The request came from the U.S. cultural affairs office in Belgrade more than a year ago. Wanted: an American history text -- translated into Serbo-Croatian -- that would give Yugoslavian university students access to an American version of American history.
After several meetings of its policy experts, the United States Information Agency decided that Henry Bamford Parkes' "The United States of America: A History" fit the bill. The USIA, therefore, is subsidizing the translation, distribution and sale of several thousand copies of the text so it will be available to any interested Yugoslav "for several years to come," one USIA official said.
Thus, in tiny increments, one of the government's smallest export-subsidy programs chugs along, arranging the foreign publication of more than 150 titles and nearly 600,000 volumes annually. Although the program has shrunk since the 1960s when it was publishing 12.5 million volumes, it still spreads the ideas of authors such as supply-side economist George Gilder and terrorism expert Claire Sterling, novelists Jerzy Kosinski and Mark Twain -- not to mention child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock -- from Casablanca to Seoul.
Most American books translated and sold in overseas markets need no government help. In 1980, American publishers sold abroad books worth $510 million, with 60 percent of the proceeds coming from college texts, professional and reference books and 26 percent from trade -- or general-interest -- hardcover and paperback books, according to the private Book Industry Study Group.
The idea behind the USIA book translation program is to offer books on politics, literature, history, economics and engineering to countries that present commercial publishers with a clearly unprofitable market. The names of commercially successful authors are not likely to be found on the USIA's annual list of "Books Published in Translation and in English."
"We like serious books, substantive books. We make a conscious effort to have a range of books so we won't be skewed one way or another on the intellectual horizon," said Jerry Prillaman, director of the USIA's book division. "We do Galbraith, we do Friedman. We do Friedman, we do Galbraith. We chase our tails a little in that respect," he added, referring to John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman, central figures in the (respectively) liberal and conservative schools of economic analysis.
In the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, however, the book division "did" more Caspar W. Weinberger than anyone else. In the first two full fiscal years of the Reagan administration, the USIA subsidized the publication of 164,500 copies of the Defense Department publication "Soviet Military Power" -- nominally written by the defense secretary -- in the languages of major NATO allies, from French to German to Italian.
It also supported the translation into Arabic, Spanish, French and Korean of "Wealth and Poverty," the seminal work by Gilder, whose theories were endorsed by several of President Reagan's major economic policy-makers.
And in 1981, the USIA veered from its informal "no best-sellers" policy and backed the translation into Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and French of Sterling's best-selling work, "The Terror Network," which argues that there is a major Communist influence behind many terrorist organizations.
"That was an exception . . . ," Prillaman said. "That was a book of such central interest to the policy concerns of the U.S. government that we picked it up anyway . . . . Usually, we try to back books that wouldn't otherwise be published [abroad]." It is not unusual, he added, for the USIA's book program to try to make the intellectual underpinnings of an administration more widely understood abroad.
In fact, in fiscal 1978, the USIA supported the French translation of a book on unions co-written by then-Labor Secretary Ray F. Marshall (4,000 copies), the Spanish-language translation of a work on totalitarian governments co-written by then-National Security Affairs Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (3,000 copies), and the Spanish and Portugese translations (6,000 copies total) of a work on solar energy by Denis Hayes, then head of the federal Solar Energy Research Institute.
Yet whatever political spin there may be to agency's annual list, there is a whimsical tinge as well. In one year, 1979, the USIA backed the Bengali translation of a Saul Bellow novel, one Arthur Miller play ("Death of a Salesman") and two by Thornton Wilder. Prillaman's boss, Guy Brown, who heads the Cultural Centers and Resources Office, said he didn't know why the agency made those choices.
There was a heavy run last year in Mexico on works of scientific history, with the USIA subsidizing translations of biographies of Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein.
And in 1984, the agency requested the right to reprint in Thai selections from author Tom Wolfe. "We got a contract from USIA covering 300 copies for sale in Thailand," said Maggie Curran, a literary agent in the foreign rights department of International Creative Management in New York. A USIA contract, she said, provides negligible cash benefits to the authors or their American publishers. "I don't think I've ever seen $1,000. I've seen $100 or $300," she said.
Few agents would sell the USIA publishing rights in major foreign book markets like Japan, France or Germany, she added. Indeed, none of the USIA's book lists from fiscal 1978 through fiscal 1983 (fiscal 1980 was not available) included a Japanese translation. Japan, with a literacy rate of nearly 100 percent and a public with a voracious appetite for books, is one of the most profitable foreign markets.
The book division's budget for the current fiscal year is $461,000, which does not include funds spent for translation under other sections of the USIA budget.
Brown and Prillaman said the USIA sifts requests from its representatives abroad and convenes informal panels of experts to decide which requests to grant and, in the case of the Yugoslav request, which title to select. Prillaman would not say which books are rejected.
"We don't reject books," he said. "Certain books are selected."