The Opening Session in Miami — Gloomy, Yet Optimistic

For those who aren’t familiar with the Miami Book Fair International, it’s the brainchild of Mitchell Kaplan, one of the smartest booksellers in America, and owner of Books and Books. The fair is one of the largest and liveliest in America and started in 1984 with the mission to “promote reading, encourage writing, and heighten an awareness of literacy and the literary arts in our multi-ethnic community.”

The Translation Market is a new addition to the fair, a joint production between the fair and Reed Expo (the people who put on BookExpo America) and based in the belief that there needs to be a day for the trade to celebrate translations, to come together for the purpose of networking and to share ideas, with the hope that through these interactions, the world of literary translations will thrive. This year was supposed to serve as a “summit” of sorts to lay the groundwork for how this could work in the future and consisted of a day of panels featuring authors, editors, reviewers, agents, and booksellers.

To kick things off, there was an Opening Session moderated by Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly and featuring Barbara Kennedy Epler of New Directions, Kent Carroll of Europa Editions, Dan Halpern of Ecco, and Peter Mayer of Overlook.

This panel opened with the typical litany of gloom about the state of translations—less than 3% of all books published are in translation, America is become more provincial and cut-off from the rest of the world, translations don’t sell, publishers lose money on these books, etc., etc.

Both Dan Halpern and Peter Mayer commented on the misperception that customers are automatically adverse to translations. It’s not like people walk into stores predisposed to ignore anything originally written in a foreign language—the problem is more complicated that that. (This is something that came up over-and-over—especially in the booksellers panel—and is one of the interesting motifs of the day. It’s not true that readers hate international fiction, making it impossible to publish these books, but that the industry is busted and working off inaccurate, self-fulfilling prophecies and untenable models.)

Regardless of the whys and wherefores, it is true that translations are tough to break even on, especially if the typical sales for a literary work in translation is under 3,000 copies.

Peter Mayer’s viewpoint—the same that he expressed last month at a panel in New York—is that nonfiction is a much easier sell, and equally as beneficial in providing readers with access to other cultures. We’re all snobs and elitists for thinking of fiction as the only real type of literature instead of focusing on books that are more likely to travel across borders.

Barbara Epler blamed Barnes & Noble (another theme of the day) for aggressively not stocking international literature, which, in my opinion, is absolutely true. B&N reflects all our worst assumptions, and by only trying to stock books that “will sell,” has made it much more difficult for general readers to encounter books from other countries while browsing.

Barbara also had one of the greatest quotes of the day: in talking about the Frankfurt Book Fair, she said that because so few presses are interested in international lit, it was like “walking through huge fields of great literature, picking the most beautiful flowers.”

What was interesting to me, was that after all the normal complaints about publishing translations, a number of positive things came out of this conversation, including the following:

  • Dan Halpern praised younger people in publishing, saying that the passion of a new generation of editors and publishers bode well for the future of international literature. Both Dan and Barbara pointed to programs like the ones at University of Rochester as positive developments in this field, although there are many examples of younger people in publishing excited about this type of literature;
  • He also brought to light the third important theme of the day—taking the long-view. Just because translations don’t usually sell well, doesn’t mean that they never will. If this is important—and we all believe it is—we need to keep on doing them, figuring out new ways to reach readers, etc. This is an outlook that’s really important to me, and a crucial part of Open Letter’s mission;
  • Finally, Kent Carroll made a call for more funding for marketing of translations, which is something foreign agencies, foundations, and patrons of the arts really should pick up on. Money doesn’t solve all problems (I’m sure people would argue with me about that), but it does afford opportunities to try and find new models of publishing, promoting, etc., that work.

This was the most well-attended event of the day, and it was encouraging to see the panel—completely on its own—shake off the usual complaints and end on a hopeful note.

All of these panels were recorded and as soon as the podcasts are available, I’ll update these posts with links to the appropriate files.

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