 to 573 in 2015, and we know that the big three languages of French, German, and Spanish have fairly consistently accounted for close to half of all the books translated. We can also look at the topics such as gender and see that male authors and translators are published more often than female authors and translators.


Post warned that making too many assumptions from the data can be problematic. It’s easy to skew such a small dataset with changes caused by international events and politics, or just the opening of a new press or an imprint specializing in one language. For example, recently, there has been an increase in the number of Korean and Arabic translations, but only 22 books of Arabic literature and 12 books of Korean literature were published in 2015, so it’s difficult call that a steady trend.


Overall, since the database started, there have been some interesting changes in the publishing landscape. While the big US publishers haven’t increased the number of translations they publish, more and more small and medium-sized players have entered the game. In 2011, Amazon Crossings launched and soon after became the biggest publisher of translated literature.


“There is a growing interest. I think we will continue to see more small to medium sized publishers with a very limited focuses who are working with booksellers and directly with audiences.” It’s also encouraging that presses like Open Letter, Dalkey Archive, and Europa Editions have been able to sustain and grow over the past eight years. “They aren’t expecting to sell like 50,000+ copies like the big publishers. I think they are finding they can survive selling fewer books,” he said.


Most of those small presses like Open Letter are driven by a dedication to bringing great world literature to English readers. While the database shows that progress is a little slow, passion is driving those books to market and proving there are readers out their waiting for them.