Tuesday January 26th, 2010

The State of Translation

I’m planning to publish more reviews of translated books on the site this year. A couple are already in the pipeline. Translation may be a small percentage of the American market, but it’s one of those subjects for which the Internet has been a blessing.

Among recent chatter, Lewis Manalo, the buyer for Idlewild Books, a terrific store in New York, writes about the shortage of good stories from even English-language origins making it to the U.S.:

Groups such as Words Without Borders encourage works in translation. Small presses such as Archipelago and Open Letter specialize in printing literature from other languages. But as a bookseller, to concentrate on translation misses the point: readers like a good story. And many of those stories unavailable in the United States are already in English.

For example, the author I have always gotten the most requests for whose work is unavailable in the United States is the Australian Bryce Courtenay. Despite Courtenay being one of the bestselling authors in the English-reading world, until Idlewild began selling imports from the U.K., the only title of his I could offer customers was The Power of One. That book certainly deserves to be read, but why are American readers denied Courtenay’s historical novel Jessica or his latest bestseller, The Story of Danny Dunn?

Chad Post, of Open Letter (and Three Percent, the publisher’s blog), wrote three recent posts about translation “having a moment”: Part one, part two, and part three.

Jessa Crispin recently reviewed a new anthology of European fiction, and I think she’s right to temper the criticism of American readers, typified by Nobel Prize judge Horace Engdahl, who famously said Americans were “too insular”:

[Engdahl] made a true statement, but not a profound one. It presupposes that other cultures are not insular. Are the Nigerians really that interested in the literature coming out of Denmark? The Latvians in Filipino poetry? No. Each culture is primarily interested in its own subject, plus whatever is coming out of America. With that arithmetic, we are even with everyone else. We just don’t have a market larger than our own to aspire to.

Again, not an argument against translation. Just some tempering. Now we can go expand our horizons back at Three Percent, which is writing a post a day about the longlist of finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award.