« Editorial

Building a Case for Translations, Part 2: “It’s Not The Elegance of the Hedgehog

• Last Friday, Chad Post argued for the need to prioritize how to increase readership of translated fiction instead of worrying first about how to pay production costs, in turn shifting the focus from production to marketing and sales.

• Today, he explains how the rare blockbuster bestselling translation is a mixed blessing, and why there’s still a reason to be optimistic about the future of translated literature in the United States.

Editorial by Chad Post

So, what can be done to accomplish the change in priority from “How do we pay for translated fiction?” into “How do we get more people interested in these books?”

First off, there’s the “publishers are sheep” problem. I once saw Scott Moyer (formerly of Random House and Penguin, currently working at the Andrew Wylie Agency) on a panel talking about Shadow of the Wind and how the success of that particular book caused editors to seek out the next Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Is this really what we need? Not that Zafon’s not talented, not that I don’t think people should read his books or books like them, but I’m pretty sure that publishers love imitation more than their audience does. Medium-hopping for a second, how many Lost-esque shows came out after the immediate success of Lost? I think about a billion, none of which are still on the air. Readers like similarities, not necessarily repetition. Publishers like sure things. There may be a problem here.

Not that it’s easy for anyone — psychic or not — to identify what’s going to take off. One of the reasons imitations don’t work is because audiences tend to be fickle. Trends are trends because they aren’t permanent.

But what might be worse from a culture standpoint is if readers do come to believe that all translations are equal.

Let me digress for a minute: I’m not going to go into it too much here, but I do want to say that one of my beliefs is that publishing — or media creation of any sort—is a special sort of industry. Sure, it’s an industry based on profit and loss and catering to needs and purchasing power, but it also has a larger import. What’s published affects culture as a whole. Ideas circulate thanks to books. Visions of the world at large are crafted by what we read and see. So treating publishing as solely a money game is missing the fact that most of this are in this because we know that books have power and that we are hopefully contributing to the greater good via our jobs. Or most probably. Maybe it’s just me and I’m deluded. But still.

A while ago, I came up with the idea of the “one country, one author” problem. For example: people found out about Jose Saramago, fell in love with Blindness, and didn’t bother reading other Portuguese writers because they had already read the best. And Garcia Marquez equals Colombia. Tolstoy was Russia.

OK, that last one is debatable and maybe the whole idea is a pile of crap, but let me tell a little story about what happened to us recently. Open Letter runs a subscription series whereby for $100 you receive 10 books over the next year. After we were featured in the New York Times, hundreds, literally hundreds of people signed up, not really knowing what kind of books they’d be getting, except that they were “translations.” One of the first books sent out to these new subscribers was Ilf & Petrov’s Russian classic The Golden Calf. This book is hysterical, readable, great fun. A couple weeks after sending it out, however, I received a letter in the mail from a new subscriber asking for a full refund, since “nothing I have ever read could prepare me for this. I don’t read a lot of translations and this was nothing like The Elegance of the Hedgehog.”

The Non-Beach Reading Audience

Running parallel to the beach readers is a smaller, yet very devoted, group of literary readers. These are people who get geeked about the Man Booker Longlist. These are people who made David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a New York Times bestseller. Who made Roberto Bolano’s 2666 a bestseller. Who made Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses a bestseller. These are the people who might read Steig Larsson, but may well crave Mathias Enard’s aforementioned Zone. These are readers who have always been around, always been on the fringes supporting the artists. This group is not half a tenth as large as publishers would like, but these are the readers who help mold literary tastes for years well into the future. And for the first time in history, it’s suddenly become much easier to reach and interact with these readers.

Everyone knows we live in a culture of mass markets. At any point in time it seems like everyone is reading the same twelve books. And this is comforting to publishers. If you can produce one of the twelve, you can capitalize on that shit. It’ll be stacked at Barnes & Noble. People will be reading it on the subway. Sure, there are those other readers who aren’t interested in these types of books, but man, they’re much harder to identify and reach. This is true, but for the readership for literature in translation to take off, I think you have to.

This is why publishing houses with strong brands — Archipelago, Europa Editions, New Directions — do better with literature than some of the major commercial houses. They may not have the distributing power, but they draw this other group of readers to them. In some ways, they’re in a better position to successfully publish a “non-commercial” translation than a Random House.

Multiple Approaches to the Readership Issue

I’m not trying to say independents are better publishers, or that we shouldn’t try and publish translated “beach books” in order to increase the audience for literature in translation — just that we need to take a multi-pronged approach to this situation.

