Argentina’s honorary status at the Frankfurt Book Fair boosts translations in a struggling market

While the sale of translation rights for German books has dropped significantly, translators from Spanish have been inundated with work, thanks to Argentina’s honorary status at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Writers from the guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair have a unique opportunity to make their work known in other parts of the world.

To the dismay of writers and publishers, the government revealed that the cultural icons it would be using to represent the country included the legendary presidential spouse Eva (“Evita”) Peron and the footballer Diego Maradona, but left out the great Argentine writers Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. In the beginning it was not clear what the government’s plan was,” remembers Guillermo Martinez, the only Argentine author apart from Borges to have had a short story published in The New Yorker. “I was critical at that time because I thought they were missing one of the points of the fair.”

The Argentine government reacted swiftly to the concerns expressed by Martinez and other writers. In February 2009, it announced the launch of SUR, a subsidy fund to be put at the disposal of foreign publishers wanting to translate Argentine literature into other languages. The program was an unexpected success and, within months, the government’s target of 100 grants had been tripled. Within 14 months the translation of 300 books had been subsidized.

Now firmly convinced of the political importance of cultural representation abroad, the Argentine government has announced that the SUR program will continue to fund translations of Argentine literature long after the Frankfurt Book Fair has ended.

Ironically, as the Frankfurt Book Fair is giving an unprecedented boost to Argentine translation, its home market is suffering a dramatic slump. The German Publishers and Booksellers Association calculates that, in the period from 2008 to 2009, the sale of translation rights for German publications dropped by 17.5 percent.