It’s 2018 and Where Have the Translations Gone?
Now that the Translation Database is over at Publishers Weekly, and in a format that makes it both possible to update in real time1 and much easier to query, I want to use it as the basis of a couple new regular columns here at Three Percent.
First off, I want to get back to running monthly previews of translations. But, unlike all of the other “ten books to read in XXXX” that are out there, I’m not going to pay much attention to the titles themselves, but look into the number side of things—how many books are coming out, from which presses, which languages, etc. What percentage of books are by women? Are there any interesting trends? That sort of thing. Nerdy, but probably with a handful of jokes or sarcastic comments thrown in.
Then, because this tool is not only damn fun to use, but pretty inspiring, I’m going to pick out four or five books from the database each month to read and highlight here on the website. My goal is to read fifty-two new translations over the course of the year (one a week), and, thanks to the Translation Database data, try and push myself into reading things I normally wouldn’t pick up, maybe because of the publisher, or the setting of the book, the fact that it’s poetry, whatever. I’m not 100% sure what form these write-ups will take, although I don’t want them to be book reviews, but something more observational, reactionary, whatever. We’ll see. The first one will come out sometime later this week, or over the weekend.2
For today, I want to kick things off by looking at the books coming out in January 2018 of which . . . well . . . there aren’t as many as expected.
When I initially ran this list (click here for a downloadable Excel sheet)—trying to figure out which new books I should read this month—I was a bit shocked by the paucity of options. In 2017, on average, there were almost 47 different works of fiction and poetry in translation published every month. This year we’re at 30 total titles: 29 works of fiction and 1 poetry collection. (By contrast, January 2017 included 42 works of fiction and 7 poetry collections.) What is happening?
I wish that, like with baseball stats, I could dig into this and come up with some sort of rationale. Although it’s more than possible that this is just an anomaly. That this month’s numbers wouldn’t seem nearly as off if the Dalkey titles scheduled for January hadn’t been delayed to later this spring. And maybe there’s a reason AmazonCrossing is only doing two titles this month instead of the five they did last January. Maybe I missed a trove of books and in a couple months this number will be retroactively noramalized. Given how small our sample size is, a few minor quirks can seem much more dramatic than the reality of the situation. But only 29? That’s still a bit odd and a bit disconcerting.
Not that these numbers mean all that much. This isn’t a Soviet Five-Year Plan of Translation Production. Quantity isn’t related to readership, and neither are related to quality. Bringing out 100 books in January doesn’t mean shit if no one ever reads them. That said, this is something to keep an eye on. Translations have been increasing steadily over the past decade, thanks to a few hits (Bolaño, Ferrante, Knausgaard), a bunch of new players getting in the game (Transit Books, Deep Vellum, Restless Books), and the almost arms-like race between Dalkey Archive and AmazonCrossing to pump out a ton of product. (Although in the former case, I’m not sure these books are ever in actual bookstores, and in the latter, I know that 95%+ of the sales are only of the digital variety.)
OK, after two Cold War references, let’s move on and get into some of the details.
Italy Takes the Month
If you’ve ever read one of my traditional translation database roundups, you’ll know that French, German, and Spanish books always, always, top the list in terms of languages with the most translations. Weirdly, that’s not the case this month. Looking just at fiction (sorry, poetry, you’ll get your own post in the future, this month I’m just focusing on the 29 fiction titles) there are five German books and four French ones (combined that’s 31% of all the new fiction translations this month), but there are only two from Spanish. Meanwhile, there are six Italian books from six different publishers. That’s neat.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to read Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows, translated by Anne Milano Appel. I don’t tend to read much Italian fiction (in all of 2017 I only read [or rather, re-read] one book translated from the Italian—Six Memos for the Next Millennium), and that doesn’t seem right. Thanks to Europa Editions, I’ve come to associate Italian literature with crime and Ferrante. And although I don’t dislike either of those, I’m more into the Calvinos and Morantes and Moravias . . . but who knows! I need to give more books a chance. That’s one of my 2018 resolutions, I suppose.
Also, FSG passed on Maurensig’s latest novel (which is about a town of writers and a “devil” who arrives and appears to be an editor? I might be misunderstanding something here, but that sounds kind of great), which makes Theory of Shadows even more interesting. But I’ll save that for its actual post.
Of the 29 fiction works in translation coming out this month, only four—FOUR—were written by women. Nine of these books were translated by women, though (and two more by male-female co-translators), so that’s something, I suppose.
