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2011: The Year of the Translator?

Over at The Guardian, Robert McCrum has a pretty interesting piece about how the publication of a number of high profile international works has “contributed to a new appreciation of the art of the good translation.”

Through the power of global media, there is more than ever before a market for literature in translation where the default language for such translations will be British or American English. Such versions may sometimes bear as much resemblance to the original as the wrong side of a Turkish carpet, but that hardly seems to lessen their appeal.

Lately in the US the appetite for “foreign fiction” – Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – has sponsored a trend that has inspired new audiences for international literary superstars such as Umberto Eco, Roberto Bolaño and Péter Nádas. Perhaps not since the 1980s, when the novels of Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa became international bestsellers, has there been such a drive to bring fiction in translation into the literary marketplace. [. . .]

New editions of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu have pushed overworked translators – a shy breed – into the spotlight. David Bellos, whose new book, Is That A Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything was published this autumn, observes that, in Japan for instance, “translators are rock stars” with their own book of celebrity gossip, The Lives of the Translators 101.

The surge in this global audience for new fiction has been driven by the complex interaction of the IT revolution and the antics of literary promotions such as the Orange Prize and Man Booker hyping their brands through social media.

That last point is an interesting observation, although I’m not sure how accurate it really is. All the authors mentioned above are “name brands” complete with large followings (with maybe the exception of Bellos, although among translation folks, he’s pretty much the bomb). This reminds me of the Radiohead “pay what you will” experiment for In Rainbows. Supposedly, this was very successful in terms of awareness and earnings, but that’s probably due not so much because of the new model, but because it was fricking Radiohead.

Still, it’s interesting to see these books promoted and hyped, and if it paves the way for readers to take a chance on other works of international literature, then good.

McCrum’s article then goes off into discussing the prevalence of English throughout the world, Google Translate, and other interesting language-related observations. Definitely worth checking out . . . And here’s to hoping that next December he’ll be writing a piece entitled: “2012: The Year of Small Presses Named Open Letter.”



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