On one hand, you have the presses identifying and marketing the hell out of translations that have the potential to become very, very popular. This is what a number of the major houses are really good at. And it makes them money and it helps them believe that there is an audience for these “foreign” books, and it leads them to publish more of these titles. All very positive.

And on the other side, you have the small presses who tend to focus on the books with a more diffuse readership. Books that “aren’t for everyone.” There’s nothing wrong with that. Some people like to rail against the culture-at-large for not appreciating this particular aesthetic. Which is kind of stupid. There is an audience for these books — it’s just up to the publisher (and any other organizations who’d like to help with money, ideas, or manpower) to find creative new ways to connect with these readers. We live in a digital age where social networks rule our time online and we’re more tuned in to one another’s lives than we’ve ever been. Whereas in the past there was that small group of readers who bonded over an obscure Grove publication, nowadays this same handful of readers can broadcast their love to similar groups across the country. And these numbers add up, and the influence these readers have can be monumental.

If different publishers, funders, reader-oriented organizations approach sides of this readership coin in different, yet equally innovative ways, (and yes, I realize that it’s sometimes really hard to distinguish what’s mass and what’s cult), some real change might come about. Hell, maybe a highly literary translation will be the beach book of summer 2011.

Chad Post is the director of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester.

DISCUSS: Is the lack of interest in translations a global problem?

READ: Part One of Chad Post’s editorial on building a readership for translations

READ MORE: About literature in translation on Three Percent, the blog of Open Letter

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  1. Shem Cohen
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Chad, though I generally sympathize with your ideas, his argument takes on some water almost immediately. You’re “pretty sure that publishers love imitation more than their audience does.” Obviously you’re casting a pejorative bent with your use of imitation, but that’s exactly what genre fiction is. So you’re solidly off here. Your “Lost” comparison is worse. If you want to use TV as a point of comparison, just how many Law & Orders were there? CSIs? These delivered an extremely regular product – if they were books there would be a destination diplay. Much of the rest of what you say is based on these false premises – that regular, predictable story telling doesn’t work – and I think you have trouble here. But – more importantly – I think you do great work though. Keep it up.

  2. Posted August 13, 2010 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    As a translator and an American reader, I have to say that I think the seeming distaste in the US for translated literature is well earned. All of us involved tend to make far too many excuses for lack of quality in the basics–readability, good grammar, sensible business practices etc. This was even more the case in the past. How hard is it to tell, without even looking at the front matter, if a book is a translation? Personally, I think I can guess 9/10 just by reading a single page. Between odd, out-of-register word choice, quirky punctuation, and bizarre syntax, why wouldn’t readers be put off? Unfamiliar idioms and unpronounceable names are often the least of the problems. Sure, Joe Sixpack is never going to want to read anything written by a foreigner, but the niche for translations need not be as small as it is. I think Chad has a great point, which I would summarize as the need to treat translated literature no differently than any other literature.

    There are plenty of ways this issue shows up, not holding translated literature to the same standards as other literature. One thing I see quite often is that those trying to sell translation rights act as if selling the rights of a book that has already been published somewhere else is somehow different from selling a book to its first publisher. When an author in the US is first trying to sell a book or book idea, they know they are up against huge odds and really have to do their homework. The successful ones carefully choose publishers and agents and then submit either a full manuscript or a sample plus full plot summary. But if you look at the foreign rights catalogs of publishing houses, what are they offering? A blurb. Sometimes the blurb indicates that a translation sample is available. So usually a rights purchaser knows nothing more than a reader scanning the dust jacket at the local bookseller. If there is a sample, the purchaser can sit down and read the first chapter or two. But is that enough to base a purchasing decision on? Not if the purchaser is serious about staying in the black. If that first chapter is interesting, they may commission a reader report, but why on earth would a rights seller (or translator) not just provide more information up front? Because they think that the book having already been published in the original language means more than it does. If we were to act more as if we were starting from scratch, we would see more rights sales. At least once I’ve seen a pretty odd publishing choice made seemingly only because there was a full manuscript translation available for the publisher to review. A poor translation of a book of little merit, especially compared to what else was available from the same country. But since the publisher could actually see what they would be getting, they went for it. Expecting translators to produce full translations on spec is far too much to ask, and I think tends to lead to melodramatic hobbyism not conducive to good translation decisions (i.e. source text worship), but producing a couple of pages of plot summary is a small investment.