However, those four titles include a couple potentially huge books. There’s Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions (translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan) coming out from NYRB and, in what is potentially our (collective) first big translation breakthrough of the year, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) coming from Penguin.
I’m going to read The Perfect Nanny next week when it comes out mostly because it was featured in the New Yorker (maybe this will help me get a better read on what it is the New Yorker really likes?) and because it’s 100% not something I would normally pick up. But again, we’ll get there when we get there.
The Other Big Book of the Month?
God, I feel so cheap focusing on multiple “big books” this month. I’m not the only one in the industry who’s been trying to refocus the translation tribe away from solely trying to get more books out into marketplace, but to appreciate (re: read, buy, and sell) the books that are making their way into English. Fifteen years ago, the idea of ramping up the total number of translations to create a critical mass and change the overall public perception was incredibly vital. There was nothing and the books coming out were completely ignored. Now we have 600+ titles coming out a year (not very many, but still!) and they’re still mostly ignored. (Especially if you do books that are smarter than the average NPR podcast. Or if they’re from a small press that isn’t everyone’s darling of the moment. Wait, shit. Just violated 2018 resolution #2: Quit being a cynical dick.)
Still, sales aren’t everything. We all know this. Judging books by that metric is crass and frequently divorces literary quality from the marketing machine. Or from the trendiness of people buying into trends. There’s no value in trying to objectively judge things that are popular though (this is why I’m in a bar, alone, on a Friday night drinking whiskey and writing this damn thing), so why not give Ahmed Saadwi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad a go? So many blurbs! So much advance praise! I can’t even imagine what it’s like launching a book with the power and reputation of a press like Penguin opening doors and backing up your pitches. I would love to experience that one time in my life. (Resolution #3?)
Does this book live up to its International Prize for Arabic Fiction hype? We’ll see. But even if it doesn’t the machine is ON and this is going to sell as many copies this year as all Open Letter titles combined. And that’s not a joke! (It’s a travesty.)
A Classic Author I Want to Read
In addition to Frankenstein in Baghdad, Theory of Shadows, and The Perfect Nanny, the other book that I’m definitely reading this month is In Black and White by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. How shameful is it that I own a half-dozen of his books but have yet to read them? Please don’t “@” me? That’s what the kids say, yes? Since this is maybe the most unusual book of his to start with—not The Makioka Sisters, Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles, or those beautiful New Directions editions of The Maids and Devils in Daylight that came out last year—it seems perfect for me.
Also Rans for My Personal Monthly Picks
There are a few other books from January that I want to mention. But I don’t want to write too much more about books themselves, so if you want more info about these, just click through and read the jacket copy. (And then buy them! Check out The Perfect Nanny and Frankenstein in Baghdad from your local library and give your hard-earned cash to the companies that need it!)
Twist by Harkaitz Cano, translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo (Archipelago Books)
One of the best things about Spain are the cured meats. So good! Take a nice stick of chorizo, add a bottle of tempranillo, and you’ve got an amazing night. Which is why the law preventing visitors from bringing these delicious meats back into the U.S. should go fuck itself into the grave. Yes, you can mail order any and all of this stuff, but if you try and put it in your packed luggage, customs loses their mind.
This is an actual exchange from when Kaija and I returned from the Barcelona editorial trip/book festival and Valencia in September:
“I’m sorry, I don’t know if they told you this or not in Spain, but even though it’s sealed, you can’t bring these sausages into the country without a special document from the actual butcher.”
“But it’s not sausage, it’s chorizo.”
“I don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s not going past this office.” [Goes to throw four Slim-Jim-type sticks and one glorious mini-baguette-sized stick of chorizo into the trash—which is probably filled with other delicious vacuum-sealed things that TSA customs just dumps onto a table in the back room and goes to town on come lunch time.]
“Oh, OK, cool. I’ll just eat them then.”
“That’s cool, right? Instead of you throwing them out can I just eat them all right here—”
“NO. Sir. NO. No you cannot.”
[Half-reaching for the chorizo] “But. Well. Can’t. Just. One?”
[Takes step back away from customs podium, clutching trash bin] “No.”
I’m surprised I haven’t been detained yet.
The Same Night Awaits Us All by Hristo Karastoyanov, translated from the Bulgarian by Izidora Angel (Open Letter)
What is this advertising?
[Insert all the normal jokes about the future and gadgets and being old and technology making it easier every day to control humans . . . I’ll spare you all the same old shit.]
But really, what is this an ad for?
