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Lost in Translations


One of the things I noticed when we were in Amsterdam was the large number of bookstores, and bookstores that appeared to be thriving. We saw specialty bookstores, international bookstores, children’s bookstores, artsy bookstores, political bookstores, and book-store cafés. All seemed to have that indie feel.

We saw fewer book shops (or is that shoppes?) in Copenhagen. In fact, I only recall seeing one, which was more commercial than those in Amsterdam—not that all bookstores aren’t in the commerce biz, but this was more mainstream and probably a chain. I am sure there were others; I just didn’t notice the same wealth and variety that we found on our Netherlands visit.

What caught my eye at the store in Copenhagen was a window display featuring book covers different from our U.S. releases. For example, see the striking cover for Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed novel Freedom below.


Then I noticed this other display of familiar new releases with unfamiliar covers. For one comparison, you can check out Amazon to see the Guillermo del Toro/Chuck Hogan collaboration The Fall, the U.S. cover of which is completely different from the bright red version show here.

Display Window

My first thought upon observing these titles was that the covers are different because the publisher is pitching to a Danish market. Then I went inside the store. It turned out that all of the books shown above are printed in English. Most of them are published in trade-paperback style, meaning hardcover size but paperback cover. Only a few select titles from the likes of Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham were published in true hardback form.

When I checked the prices, the paperback new releases sold at approximately $30 U.S., while the hardcovers retailed for the equivalent of about $10 more. Before you exclaim that $40 is a lot for a book title (our hardcover price point here in the U.S. is typically $24.95 or $29.95), take a gander at this:

Freedom in Danish

The photo above depicts the Danish version of Freedom, sold at 359 kr (Danish kroner/DKK). At the time of this photo, that was equivalent to approximately $66 U.S. (I could write a whole post about how expensive it is in Copenhagen; an ordinary café burger cost about $20.) It makes sense that additional translation costs could make foreign-language editions more expensive than their English-language counterparts, but still, $66?!

What didn’t make sense to me at all, though, was this business about the covers. Having different designs for the Danish and English versions is logical, as it keeps booksellers and customers from mixing up the merchandise. But why, then, is the English-language edition so markedly different from our U.S. copy? Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more consistent to make the English versions similar, if not precisely the same? And presuming that European tastes differ from those in the United States, wouldn’t it follow to print the Danish edition with a different cover instead?

If anyone out there understands the publishing “whys” on this topic, please comment with an explanation.

One amusing thing I saw when leaving the store was a “bargain bin” filled with the Danish version of Beedle the Bard, aka Barden Beedles Eventyr.

Beedle in Danish

The posted price works out to less than $6, not bad for a sale book, even in Denmark.


From → Books, Travel

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