    Much worse for the fate of translated literature once readers receive it is how few translations seem to receive serious editorial review. What publisher would expect to see the best seller lists without having the backstops of editors and proofreaders? Everyone needs an editor, especially translators, who are constantly struggling to hold onto the linguistic reality of their target language while immersed in a foreign text.

    I’m glad to see people like Chad getting serious about translated literature. We can’t just sit at home on Friday night waiting for the phone to ring.

  3. Posted August 13, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Oh, one other thought: how many translators or rights agents subscribe to the trades for the genres they’re working with? Not very many, I’m sure–yet another example of translation exceptionalism.

  4. greg gipson
    Posted August 13, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    First, yes, predictability sells, but translation isn’t a genre. So Shem seems to have been reading a translation of this article by an unsympathetic U.S. publisher. Second, the brand identity thing is definitely viable, within limits — I love Europa, mainly because Izzo taught me the best Scotch in the world. Similarly, I’ll check out books by NYRB or Dalkey that I wouldn’t otherwise have cared about because they have a solid track record with both the weird and the mainstream. But Europa, Dalkey, and NYRB also have a brand that says something about the TYPE of translated work they publish — I will spare you my summary of what that is, because I think each brand is broad enough to require some real space to explain. My point is only that, once the brand is established, the brand can also be a constraint to new directions (sorry, pun accidental) — maybe by then, the brand has allowed you to grow enough to be able to handle the experiments, a la Grove, which publishes the other Portuguese novelist, that young Polish one, and all the dirty old man stuff it always did. I question how badly you should want to brand yourself as anything besides eclectic, since publishing translation should be exactly that. And, Chad, thanks for getting the other two Kjaerstads out there — wish we could still put them in the window of Gotham.

  5. Posted August 13, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Well as a publisher you have to focus. Produce a good translation by employing a good translator and get the author involved. He or she is one of the few who can tell you if the translation does justice to their writing, provided of course the author enough knowledge of English, this actually is quite essential. Translate books which you think appeal to the English speaking market, get the author involved in marketing activities, and actually in this case it helps a lot if the publisher speaks the author’s language. That’s why we focus on just Dutch to English and by the way we publish in Dutch too.

  6. Posted August 14, 2010 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    “Produce a good translation by employing a good translator and get the author involved. He or she is one of the few who can tell you if the translation does justice to their writing, provided of course the author enough knowledge of English…”

    For books written in and translated into European languages, perhaps this is the case. But in my field — Chinese-to-English literary translation — I would be worried if the publisher believed the author to be “one of the few” people who could judge whether a translation into English was both faithful and highly readable. Few Chinese authors have mastered English, and even fewer read English-language fiction with real fluency.

    Bruce Humes
    “Chinese Books, English Reviews” (www.bruce-humes.com)

  7. Posted August 15, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    “I think Chad has a great point, which I would summarize as the need to treat translated literature no differently than any other literature.” (Owen Witesman, above)

    Agreed. And in the context of translations of Chinese works into English, that may well mean editing the translation aggressively — as one would edit a piece of fiction originally written in English.

    Why? Because much of what is published in China (even best-sellers), is largely unedited. The PRIMARY function of an editor in China is to ensure that the text is politically correct, i.e., that the book will not be banned, publication forestalled as changes are made according to censor’s guidelines, or otherwise cause grief to the publisher whose right to publish can be cancelled for political sins. That leaves precious little time for traditional “editing.”

    In my opinion, publishers in the West who buy the rights to a Chinese book must have the confidence to edit it as they see fit. The idea that one is somehow being “true” to the original work by publishing it in its full form may also be doing it a disservice; even when I translate a mainland author, I always insist on using the version printed in Hong Kong or Taiwan, for two reasons: 1) They are often based on an uncensored version provided by the author; 2) Taiwanese editors in particular are more likely to spend time on editing the text for better readability.

    This sort of aggressive editing has been carried out on well-known works such as “Wolf Totem” from Penguin. Even though the book earned the Chinese author (Jiang Rong, aka Lü Jiamin)a huge US$100,000 advance, sales of the book (translated by Howard Goldblatt) have (reportedly) been somewhat flat in the West. One big reason, in my opinion, is that a lot of copy was cut…but not enough!

    Bruce Humes
    “Chinese Books, English Reviews” (www.bruce-humes.com)

  8. Tallulah
    Posted August 17, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    In short, should we perhaps stop talking about ‘translations’ as ‘translations’, and just call them ‘books’? That might take away some of the apprehension.

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