The Nonfiction Gap

This is a special piece by Sal Robinson, freelance editor and co-founder of The Bridge, the first independent reading and discussion series in New York City devoted to literary translation. She has worked for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Phaidon, and Words Without Borders.

Among the small number of translated books published in the US each year, there is an even smaller subset: the number of those books that are nonfiction. This is a strange asymmetry, though it’s one of many in the area of translated books, an area subject to almost-tectonic market pressures that produce jagged imbalances, even if predictable ones—for instance, writers from Europe are generally better represented than writers from the rest of the world and male writers are generally better represented than female writers. But I’d venture to say that the percentages for both of the above are better than the percentage breakdown for fiction vs. nonfiction. It’s hard to know for sure because the invaluable translation database compiled by Three Percent—the sole record of how many and which translated books are published in the United States each year—only counts fiction and poetry.

It’s not an empty field: university presses bring out works by prominent international figures, like Umberto Eco, Liu Xiaobo, Pascal Bruckner, and Adam Michnik. Small presses will publish a respected author or an individual title: Open Letter Books publishes Dubravka Ugresic’s essays; two writers in the distinguished tradition of Polish reportage initiated by Ryszard Kapuściński, Wojciech Jagielski and Wojciech Tochman, have had books published in the United States, by Seven Stories Press and Atlas & Co., respectively. Larger houses make the occasional foray: Geert Mak’s monumental In Europe: Travels in the Twentieth Century was published by Pantheon several years ago. A memoir of growing up in Siberia’s criminal gangs, Siberian Education, by Nikolai Lilin, is currently out from Norton. However, relatively little attention is paid to these books: Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (FSG, 2007) is the last translated nonfiction title that I can remember being widely reviewed.

If the percentage of trade nonfiction to fiction published in other countries is similar to U.S percentages, where the split is roughly 75/25 (based on Bowker’s 2002-2009 statistics, and excluding cookbooks, computing books, and other categories of how-to books), then we are missing out on memoirs, essays, reportage, histories, biographies, science and policy books in vast numbers. I think there are both honorable and dishonorable reasons as to why this is so. But I do find it disturbing that American publishers and readers seem to favor fiction as the way to see the rest of the world. Instead of thrashing through the reasons behind this phenomenon, I’d prefer to list a few examples of what exactly we’re missing, in the hope that that’s a more effective shock to the system. Here are some titles and authors that warrant greater attention, topped off with some pointed questions and comments:

1. Andrés Felipe Solano, Seis meses con el salario mínimo (Six Months on the Minimum Wage). In 2007, Solano spent six months living in Medellín, Colombia, and working in a clothing factory. An excerpt from his account of that time appeared on the website Words Without Borders in January 2011, and it was exceptional. It conveyed the life of the factory—the work, monotonous or back-breaking or both; what the other employees are like, where they come from, how they make their jobs bearable; how management is alternately bullying and clumsily apologetic when the paychecks are days late—and it was also honest about the experience of this kind of experiment, where the participant knows that they are able to leave, and will leave, someday soon, while their fellow workers will stay: Solano crosses off the days of his stint on a pocket calendar and describes staring at it “like a soldier gazing at a photo of his fiancée beneath the roar of enemy planes.” He is observant and sympathetic, but not melodramatic. By the end of the WWB excerpt, you have a very clear sense of how difficult that life is and why it’s so difficult, because it’s physically demanding, boring, and humiliating. And yet money must be made somehow. “One afternoon,” Solano writes, “I counted 1,253 items of clothing; I wrote the number down on a piece of paper so I will never forget what a person will do for money.” (translations from Spanish by Samantha Schnee) The only alternative profession in Medellín is crime, which rewards and kills its employees with great dispatch.

An essay by Solano about traveling across the United States by Greyhound bus was published in the New York Times in June. And an excerpt from his novel The Cuervo Brothers was picked for Granta_’s “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue last spring. This recognition means that it’s likely that _The Cuervo Brothers or a future novel by Solano will find a U.S. publisher, but the fate of Seis meses con el salario mínimo is far more uncertain. And yet, it’s an excellent, skillful piece of writing and the subject is very much of interest to American readers, probably increasingly so since the recession. My pointed question here is: if there’s an audience for a book like William Vollmann’s Imperial or Poor People, why isn’t there one for Solano’s book? Why do we seem to depend on American authors to tell us about the rest of the world when its own inhabitants are also writing about it?

2. Arnon Grunberg. The Dutch writer Grunberg is primarily known as a novelist (Blue Mondays, Silent Extras, Phantom Pain, The Jewish Messiah), but over the years, he has pursued a parallel track in literary journalism. Usually published by NRC Handelsblad or other Dutch periodicals, Grunberg’s articles are about the many and varied situations in which he has immersed himself: he has been a chambermaid in a Bavarian hotel and a masseur in Romania, he has moved in with middle-class families in the Netherlands, he has gone to Montenegro to import miracle face cream produced in a nunnery, he has visited the Ukraine to find a bride, traveled to Mennonite communities in Paraguay and goldmines in Ghana. He has also traveled to and written about the prison camps at Guantánamo Bay and the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s impossible not to admire Grunberg’s willingness to experiment with his life and his desire to understand other people’s lives. I also like his confidence in the range of experiences he has chosen to pursue―no divide between “worthy” or “serious” undertakings, such reporting from Guantánamo, and larks like the Montenegrin miracle cream scheme. Grunberg treats both types of experiences seriously and comically at once; he sees how the two are wound around each other. For instance, on his first day in Guantánamo he observes that all questions are grouped by his army escort as either good or not-so-good: “Anyone who asks a good question is told: good question. Anyone who asks a not-so-good question is told nothing.” In Iraq, he accompanies American soldiers trying to “win hearts and minds” to the village of Ali Hamed:

First we pass out toys and chocolate to the children. The concept of toys is subject to broader interpretation here; from the box, the soldiers also produce paper-hole punches.

