LBF 2012: The Gatekeepers of Literary Translations

In Global Trade Talk by Olivia Snaije

“People resistant to translation are resistant to good books,” said Boyd Tonkin at the London Book Fair 2012.

By Olivia Snaije

British and American editors and a translator got together yesterday at the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Centre to discuss how certain languages are chosen and others are excluded for literature in translation into English.

Boyd Tonkin, the literary editor of The Independent and a judge for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize began by saying that all cultural institutions proceed on a basis of selection and therefore exclusion, although an editor’s role is vital.

Shaun Whiteside, who translates fiction into English from German, French, Italian and Dutch, said he just translated a 700-page novel about a translator going mad. He was intrigued by the idea of a language gatekeeping process because it is complex and there is a commercial side to it. “Publishers want to find a ready audience, there’s also an idea of creating an audience for smaller work.”

Translated fiction in the UK, however, is no longer thought of something as desperately highbrow, he added.

Barbara Epler, publisher of New Directions, of which more than half of the books are in translation, said she felt more like a “road opener” than a gatekeeper. Even though 97% of what is published in the US is in English, it’s a good time for small publishers bringing out works in translation, the New Yorker is now publishing translated fiction and reviewers are open as well. Getting the translations to sell is the biggest problem. Epler added that unfortunately the model in the US when a big publishing house brings out a translated book is to never advertise it as such.

Susan Harris, the editorial director of Words Without Borders said it was important to keep in mind who is minding the gate and who’s keeping it locked or unlocked, which is dependent on publicity, but it can also be those who bring translated work to the attention of the publishers — translators, and foreign rights directors — who are all gatekeepers along the process.

Tonkin believes that this process needs more scrutiny than it gets: editors can go to book fairs abroad and find that what they are being offered by publishers is a fairly stereotypical idea of what will be successful. “There’s a sort of self-censorship going on. Some of their most interesting writers are not being brought to American or British publishers because foreign publishers don’t think they will be sale-able.”

All agreed that the success of Roberto Bolaño’s books or the Scandinavian crime fiction craze has done much to make literary fiction seem less mysterious to readers, and social media and on line book groups have helped publicize fiction that is off the beaten track.

That said, a good translation is the starting point and is essential to journalists, critics and editors who cannot read in foreign languages. Tonkin mentioned how tantalizing it was to travel and meet Korean or Arabic language writers that he cannot read, and that unfortunately sometimes the sample chapter that an editor has hastily cobbled together will be so bad that it will put anyone off looking any further.

The subject of AmazonCrossing’s translation program was brought up, and Tonkin said it was difficult to know whether to hiss or applaud it. Their concern was that editing and a quality control needed to be firmly put in place as the potential for bad translations is huge and can be very dangerous for the field.

Publishers should think of buying a translation as if it were an artwork for their collection, said Epler. “It’s an incredible opportunity for the English speaking world.”

Tonkin added that readers who are curious about a wide range of books, would be curious about a wide range of translated books as well. “People resistant to translation are resistant to good books.”

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.