So Translation Is Having a Moment . . . (Part III)

So, on top of articles in the Chronicle and the New Yorker, there was a third moment for translation that took place last week—The Elegance of the Hedgehog has now been on the NY Times Bestseller list for 52-weeks. From the Europa Editions website:

Five years ago, when we opened Europa Editions, people seemed to think we’d lost our minds. We came from a decades-long experience as independent publishers in Italy, and the idea that we would go risking our reputations, and the economic well-being of our Italian house by opening an independent press in America, one largely dedicated to fiction in translation, struck many friends and colleagues as mere foolhardiness, or perhaps the early signs of nascent senility. And maybe it was. But the idea that so many exceptional writers from abroad were not making their way to American readers due to resistance from the publishing industry itself, resistance that is as hard to explain as it is to overcome, was a siren song too seductive and intriguing to ignore. We founded Europa Editions with the idea of publishing quality fiction and non-fiction, much of it by foreign authors who were not otherwise being considered by the majority of American houses. Our project was as much a cultural enterprise as a business venture. We were convinced that dialogue between nations and cultures was more important than ever, and that this exchange was facilitated by literature chosen not only for its ability to entertain and fascinate, but also to inform and enlighten. We remain true to this ideal today. [. . .]

Three years ago we read and acquired a book that is today celebrating one year (its first year?) on the New York Times best seller list: the unassuming story of a French concierge and a young girl who become friends. Beautifully written, with a sprinkle of philosophy, the book had just begun to receive attention in France. Its author was a relatively unknown professor of philosophy at a small school in Normandy. We knew as we began reading this book that we were on to something big. But we could never have imagined how big, nor dream that anything like what has happened would indeed happen.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been read by well over half a million people in America since its publication in September 2008. Naturally, not all of them have loved it, but those who have speak about it—on blogs and web sites, in reading groups, with booksellers, and in messages sent to its publisher—as a life-changing book, one that, for the beauty of its writing and the story it tells, has moved them deeply. It is difficult and potentially ruinous to examine too closely the anatomy of a bestseller. All we are inclined to say about The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the characteristics that have made of it a best seller is that the book has touched a nerve in readers; its message responds to a need that apparently is widely felt at this moment. And not only by American readers: wherever it has been published, readers have embraced this remarkable book. It has sold over two million copies in France, one million in Italy, and millions more in the thirty odd countries in which it has been published. Much of this success has come about not through sophisticated or costly publicity, not through the designs of some marketing wizard, but simply by word of mouth: readers talking with other readers about a book they loved.

Congrats to Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson, and Europa Editions!

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