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Border-Hopping Bestsellers Still Face Challenges Abroad

In Discussion by Rachel Aydt

The panel: From l to r: ingolfsson, rudberg, rector, and lyons

The BEA panel: From l to r: Arnar Ingolfsson, Denise Rudberg, John Rector, and CJ Lyons

The growth of literary translation has given authors unprecedented opportunities, but challenges — such as a loss of meaning as books cross borders — remains.

By Rachel Aydt

flags of the worldWhat do international novelists CJ Lyons, John Rector, Denise Rudberg, Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson  and Deborah Reed have in common? They’ve all had the odd experience of having their work translated into multiple languages. The lot of cosmopolitan writers appeared together onstage earlier this month at BookExpo America to discuss the process of being translated; not so much from the business perspective, but from the creative one. That said, business is so intertwined in the exchange of books across languages that despite the efforts to stay on the topic of the creative, it became a natural jumping off point for conversation. “My career has been based on the ability to translate,” said Ingolfsson, whose novels have now hopped across 13 different languages. “One might not know how big your book is in another country unless it was for translation,” offered the moderator Deborah Reed.

Translations seem to be a hot topic. The subject took center stage at BEA with approximately 30 presentations surrounding the issue. It was also written about by Adam Gopnik in the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, in “How Much Really Gets Lost in Translation,” when he pondered the loss of meaning in politics and subtleties that occur across linguistic divides.

Speed of Translation is Faster

“The speed at which books are translated now is so much quicker, and reaches such a larger audience, and that’s been life-changing for many authors,” said Reed. Generally, it’s publishers who take charge of the process. However, Lyons, who’s written 22 novels, had a hunch that with digital publishing translations would be the next big thing. She paid for two Spanish translations out of her own pocket. “They did a good job,” she said. “It’s a tricky process that requires a good translator and editor in tune with the author’s original voice.” Lyons, who had a career as a pediatric emergency room doctor before picking up writing, thanks the global zeitgeist of shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy for her success; two hospital dramas which have resonated around the world. “I can use that pop culture resonance.”

Making Concessions to Readers

Some challenges with translations are unexpected. For example, Lyons struggles more with having her books set in places in the Rust Belt, like Pittsburgh, resonate with foreign readers, than her hospital thrillers. For Ingolfsson, the problem was less atmospheric and more concrete — he heard repeated complaints of readers who were unable to keep track of the Icelandic names. His solution? Name each character using a different initial, and refer to them as said initial throughout the book. The concession to readers is a smart one, but some writers feel too many concessions are being made. “Americans are overprotected by editors,” said Lyons, whose books have been translated into 20 languages. “I enjoy it when U.S. editors allow the authors’ regional and national cultural differences to ring true in the translation rather than ‘Americanizing’ things.”

“Americans are overprotected by editors.”

Rudberg, who’s been crowned the queen of Swedish chick-lit thrillers by her readers, recalled the worst translation she’d ever encountered as being Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. “There wasn’t a word for bitch in Swedish and the translator ended up using the phrase ‘hard whore’.” Gopnik could have offered some reasoning there, had he been on hand. “A truly untranslatable word, it seems, may be the sign of an unsustainable concept… We are not captives of our tongues, but we are citizens of our language,” he wrote in his New Yorker piece. So losing bitch is, perhaps, good news?

“We have other words for that,” said Rudberg.

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.