Here’s what the mirror-type floating out of his
iPad Kindle Fire says: “Come on. You know I will wipe the floor with — WAIT.” What does that even mean? And that floating girl with the dude growing out of her side? She looks like she would eat your babies. Except, well, her feet are swords? What is going on here? And this kid is way too copacetic for such textual violence. GET OFF THE FLOOR AND GIVE THAT FLOATING GIRL THE BUSINESS.
Does Amazon even bother test marketing shit anymore, or do they just come up with cool sounding names (“it’s not a flood, it’s a ‘Rapids’!”) and turn on the money printing machines?
Sońka by Ignacy Karpowicz, translated from the Polish by Maya Zakrzewska-Pim (Dalkey Archive)
Last October, I had the honor of being invited to the Conrad Festival in Krakow, Poland. It was an incredibly fun—and informative—trip (shout out to Sean Bye of the Polish Cultural Institute), but it did have a downside: Thanks to MLB streaming regulations, I wasn’t able to watch any of the World Series games, although I was allowed to listen to them. (Which, of course, led to never sleeping, which screwed up one entire morning thanks to game two—an EPIC game two, an amazing game two—and left me feeling a bit empty, like my season-long devotion to my favorite sport was all foreplay and no climax.)
Recently, I cancelled our cable and got PS Vue (because I’m like you and don’t think paying for cable makes sense, but I also refuse to live in a world without MLB Network and NFL RedZone, and both are included in PS Vue). And as a result, we can’t stream any local channels. At all. None. We even bought a big-ass, fancy-as-hell $80 indoor antenna, which allows us to pick up “Bounce TV.” Which might have been UPN in the past?) So, in other words, we don’t have access to local channels.
Usually this wouldn’t bother me at all. I spend four hours a night yelling at my kids to stop yelling at each other, so watching live TV is a dream for days of sickness and rest. But, I do love live sports. So all weekend (yes, it’s still Friday in my time, as this is being written, and I’m still at the bar, alone, drinking whiskey), I’ll have to go to various establishments to watch the NFL playoffs. Which, yes, nerds, I know no one cares. Y’all think sports are dumb and books are salvation, and I half-way agree with you.
Being cut off from local channels is super weird though. Especially since residents of SF and Chicago and NYC and wherever people actually live are all allowed to pay the same amount as I do and can actually watch live local broadcasts. Instead, I’m forced to get my local news from something called @ROCBuzz on Twitter. This is a mess.
Beyond the indignity of following fools on Twitter, how screwed up is it that big cities get this benefit when us small-timers, the cities you fly over and spit on, with the idea that anyone living here is too pathetic to deserve normal access to information about local murders, get absolutely nothing. Fuck you, Big Telecom! I shouldn’t have to steal cable to find out what Scotty the Weather Wonder has to say about our four-day forecast before learning from Thad Brown about who killed whom last night. Christ almighty, we’re already forced to read a local paper that fired its art director and hired a “Beer Columnist.” THIS IS NOT A LIE OR AN EXAGGERATION OR A JOKE. (Resolution #4: Quit watching local news.)
Mephisto’s Waltz by Sergio Pitol, translated from the Spanish by George Henson (Deep Vellum)
Forget resolutions, I have a new life goal. Before I die (which hopefully isn’t soon), I want to spend one summer in St. Louis, working part-time at Left Bank Books and attending every single Cardinals home game. The other day I finally admitted to myself that this might be my entire bucket list, and it made me cry. It’s not a huge dream, nor is it insanely out of reach, but that’s what I want before I die. One year. Eighty-one games. A full investment in an activity that gives me so much joy. And I would write a blog or book about it. I already write a secret newsletter about baseball sabermetrics and the Cardinals and the dumbness of fandom. If I had a summer to do only this I would be the happiest man ever.
Elven Winter by Bernhard Hennen, translated from the German by Edwin Miles (AmazonCrossing)
When is Game of Thrones coming back?
Just kidding. I’ve already reserved a seat at my favorite bar so that I can catch every episode of The Four. That looks like reality-television-music-programming gold. The “All about That Bass” lady is on there! And the Fergie! How can this not be must-see-TV?
Resolution #5: Quit everything.
1 Thanks to everyone who submitted their titles using the handy form. I’m still working my way through all of these—there were even more than I expected!—but should have all of them added, updated, or deleted (remember: available in America, first time ever to be translated, etc.) by the end of next week.
2 I have a few other ideas for new Three Percent content for 2018, but I’ll save that for a future post.