Translation Buzz — Finally, a Panel about Books

When I was out in Iowa with Dedi Felman from Words Without Borders, we talked about how rare it was to have a panel about translations in which people actually talked about the books they’re reading. Usually panelists wax on and on about “obstacles” and “problems” and about “losing money,” but only once in a great while does anyone talk about what books they’re most excited about, despite the fact that this is probably the reason they got into this business in the first place.

Instead, “buzz” panels generally take place at BEA and are reserved for commercial publishers to talk about the titles receiving the most marketing dollars in the upcoming season . . . This is yet another way the publishers of translations fail to take advantage of outlets to talk portray what they do in a positive fashion . . .

So, this panel was made up of a stellar group of agents—Isobel Dixon of Blake Friedmann, Lucinda Karter of the French Publishers Agency, Carol Frederick of Sanford Greenburger, Carmen Pinilla of Carmen Balcells—and David Draper Clark from World Literature Today, and the purpose was to talk about titles/authors readers should know about.

The list of authors mentioned was long and varied, and the Book Fair is gathering all the information (including correct spellings) and sending this out later this week. As soon as I receive this, I’ll be sure and post it in its entirety.

One of the books mentioned that sounded most interesting to me was Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from Afrikaans and which made the recently announced IMPAC long list.

From the IMPAC description:

The novel deals with the relationship between a 67 year old white woman Milla (the first person narrator and focaliser) in the terminal stages of ALS (motor neuron disease) and her coloured caretaker Agaat. (Agatha).

This book is available in the UK from Little, Brown, although for marketing reasons, the title was changed to The Way of the Women.

Other authors mentioned included Augusto Monterroso and Daniel Sada, and Carmel Pinilla recommended three Cuban authors that sounded quite good: Senel Paz (En el Cielo con Diamantes and Fresa y Chocolate), Wendy Guerra (Todos Se Van), and Ena Lucia Portela (Cien Botellas en una Pared).

The one disturbing thing—which I was able to mention during my panel on banned books—was the way that several titles were praised for being “like American books” either in terms of the theme or style of writing. I understand that for agents this is a necessary evil, and that publishers are always on the lookout for copycat successes. Publishers want the “German Franzen” or the “Swedish Harry Potter,” or the next Shadow of the Wind.

That’s fine and understandable, but personally, I love international literature for the very fact that it isn’t like American fiction. If I wanted the same old thing, I’d spend more time watching TV . . . And it saddens me that at an event of this sort, populated by people passionate about translations, we’d still feel the need to use such rhetoric It’s almost as if we feel guilty and have to apologize for loving books that clearly aren’t American. Personally, I think we should always seek out the new and the odd. . . .

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