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Missed Opportunities (Here’s the NBA Translation Post I Promised)

Per usual when I’m writing these posts, I’m standing in front of my TV with the St. Louis Cardinals game on in the background, dwelling on what this season could’ve been. Sure, as I type, they have a .5 game lead for the final wild-card slot, but their odds of making the playoffs are only at 68.1%—far from a guarantee.

If you know anything 2018 baseball though, you’ll know that the only reason the Cardinals are even this close to the playoffs is because they fired their old-thinking, inflexible manager right before the All-Star Break, and then went on the tear of a lifetime, going 17-4 in August and saving a completely lost season (they had a 7.0% chance of making the postseason on July 31) through that magic combination of sound decision making, turning your young guns loose, and lots of luck.

Exciting as these last two weeks will be, it’s hard not to look back at all the games we lost early on because of Matheny’s stubbornness, poor execution, and terrible luck. A few lineup adjustments, different bullpen usage, a few balls that drop or don’t, and suddenly this team’s fortunes are much different, and they’re not contesting just for the second wild card, but for the best record in the league. Even recently, post-Matheny, they’ve blown chances. Last week they lost two games during which they had bases loaded, less than two outs, and the perfect opportunity to win the game. Run expectancy in those situations was 2.292 and 1.541, but the Cardinals plated exactly no one. Oof.

Those are the nights when fans on the losing side go to sleep with knots in their guts, wondering about what could’ve been. And although it’s a wholly different context, with different stakes and different players, a similar sort of feeling can come from losing out on the rights to a book.

When we found out that a particular agency was never ever going to entertain our offer for Mathias Énard’s Compass—which would’ve been the third Énard we published after being the only press daring enough to take on Zone—I had that same sinking feeling. We’re missing a huge opportunity. Every review Compass got reminded me of that. What did we do wrong? Why does this feel like such a punishment?

I know some of you reading this are thinking about how that’s just a business transaction: there are business reasons to move from a small press to a giant one, reasons why it’s very unlikely that any Open Letter title will ever receive the level of attention and respect the same book would if New Directions had published it, reasons why most small presses stay small and why larger presses will always woo away their authors.

But that doesn’t change the way these transactions feel, and when you’re talking about non-corporate publishing, you’re talking about people who are only in this game because of their internal motivation and passion. It’s definitely not for money, and, given our cultural climate, it surely isn’t for the glowing admiration of the reading public.

The tension between business and emotion is something that I always stumble over . . . Small presses, but nonprofit ones in particular, run off of sacrifice and willpower. You have to be crazy about books, about your books in particular, to even entertain the idea of getting into this particular field. Sure, great jobs don’t grow on trees, but everyone I know in publishing could’ve gotten their MBA—or whatever degree you want to point to—and had a financially successful career that could, theoretically, allow them time to read whatever they wanted, which is probably what they wanted to do when they got into the industry in the first place.

Just to be clear, editors at the Big Five are also passionate about their books, but their company’s ability to turn on the lights from one day to the next doesn’t rely solely on taxing this passion to the limit. And yet, that really is the case for most of my colleagues. Translators like to fret about the near impossibility of being a full-time translator, but to be honest, for a lot of employees at these smaller presses—those that haven’t been around for decades and decades—it’s becoming more and more difficult to earn a living publishing only high-quality books, not to mention doing only translations.

Yet there are still—thank god!—so many smart people who are willing to transform their passion into amazing creative literary enterprises. And this should never stop! But what gets whitewashed in here is the fact that people who are passionate about something, who are giving their all just to try and scrape by, even when they know they have better options, have strong opinions about their struggle and all the inequalities they see in our current cultural-economic situation.

But opinions can be a dicey thing to have.

Before I get into my thoughts on the National Book Award for Translation longlist, though, we have to make a quick detour to the “My Struggle Corner.”

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This is where I currently am in Volume 6—The End—of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. 

Because Aleks decided that today would be the day in which his early-evening coffee shop nap was bullshit, I had to try and read while bouncing him on my knee and shoving meaningless toys into his hands. Look it’s a ring! And a fake coffee cup that has beads in the lid! Shake-a, shake-a, shake! 

And I’ve had to give up on the print volume for now. That cube is definitely not built for reading pleasure. It’s a lost opportunity that Archipelago didn’t choose to drop the square format for this set of books. I know that’s part of their brand, I know a lot of readers and collectors love it, but it makes these books in particular pretty tough to actually read.

I’m at location 5,612 of something much larger than that in the Knausgaard, so I don’t have any grand statements to make right now. But there is a bit I really like about the tension between the fact that a work of fiction is generally lauded for containing a unique, distinctive voice, yet society as a whole tends to shun people who represent strong, individual opinions.

