CALQUE's Interview with Absinthe's Dwayne Hayes

It’s great to see two of the best translation journals in conversation . . . Just yesterday, Steve Dolph of CALQUE published this interview with Dwayne Hayes, editor and founder of Absinthe.

There’s a lot of great stuff in here, including Dwayne’s comments about wanting to become the biggest-selling literary magazine in the world, and all the nice references to Open Letter . . . I particularly like this section:

Steve Dolph: Much ballyhoo has been tossed around recently about the notorious 3% statistic for the percentage of books published in translation here in the states. To wit, John O’Brien’s blistering piece in CONTEXT 21. Is this merely a publisher/translator cold war, or are there larger cultural issues at stake in this discussion?

Dwayne Hayes: Well, there’s probably some other dynamic at play in John O’Brien’s essay [Ed. Note: Yeah, I’ll say.] and I can’t comment on that but regardless of the validity of the 3% statistic it does seem to reveal a woeful lack of curiosity about the world among American readers and publishers. And this is backed up by our inability to speak other languages or to even possess a passport. It’s interesting that every year at AWP, without fail, we’ll have a lot of people walk by our table, pick up Absinthe, see that it features European writers, and put it back down as if they’ve picked up a virus. I’ve had people seem offended, “why on earth would you publish a journal of European writers?”

SD: I’ve received identical reactions when selling CALQUE. I say we publish literature in translation and they give me this look like “what for?!” My gut response is to say this reaction is xenophobic, but is that too simplistic?

DH: It’s possible that in those situations the response is xenophobic but I think it again points to some failures in the way we educate. I’ve seen statistics indicating that only 9% of Americans are fluent in a second language and just over 40% of high school students study foreign languages. We’re probably just not that interested in the rest of the world, unfortunately.

It would be wrong to suggest there is some ideal percentage of books that should be translated into English, as if once 10% of the books published in the US are translations then there will be world peace. I don’t know any of these people that O’Brien claims believe “translations, de facto, are good because they are translations” or the “rubbish about translations saving the world.” Obviously, we, along with all the other publishers I know, reject work in translation that is just not good writing. Yet we can cultivate an interest in the world, in the views and opinions of the “other”, and make publishing decisions that take this into consideration without sacrificing the quality of our efforts. But this won’t happen among the large corporate publishers because their focus is on the bottom line. So again, smaller literary enterprises (usually non-profit) like the ones we’re talking about and the small presses like Open Letter, Archipelago, Ugly Duckling, Dalkey Archive, Zephyr, etc. are incredibly important.

And of course, I love this optimistic bit about translators and an interest in international literature:

SD: And yet the practice of literary translation seems, at least to me, very strong. Not a day goes by when I don’t discover a new translator or a group of people publishing interesting work. Is there a connection among these phenomena? Or do you think it not that strong at all?

DH: It does seem strong to me but then again that could just be related to the company I keep. When I started Absinthe some of the other projects like Words without Borders, Circumference, and CALQUE, and publishers like Archipelago and Open Letter were either new or just getting started so there’s been a lot of movement recently and everyone seems to be generally very supportive and encouraging of the work that’s being done. We’re excited to find that after we publish an issue we’ll receive a few emails from other journal publishers who want to get in contact with a writer or translator we’ve featured in order to publish more of their work. So, despite the discouraging statistics and anecdotal evidence, there’s a lot to be optimistic about.

Amen. I highly recommend the whole interview and reading/subscribing to both magazines . . .

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