America, Where We're Always Late

Over at the Literary Saloon, Michael Orthofer makes note of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, and Stephen Henighan’s recent speech about translations..

The thing that caught my eye thought was this bit about Angolan author Ondjaki, whose Good Morning Comrades will be the second book in the Biblioasis International Translation Series.

As it happens, Aflame Books is also coming out with an Ondjaki-title, The Whistler.

(Despite this sudden Ondjaki-interest, it’s no surprise that English-language publishers are late jumping on the bandwagon: the French got to Bonjour camarades in 2004, the Germans published Bom dia camaradas in 2006 . . .)

Orthofer’s right—American publishing is slow to the game. And not just with Ondjaki, with almost all major international authors lucky enough to be translated into English.

As a publisher, I know the difficulties of the “time-gap” all too well. . . . After hearing about a new book (say at Frankfurt), it takes a couple months to get a reader’s report and sample translation, another couple months to sign the book on, find a translator, etc. Then say six months to a year to get the translation in. And then, because of the fact that galleys have to be to reviewers at least four months before the pub date, there’s generally another year built in between the completion of the translation and the actual publication of the book.

That totals between 22 and 28 months, or approximately two years between when you first hear about a book and when it’s available to the reading public. (This is why foreign prizes have such little impact on getting a U.S. publisher to buy the rights. With a two-year lag time, the impact of that award is virtually nil by the time the book appears. Obviously this is exacerbated by the fact that America is a place where short-term memory reigns supreme and anything that happened more than a month ago is habitually forgotten.)

What’s weird—or not so weird really—is that when an author is finally published in English, he/she is hyped as if the publisher just discovered this brand-new amazing writer, despite the fact that this author is most likely already established throughout the rest of the world.

W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolano generally bear this our. Sebald’s first novel—Schwindel, Gefuhle—was originally published in 1990. By the time New Directions first published him in 1996, he had written three novels and was quite well known in Europe. And by the time Random House put their stamp of authority on him in 2001 with the publication of Austerlitz, he was well established everywhere, and only had a month left to live.

Same goes for Bolano. I’d heard of him for a few years before By Night in Chile came out in 2003. And in the Latin American world, he was already huge. Haruki Murakami is another example.

My point isn’t to criticize New Directions for taking so long to publish these authors in English—they do a wonderful job discovering and promoting all their authors—it’s just to point out that readers whose first encounter with Bolano is The Savage Detectives are finding out what most of the world already knows. In a sense, they’re already late to the game, not only because of Bolano’s untimely demise, but because the Chilean authors influenced by Bolano are already being published, and one of them might be the next great author . . .

Maybe it’s idealistic—OK, it’s definitely idealistic—but I think that if Americans paid more attention to what’s going on elsewhere, which authors are exploding, who’s written the next Great Novel, maybe there would be more translations published here. Or at least there would be some pre-buzz awareness that publishers could build on, making it more likely the books would sell, leading to more being published.

Instead of waiting for the English version to come out, I wish American media outlets would follow the lead of the TLS and others and review untranslated books. It would be great if major media outlets wrote about great international authors irrespective of the release of a new title in English.

Granted, this is never going to happen, but that also means that we’re almost always going to be lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of reading and discussing great literature. For better or worse, English is a colonizing language, and our resistance to other languages and cultures just means that the rest of the world is passing us by.

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