Once all the toys have been passed out, Lt. Kaness asks the sheik what his village needs. ‘Would you like us to pave the road, for a kilometer or so?’ the lieutenant suggests.

The sheik nods.

“Which side of the road, right or left?”

The sheik thinks about it for a moment. “The right side.”

(translation from Dutch by Sam Garrett)

Some of Grunberg’s pieces have appeared in English— Salon has published articles on Iraq and Israel— but this represents only a small proportion of his work. And in fact, his nonfiction has been collected and published in the Netherlands in 2009 as Kamermeisjes & Soldaten (Chambermaids & Soldiers). In other words, to speak very practically, much of the difficult work has been done, the book already exists. In Grunberg’s case, even the other familiar barriers for literature-in-translation have been surmounted: he has worked regularly with the translator Sam Garrett, obviating the difficulties in finding a translator and, particularly, the right translator for a specific book; the Dutch government provides generous subsidies for the translation and promotion of Dutch literature; and on top of all that, Grunberg lives in New York and speaks perfect English. And still no U.S. publisher has taken a chance on Kamermeisjes & Soldaten, though Grunberg’s fiction has been published by Other Press, Penguin, and FSG. To me, this situation is the most conclusive evidence yet that superb international nonfiction is being almost actively ignored.

3. Peter Fröberg Idling, Pol Pot’s Leende (Pol Pot’s Smile). Also excerpted on Words Without Borders, in 2009, Idling’s book, originally published in Sweden in 2006, is about a fact-finding trip made by a group of Swedish observers to Cambodia in 1978. The observers reported nothing amiss at a time when 1,330,000 Cambodians had already been killed— purged, starved, died in the course of slave labor— and thousands more were dying daily. The Swedish delegation was sympathetic to what it thought was what happening in Cambodia: the liberation of the country from an U.S.-backed regime and the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea, a nation run by and for the Cambodian people. Idling, a journalist who has worked as a legal adviser to an aid organization in Cambodia, tries to understand this silence, this failure: did the Swedes choose not to report the less encouraging aspects of their trip, wanting not to weaken a cause they believed in, or did they actually not see signs of what was going on? Was the suffering and mass murder concealed from the foreigners or was it somehow not visible? How could mass murder be invisible in a country approximately the size of Oklahoma?

Idling interweaves the story of his research in Cambodia and in Sweden, where he tracks down and talks to the observers, with the story of Pol Pot’s rise to power. He chooses telling and unusual details from Pol Pot’s youth, focusing in one section on a memorable goal Pol Pot made in a soccer match in high school. Among his teammates that day were friends who later led the country with Pol Pot, friends who later still he would order to be executed. Idling also examines two artifacts the delegation produced, a book called Kampuchea Between the Wars and a documentary film made by one of the party, Jan Myrdal, a writer and public figure, prominent in Sweden since the 1950s, thinking that where human observers were fallible, surely photography and film might reveal something of the truth, “a glint in someone’s eye, when they think the camera is pointing in another direction.” But there’s nothing. Idling’s faith in his own knowledge is shaken:

During the years I have lived in Cambodia I have listened to countless witnesses of the terrible privations of Democratic Kampuchea. And despite these witnesses, despite everything I have been told, I find myself thinking that perhaps it wasn’t quite so bad after all.

That perhaps there has been some kind of misunderstanding.

(translation from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella)

Pol Pot’s Leende has been shortlisted for the inaugural Ryszard Kapuściński Award and sold to publishers throughout Europe. And like Seis meses con el salario mínimo, its subject― how we in the West understand and misunderstand political developments in the rest of the world― has only become more relevant since the book was first released, with the coming of the Arab Spring. There’s every reason to bring this book out in the U.S.― relevance, literary quality, original subject matter― and it just hasn’t happened.

The examples above are all literary reportage and reflect my personal interests, but nonfiction of other genres is equally under-represented in the English-language market. From experience, I know how challenging it can be to publish literature-in-translation in the U.S. And fiction may often “travel better” than nonfiction: a memoir by an Italian politician or a book of humorous essays by a Turkish author won’t have the appeal that a new Italian or Turkish novel might, and legitimately so. Readers and reviewers of translated nonfiction may feel less sure about how to evaluate it, or what traditions it comes out of. But this doesn’t mean good work shouldn’t be translated and published more consistently in the first place. Good books are often hard to find, publish, and market (not to mention to write). It takes focus, some daring, and confidence. I’m not fond of the scolding tone often taken towards American publishers and readers for their literary isolation: some of the time I just don’t think it’s accurate and it makes the publishing and reading of translated books into a moral, castor-oil sort of activity that doesn’t do well by either the books or the readers. But I want to read Solano’s, Grunberg’s, and Idling’s nonfiction, the books entire, I wish they were available, and I hope, after this article, I’m not the only one.

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