FRANKFURT — David R. Godine, a small independent publisher from Boston, sat down at a French publisher’s booth here at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the annual gathering of the international literary world. “O.K., what’s great?” he asked.
Mr. Godine — who emerged prescient and lucky this month when one of the authors he publishes in translation, the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, won the Nobel Prize in Literature — is one of a handful of American publishers who regularly seek out books to translate during the fair every year.
It is a commonly held assumption that Americans don’t like to read authors who write in languages they don’t understand. That belief persists here in Frankfurt, where publishers from 100 countries show off a smorgasbord of their best — or at least best-selling — books.
By and large, the American publishers spend most of the week in Hall 8, the enormous exhibit space where English-language publishers hold court.
Although there are exceptions among the big publishing houses, the editors from the United States are generally more likely to bid on other hyped American or British titles than to look for new literature in the international halls.
According to Chad W. Post, the director of Open Letter, a new press based at the University of Rochester that focuses exclusively on books in translation, 330 works of foreign literature — or a little more than 2 percent of the estimated total of 15,000 titles released — have been published in the United States so far this year.
That apparent dearth of literature in translation in the United States was the subject of controversial remarks by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the organization that awards the Nobel Prize, a week before the prize did not go to an American.
“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” Mr. Engdahl said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.”
It is left mostly to small publishers like Mr. Godine, who hustled through the vast halls, getting lost among the Eastern European booths on his way to an Italian publisher, to scavenge for hidden treasures outside the United States.
On Wednesday, when Mr. Godine met with Anne Bouteloup, the director of foreign rights at the children’s imprint of Gallimard, Mr. Le Clézio’s French publisher, Ms. Bouteloup showed him “Voyage au Pays des Arbres” (“Journey to the Country of Trees”) a children’s book by the newest Nobel laureate.
Mr. Godine flipped through the small book. “We probably should do it,” he murmured. He slipped his business card behind the front cover to remind Ms. Bouteloup that he was interested.
About 10 to 15 percent of Mr. Godine’s list is composed of books in translation, many of which he hears about at the fair each year.
Mr. Godine, who has been running his publishing house for 38 years, said he published foreign authors because it gave his tiny press literary credibility. But he said there was also a basic economic reason.
“When you look at how much is paid for a mediocre midlist author” in the United States, he said, “and how much you have to pay to get a world-class author who has been translated into 18 languages, it is ridiculous that more people don’t invest in buying great literature.” Mr. Godine said he had purchased the rights to a foreign book for as little as $2,000.
Fiona McCrae, director and publisher of Graywolf Press, a nonprofit publisher based in St. Paul that has had a breakout best seller with “Out Stealing Horses,” a novel by Per Petterson of Norway, said that small publishers could not afford to buy books by the best authors in the United States but that they often could acquire works from top authors if they looked abroad.
“Philip Roth is not going to suddenly be published by Graywolf,” Ms. McCrae said after meeting with an agent from Barcelona who pitched several Spanish titles to her. “So you see who is the Philip Roth of Italy or who is an interesting writer out of Sweden.” Ms. McCrae also noted that Graywolf is supported by foundation grants specifically aimed at publishing foreign titles.
To help spur more translations, government-sponsored cultural agencies in Europe and elsewhere subsidize — or fully cover — the cost of translating books into English.
At a meeting on Wednesday morning with the Flemish Literary Fund, Jill Schoolman, the publisher and editor in chief of Archipelago Books, a nonprofit Brooklyn publisher of works in translation, discussed her plans to bring out “Wonder,” a novel by Hugo Claus, a Belgian writer who was frequently discussed as a Nobel contender before he died by euthanasia earlier this year.
Greet Ramael, the prose grants manager at the Flemish fund, handed her an application for translation reimbursement for Mr. Claus’s novel.
“The translation costs are often a deterrent or a reason not to translate a book,” Ms. Ramael said.
Some of the larger American publishers said monolingual editors fear making risky buying decisions based on short translated excerpts.
“It is hard enough to publish a book when you have read the whole thing and know you love it,” said Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little, Brown, as he sat in his company’s booth waiting for his next appointment.
There is also the oft-repeated American maxim that books in translation don’t sell.
Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign-rights director at Gallimard in France, said American publishers did not support translated books with marketing budgets and then complained when sales failed to dazzle.
Ms. Noble said she was amused — but also appeared irritated — when she recounted running into an American publisher who, on the first night of the fair, described Mr. Le Clézio as “an unknown writer.”
“American publishers are depriving the American readership of the cultural diversity through translation to which they are entitled,” Ms. Noble said. “It is what I call the poverty of the rich.”
Ms. Noble said she was not commenting on the quality of American writers, many of whom — Philip Roth and Claire Messud among them — are published by Gallimard in French and whose photos were prominently displayed in the booth.
American publishers devoted to translating say there is no shortage of gems. On Thursday Mr. Post of Open Letter eagerly plunged into one of the international halls, plucking brochures of translated English excerpts from stands hosted by cultural agencies from Croatia, Latvia, Poland, China and Korea.
Frankfurt, he said, is about renewing contacts with people whose judgment he trusts and who can help him winnow the hundreds of titles he hears about here and elsewhere.
For his part, Mr. Godine said Frankfurt helped him discover, among many others, the Nobel-winning Mr. Le Clézio. “Even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut,” he said.