By Brittany Hazelwood, German Book Office & Samantha Steele, French Publisher’s Agency
Last August in the sticky heat of late summer, a group of young editors, agents, scouts, and everything in between gathered for drinks at Sweet and Vicious Bar in New York City. From the outside, the meeting seemed to be nothing more than another networking happy hour for some of New York’s up-and-coming book professionals, but the conversation was pointedly different and the occasion unconventional. In fact, the buzz and chatter that evening had one central theme: literature in translation.
Publishing the World (PTW), organized by Brittany Hazelwood of the German Book Office (GBO) and Samantha Steele of the French Publishers’ Agency (FPA), was born from that very drinks hour. Our expectations for the event were humble, perhaps justifiably so considering how few works of literature are translated into English, compared with other languages. But, to our delight, our expectations were far and away outdone by reality. The bar was filled with young lovers of foreign literature. In fact that pesky 3% figure that haunts our professional lives, we learned, seemed disproportionately small for given the number of people who were there. This was a revelation, and was hardly forgettable.
As much as we enjoyed meeting like-minded compatriots fighting for the many overlooked and underrepresented foreign voices available in English, and the many more who are yet to be published, we felt like the discussion could benefit from a few concrete examples. And so on Wednesday, May 23rd we launched the PTW Translation Book Club and conducted our maiden meeting.
In many respects the PTW Translation Book Club is similar to others. There is wine, snacks, and conversations about character development, surprising plot details, general examination of language, and so on. But two distinctions are at the heart of the matter. Firstly, our members are from the industry and are often young, not in the sense of age necessarily, but more in terms of their career spectrum, be they editorial assistant, junior scout, or associate editor. And secondly, our primary concern is not content, but efficacy of translation and a work’s position on the US market. In this way, the works that are featured are both content and case study.
The inaugural PTW Translation Book Club kicked off with Daniel Sada’s English-language debut, Almost Never. In preparation for the meeting, we had the opportunity to interview three people who helped bring Sada to the US: former Graywolf acquiring editor Ethan Nosowsky, translator Katharine Silver, and Graywolf editor Steve Woodward. Sada, a legend and staple of Mexican literature, was known for his stylistically complicated and unexpected syntax, his use of both archaic Spanish and contemporary street slang, and his intricate meter. Often compared to James Joyce for his innovative use of language, particular works of his (including a nearly 700-page novel written in meter) have been described as untranslatable. But together renowned translator Katherine Silver and Ethan Nosowsky of Graywolf (he has since moved to McSweeney’s), conspired to bring this titan and beloved “writer’s writer” to English readers. Silver and Nosowsky ultimately chose Almost Never, because it is one of his more accessible works (lacking meter of any kind), but even still this mock-epic love story presents a significant challenge for any translator and thus any reader. According to Steve Woodward, Graywolf Editor, Sada represents an underlying principle within their publishing program, namely to introduce writers whose stories could not have been told in any other place except their country of origin. And indeed Almost Never is a perfectly preserved time capsule offering a view into a particular Mexican mise-en-scene “linguistically untouched by the influence of America and somewhere between post-revolution and pre-industrialization,” as Katherine Silver described it.
And as the beat goes on for literature in translation at the PTW Book Club, we are thrilled that we garnered a dedicated group of enthusiasts willing to add yet another book to their reading regimens. For each book that we feature, we endeavor to speak to the makers of that work, because often there are many names that go unrecognized as champions of translation. Their insight, be it from an editorial or a translation perspective, is priceless in understanding the life of a work of translation and a work’s journey to US shelves is often a fascinating story in itself. So for our first venture, we are grateful to Katherine Silver, Ethan Nosowsky and Steve Woodward for sharing a bit of time to reminisce on Sada’s coming to America.
Our selection of books will be more literary, but peppered with an occasional YA or nonfiction title and perhaps even one of those ever-multiplying Swedish crime novels. Also, in our effort to offer a toolkit of sorts to amateurs in the world of literature in translation, we have created the Publishing the World blog, which will feature weekly wrap-ups, aggregating noteworthy articles across the web, short interviews, book reviews, dedications, and perhaps an occasional rant or two. There is even mumblings of starting up an informal lending library.
At the conclusion of our first book club meeting, we asked a more classic question to those in attendance: What is the benefit of reading in translation? Among the answers, many were peppered with a genuinely worthy sentiment to learn about cultures near and far. But for us one answer struck a chord: What you receive from works in translation is a reading experience that is often highly curated. The truth of the matter is that rarely does one in our industry purchase a translation to sell boatloads of copies (save a few exceptions). Rather you have the ever-faithful battling for a piece of true literary goodness worthy of existing within our language.
If you are a young book professional looking to engage with foreign fiction, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.