Only in fiction is there any expectation of a unique “I,” whose greatest and most important constraint is not to imitate, not to copy anyone else or say what they’ve said, at least not in the same way. The more distinctive a writer is, the greater he or she is perceived to be. Many people seem to think that literature has to do with the creation of knowledge, or the generation of insight, but such things are merely a by-product, something that may accompany literature or not; the most important aspect is its individuality, which lies in the inimitable tone of the particular. But this individuality is not without limit, it can occur only within the boundaries of the we; when it transgresses these boundaries, stepping outside and expressing something utterly unreasonable, it will be condemned or ignored. [. . .] These two premises of literature, that on the one hand it should be as individual as possible, meaning it should express the inimitability of the singular I, and on the other hand that it should exist within the boundaries of the general, meaning it should express the we, are at odds with each other, since the more unique I am, the further I am from the we.

If you’ve made it this far in this post/series of posts, you surely know that I am a person who has a lot of passion about international literature and book culture, and that as a result I have a lot of opinions. Opinions that are sometimes contrarian, usually have at least some basis in reality, and are frequently not very popular. But I can’t divorce my opinions from my passion, and I can’t keep up with this work if I can’t have my opinions. And so, for better or worse, I share my opinions and ideas here, in ways that I hope show some degree of nuance, while also being somewhat entertaining.

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So with all that in mind, let’s talk about the National Book Award for Translation longlist. Again.

It has to be said right up front that this award is a pure gain for the translation field. No matter how contentious discussions can get about the actual list, it’s simply amazing that the National Book Award is considering translations again. And kudos to Lisa Lucas, Harold Augenbraum, and everyone who made this possible. And congrats to the judges. Judging is never as fun as it seems, especially when you assume/know that people will look askance at your selections no matter what you do.

Last week, I wrote a really long post about the NBAs that came solely from a place of disappointment and anger. A lot of those ideas can be heard on this recent podcast. I’ll recap them below for the non-podcast reading public (is there such a thing?), but I want to reframe all of my visceral reactions and come at this from a new angle—as one of a missed opportunity.

See, I think that’s what made me—paraphrasing from the podcast here—so “deflated, humiliated, and disappointed” when the longlist was announced.  Reading that listand then sitting with it, for hours—was mentally taxing. I dragged myself back into the office the next afternoon feeling like I had just lost a boxing match. All the texts and DMs from people trying to cheer me up about the lack of Open Letter titles on the list, or joke about how “on brand” the list was didn’t entirely help.

If you work at a Big Five, you probably didn’t take this announcement personally. And to be honest, I shouldn’t either. But from a professional-personal perspective I find it really hard to be so passionate about something, about publishing translations at an, arguably, really high level for a decade, and not feel a bit put out when one of the best books you’ve ever published isn’t on the one list that people on Twitter will be talking about for a solid 7-8 hours.

And yes, that last little clause might be a bit facetious, but Tom Roberge mentions it on the podcast—the National Book Awards don’t actually sell books in bookstores. The National Book Foundation want them to. I want them to as well. We all desperately, almost to a fault, want the awards to generate tens of thousands of sales, but that hasn’t really been the case. The industry knows that the Pulitzer and the Nobel equal huge sales, whereas other awards are mostly good for cultural capital and company morale. Things to point to on a list of yearly accomplishments. And besides, as much as I hate to be a realist, if there’s one list that will generate sales, it’s much more likely to be the fiction one—not the translation list.

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Let me work backward here for a moment.

There’s no list that will please everyone. It’s impossible. Too many factors in play, too many options, too much everything. So criticizing a list for what’s there/not there is like shooting fish in a barrel. (Which is weird in its own right as a saying, but there we are.)

I’m more than happy to tell anyone which books I’m not a fan of, which books I think deserve to be there (leaving off Fox by Dubravka Ugresic is a straight up crime, and I will not back down from that, so please do @ me and we’ll go all day), but not here. That’s a bar conversation. Everyone has their own opinion about every list, because every list is flawed. Such is baseball, such is life.

Besides, how many people are really is a position to critically analyze this list? I’ve read 100 eligible titles, but I’m one among . . . fifty? Seventy-five? Twelve? It’s easy to wish XXX were on the list if you’ve only read XXX and YYY and you really dug XXX, but that’s not the most informed opinion, you know? Let’s move on.

What I am interesting in questioning publicly is what this list actually represents when taken as a whole. Some facts:

  • Two of the judges are translators, two are foreign-born authors, one is a bookseller;
  • Four of the five judges live in NYC, the other in Seattle;
  • Nine of the ten finalists are from presses based in NYC;
  • Archipelago is the only translation-only press to have a book on the list;
  • New Directions, Europa, Coffee House, and Archipelago are the only “small” presses with titles on the list, and it’s debatable whether the first three deserve to be labeled as “small” given their longevity (ND is over 75 years old, Coffee House over 40) and income (Elena Ferrante + CHP is one of the presses Minneapolis supports in ways that all other nonprofit presses envy);
  • Here’s an incomplete list of presses not on the list who focus on translation, who’s sole mission is to run their passion into the ground in the effort to produce translations worthy of populating such a longlist: Two Lines, Transit, Deep Vellum, Restless, Open Letter, New Vessel;
  • The presses that only exist to do the books that they dream of showing up on this list are the ones who would’ve benefitted disproportionately—in a social capital, cultural capital, and capital capital ways—from having a book here.

