Prefacing a New Series of Posts [We Are Not Muckrakers]
Before posting Mima Simić‘s story of the offensive edits done to the story/translation of hers that appeared in this year’s Best European Fiction volume from Dalkey Archive Press, feel like I should provide a sort of frame and preface that explains my professional interests and personal concerns about running this. (I swear that if you read this whole rambling post, it’ll all make sense by the end.)
Since we’re nothing short of professional here at Three Percent (ha!), I’ll start there: When I first received this piece by Mima, I was fascinated. This semester I’m teaching a “Translation & World Literature” class that focuses on how to evaluate translations as translations, what biases lay behind our statements that something is a “good” or “bad” translation, and how one should approach the editing of a work in translation. We’ve looked at samples that have been sent into Open Letter, we’re doing a whole session on retranslation, we’re reading a number of translator intros and reviews.
The one major downside (so far), is that aside from the stuff we receive at Open Letter, the books we’re looking at are all published and, in my opinion, damn good. So to puzzle out who contributed what to the overall greatness—the author, translator, editor—is a bit tricky. Which is why we’re Skypeing with a number of translators: so we can talk to them about the process, about the challenges they faced, and why they made the choices they made.
In my years in publishing (more than a toddler, less than a octogenarian), I’ve heard a ton of anecdotes about interactions between translators and their editors. Unfortunately, most of these stories consist of a similar litany of complaints: “the editors made my translation ‘more smooth,’ losing the texture and meaning of the original”; “the publisher screwed me on the contract”; “the editor didn’t show me her/his changes before sending the book to the printer”; and “the publisher didn’t even put my name on the book.”
On the other side of the literary world, editors gossip amongst themselves about which translators are “easy” or “difficult” to work with (this is usually a function of how resistant the translator is to the editor’s “suggestions” multiplied by the rate of pay the translator is demanding), about linguistic snafus particular translators made, about how the success of the book was due to the brilliant work the editor did with the translator (obviously this is never true of the books that fail—that’s on the translator & author).
So we have people in two camps, rarely communicating with each other, except under stressful circumstances in which emotions are polarized and discussions aren’t necessarily as genteel and literary as one might imagine them being. (Martini & cigarette meetings in a hotel bar have been replaced by impersonal email screeds.)
What’s really lost here is information about the actual edits that are made and why. Egos overshadow content, and valuable lessons on how to translate, and how to edit, are transformed into shadowy, nearly salacious gossip.
For years, I’ve been wanting to run pieces written by translators (or editors) about specific instances of either fantastic or questionable editing. I want to share the stories of the great editor who found the perfect solution to a knotted line, and analyse objectionable choices. In a idealistic sense, this might help bring the two sides together to help further the conversation on good (and bad) translation editing practices. In a scholarly vein, these pieces would be interesting to expose (or throw out) certain biases. In a storytelling light, these piece would be fun and make the publishing industry look less like an impenetrable, mysterious process, and more like what it is—an interaction between various artists (and businessmen) trying to do their best by authors and culture (sometimes).
So along came Mima’s piece. Which is all that and more. It provides a compelling backstory (with a lesson about what to look for in contracts), a sordid situation, and a series of crappy edits (in my opinion, and hers) that have both political and aesthetic implications. In many ways, it’s the perfect piece to kick off this series.
(And on the “editing lesson to be learned side” of things, my main objection to these edits are that they “literalize” the book. They try and make sure everything is stated in ways that are fairly reductive and lead to very strange sentences. You’ll see in a minute.)
That said, I had a few worries about this . . . Well, just one, actually: that this piece takes aim at Dalkey Archive.
My relationship/Open Letter’s relationship with Dalkey is pretty well documented, and the three Open Letter employees used to work there. But seriously, all that bullshit is in the past. I love the books Dalkey publishes. I’m very glad they’re receiving the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the NBCC.
Sure, I have justified complaints, and disagree with some of their business practices. I want our books to be as popular as theirs; I like when articles are written about Open Letter that don’t reference Dalkey; and I’m sure they like “beating” us at stuff as well. These things are human.
Nevertheless, when I first got it, I worried that running Mima’s piece would be the literary equivalent of publishing “athlete dong pics.” That we’re exposing something that can only result in a storm of shit, and that Dalkey will feel like I’m attacking them for no good reason.
That feeling lasted for about 15 minutes . . . I’d run a piece by one of our translators questioning our edits. We’ve linked to a story by Larry Venuti on edits that a Grove editor (someone I know and respect) performed on his translation of Melissa P.‘s novel. Sure, I wish the first piece in this series wasn’t about Dalkey’s cash cow, but whatever, if they want to respond and explain their edits, they should feel free. I’m happy to run a piece from someone at Dalkey, or they can always reply in the comments section. In the end, what’s most interesting and valuable is what can be learned from the edits themselves.
And to that end, check out the next post to hear from Mima.