And that last point shouldn’t have been a bullet. That’s where I think the jury missed an opportunity.

I’m willing to bet $7,000,000 and the Cardinal’s playoff spot that anyone from the jury would say that “these were the best books that were submitted to the jury! That’s our only criteria!” Again, given that “best” is a personal construct that stays within society’s parameters, I’m not sure how valuable it really is. (See My Struggle: Volume Six—a book that, if you’re judging literary worth, translation quality, or really, anything should have made the NBA longlist—for a longer discussion of how people only try to buy the right books/albums/wines that will receive the proper back-pat from society-at-large.)

This list could have benefitting the real core of the translation community and it still bums me out that it really doesn’t.

Had the jury awarded ANY of these small presses for the blood, sweat, and passion they’ve poured into trying to create an actual way for translators, editors, booksellers to live off of the publication and sales of international fiction . . . If any one of those presses had been rewarded, this wouldn’t feel like some sort of betrayal. The National Book Foundation’s  stated mission to “ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.” That’s a very admirable, high-minded goal—one that’s probably only reachable by encouraging publishers and entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes. It’s hard to keep the passion alive when you don’t feel like there’s any real possibility of reaping the few benefits that exist.

(Again, nine out of ten publishers are based in NYC. Of the small presses mentioned above that were left out? Only one-point-five—Restless and half of New Vessel—are. INTERESTING. NYC is such a system. Such a self-promoting one.)

Such a missed opportunity.

A friend mentioned that maybe the commercial presses will do more books because of the existence of this award. I am highly dubious of that. The past ten years has seen a huge growth among the number of translations published in America . . . almost exclusively from small, independent, nonprofit, university presses. Will this award be the magic thing that convices Penguin Random House or FSG to suddenly change their publishing strategy to include more translations? No way.

But you know who a longlisting—not even a win or even a shortlisting!—would’ve meant a lot to? Would’ve maybe resulted in being willing and able to do one or two more books next year?

I’d be really curious to see what sort of list a group of four American authors—from the west coast, south, midwest, and NYC—would’ve come up with. There’s no way to ever know, but it would be interesting to get a perspective from smart readers who aren’t at all connected to this part of the industry. Every translation award I know of runs into this sort of problem (scratch that: every book award in general has this problem), but given how dinky the translation industry is, it’s doubly hard to evaluate translation without some sort of extraneous knowledge creeping in there.

Missed opportunity.

The translation presses who have, over the past decade or more, done so much to raise awareness of international literature and the 3% problem won’t go away tomorrow because of this longlist. But it sure doesn’t help. And those presses are really the core base of this subset of publishing. They’re the ones hustling, producing more than 85% of the translations coming out every year. The ones who have invested so much, and so rarely get anything in return short of being snubbed or having people complain that they don’t pay translators enough. It all can become a bit weary . . .

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Is this all sour grapes? Probably a lot of it, to be completely honest. I didn’t really think one of our books would be there, but I sort of did, you know? We’ve been doing this for seemingly ever. We have great taste. Readers and booksellers love our books. So yeah, part of this critique is simply because we were left off and that bums me out. I’m mostly past that initial disappointment though. The award is great as it, but think about what it could’ve done! 

Let’s just keep in mind that these are the opinions of Chad W. Post, Cardinals Fan, and not necessarily those of the authors published by the press he works for. To hold my critiques against our authors might really be the grossest form of bias I’m aware of. I dislike your opinions so I’m going to punish people you’re affiliated with! Just tell me you think I’m wrong and my arguments are dumb. I don’t mind that at all. But leave the poor books alone!

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Don’t Send Flowers by Martín Solares, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (Grove Press)

Since this post is all about missed opportunities, let’s just finish it all out:

  1. I’m going to pass on saying anything about this book because, having finished it four days ago, the only thing I can remember is that a rich girl is kidnapped and everyone is corrupt. I think I had a point to make in there somewhere . . . Whatever . . . Let’s move on to good books!
  2. Or good stats! I figured out what percentage of translations are crime books vs. historical vs. romance vs. speculative vs. young adult vs. horror for the past three years. NO ONE HAS EVER PUBLISHED THIS INFO. But I’m gonna pass on doing so here . . . All this info will appear in a Publishers Weekly article available to those of you who go to the Frankfurt Book Fair.
  3. I should’ve calculated which languages/regions are most popular in terms of crime fiction in translation. That was another missed opportunity. It would’ve made my article a bit stronger . . . and it would be interesting to know. Maybe after the original article is published I can do some sort of follow up here. Or not. We’ll see.

Night y’all. Cardinals are up 3-1 in the top of the 8th but have no one to pitch the last two innings. And I need a drink to stop thinking about the dismissive book world.



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