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.
The January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders is now available, and has a number of really interesting pieces. This issue’s theme is “The Work Force,” which is elaborated on in the little intro to the issue:
Whether loathed or loved, work provides both livelihood and identity; and in times of economic depression and shrinking labor markets, jobs assume even greater importance, determining both personal and political stability. Whether reinventing themselves in a new economy or sticking it out in an old one, the characters here demonstrate the variety of the international work force.
Here’s a list of the pieces that most caught my eye:
The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—“report to the occupational reclassification department,” which wouldn’t reclassify many people. (I’m writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.)
Layoffs continue, and if we’re talking about businesses—their holy name, “business“— that employ less than fifty people, the layoffs are not even accounted for. At Fameck, the blue building is still there, looking sharp with its white gate, while the condition of cars parked in town attest to everyone else’s general health: not so great. But the serious cracks running across the surface of the old world today do not readily reveal the reasons that make them apparent.
(Translated from the French by Alison Dundy and by Emmanuelle Ertel)
The hundred people who work at the Tutto Colore clothing factory have hardly noticed me. I could have been an actor, but here I’m invisible, like an extra. I’d like to think that I’m a spy with a good cover but the truth is that I’m a guy who works in a warehouse; and I have been for a month, for ten hours per day. In the course of these four weeks at work I have repeated a handful of phrases that seldom vary: “Yes, Sir. No, Sir. I’ll do it right now.” I’ve learned to move around the second floor, where I’m stationed, with the agility of a sailfish.
Every day I warehouse garments on metal shelves that look like the skeleton of a space shuttle. I also take inventory of T-shirts and sweatsuits on a long table like the ones in high-school cafeterias and I take orders from my boss—a neurotic man who won’t let me and my coworkers listen to music—with Benedictine humility. On the other floors in the factory, people knit their brows less. They relax, listening to rancheras, merengues, ballads. We work without a sound track. If we could mumble along to any song, whatever it would be, I’m certain of two things: 1. The men I work with would stop obsessively discussing how to keep their women happy and 2. I wouldn’t keep picking my life apart as if it were a Rubik’s cube.
(Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee)
The recent announcement of Shakespeare and Company’s “Paris Literary Prize,” to be awarded to the best novella by an unpublished writer, set me thinking about my inspiration to go into publishing: Shakespeare and Company’s founder Sylvia Beach. (Like many teenagers with literary aspirations, I spent an intense few months working for the bookshop’s current owner, George Whitman.) Beach’s Paris bookshop and lending library was more than just a space where writers could meet and find inspiration; it became a publishing house as well when Sylvia stepped into the breach to produce the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Sadly, without a mother in Princeton to whom I could cable “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money,” I was forced to take a more conventional route into publishing: I got a job as an editorial assistant at Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House UK. And given that I was unexcitingly conventional, it was initially hard to see how I could inspire writers to want to work with me. I couldn’t give them an exotic bookshop to hang out in, or—at that point—sign up their novels and trumpet them to influential friends in the media. The only thing of value I had to offer, I decided, was my willingness to read their books closely and carefully, and to make suggestions about how those books might be improved. Thus began my attempt to teach myself to be a good editor.
Notebook # 1. Monday, October 2.
I’ve already been back three days. I returned to Djibouti for professional reasons, not to feast at the table of nostalgia or reopen old wounds. I’m twenty-nine, and I’ve just signed a contract with a North American company; my remuneration will be substantial. I must hand in the results of my investigation, which cannot fail to satisfy its gargantuan appetite: a complete file, with notes, maps, sketches, and snapshots, to be delivered to the Denver office ASAP. I have just under a week to wrap up the whole thing. I will be paid in Canadian dollars transferred to my account, based in Montreal—like me. After that, I am no longer covered by the company. It will be at my own expense. At my own risk, their legal counsel Ariel Klein repeated to me, frowning with his one long eyebrow, as bushy as Frida Kahlo’s. He wished me good luck, turned on his heel and walked away. I headed to the airport with my little trapper’s suitcase.
So here I am on assignment in the land of my birth, the land that would not or could not keep me. I have no talent for sadness, I admit. I don’t like good-byes or returns; I hate all emotional demonstrations. The past interests me less than the future and my time is very precious. It has the color of a greenback. In the world I come from, time doesn’t stretch out before you into the mist. Time is money. And money makes the world go round. Money is the stock market, with its flows of pixels, algorithms, figures, commodities, manufactured goods, rating indexes, ideas, sounds, images or simulation models that pop up on screens the world over. It is the life force of the universe, it’s about killing the competition and grabbing the coveted market.
(Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball)
At nine a.m. the few people standing around on the subway platform are watching the news on the screens provided by the Barcelona Channel. The trains comply scrupulously with the minimum-service laws. They are running half-empty and many seats are unoccupied, which would be unthinkable at this time of day any other day, when occupancy approaches that of sardines in a can.
In front of the Goya Theater, at the top of Joaquín Costa, there are fewer whores than usual. Perhaps in keeping with the minimum-service notice. The overwhelming majority of shops are closed: from supermarkets to cosmetics stores, including bakeries and auto-repair shops. On Sepúlveda a charcuterie uses the old ploy of keeping the metal gates half-open, so that if a client shows up they can serve him, but if a picketer shows up they appear to be closed. In contrast, the local bar is open, which even the strikers are grateful for. “You’re very brave,” one of them says to the owner of the establishment, as he drinks his beer. “It’s not about bravery. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.” On the sidewalks lie piles of uncollected garbage in enormous black bags, some of them split open. A beggar pisses on one of them, and when he’s finished he lies back down on his piece of cardboard.
(Translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman)
As always, it’s worth checking out the whole issue . . . including the so-so review of Zone.
As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 4 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today we’re featuring Colombian author Andres Felipe Solano. An excerpt from his new novel—“The Cuervo Brothers”—was translated by Nick Caistor for this issue.
In the end, I wonder if the Shavelzon Agency will be the big winner of all this Granta publicity. They represent a few of the featured authors, including Andres Neuman, Pola Oloixarac, and Andres Felipe Solano. (They also represent both Manuel Puig and Juan Jose Saer, which are two reasons why I love them. That and their brochures and catalogs are as slick as sin.)
Solano has an interesting backstory (don’t all these authors?): Back in 2007 he lived in one of the diciest neighborhoods in Medellin and worked in a factory for six months. (Which reminds me of the book Mark Binelli is writing about Detroit, except for the whole “working in a factory” bit. I think the image of Mark working in a factory will keep me in giggles all day . . .) He converted this experience into an essay entitled “Seis meses con el salario minimo” (which can be translated either as “Six Months at Minimum Salary” or “FML: Minimum Wage Is a Racket!”) that was a finalist for the prize awarded by the Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, chaired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (If you’re interested, you can read the entire essay here.) Solano also had a six-month literary residence in Seoul, where he met his wife. Which is sweet.
The excerpt from his novel in progress is pretty intriguing and exemplifies a lot of ways to pull a reader in—bit of a mystery, unfounded rumors, unfounded mysterious sex rumors.
The Cuervo brothers claimed to have been transferred from a school whose name we had never heard of. The older one started in the second year, a class below me. The younger one joined in the last year of primary school. From the very first week there were all kinds of stories about them. As the months went by, these grew like the number of bullfrogs in the rainy season. During these holidays, I’ve classified them all in a notebook. Going over them carefully, I’ve established four categories:
As was to be expected, the first rumour spread about them was that they were queer. Gay as butterflies, but not very brightly coloured. Brown or perhaps black, those with just a flash of yellow or aquamarine blue. When we started having girlfriends, my best friend Diego told me that one night, after seeing Alien 3 with María Adelaida in the Embajador, he caught sight of the older brother selling himself on the corner of the Terraza Pasteur shopping mall. He got into a green jeep in a parking lot and began sucking off an old guy who looked like a military man. While he was face down, the guy was playing with his false teeth, or so Diego said, without the trace of a smile. The wildest story in this category was about their bodies. According to the person telling it (I can’t remember now who that was), the brothers were born hermaphrodites, and someone saw them binding up their breasts in a toilet before a PE class. After that we got on to their families. As soon as we learned they lived on their own with their grandmother, crime was added to the sex stories we swapped during break time. The worst of these concerned the double life their mother had lived. She had been a high-class whore, but their father found out when they were only little and slit her throat. He was in Gorgona prison, and had five years left to serve of his sentence. When he got out, he was going to reclaim them, and would kill everyone who had made fun of them. I remembered, though, that in a history class once, we had been told the island prison of Gorgona had been closed in 1977, when the only inmates left were poisonous snakes.
The sinister stories all started with a melodramatic incident. At first there was a rumour they had escaped from an orphanage south of the city. The wealthy spinster they were now living with helped them run away one night through a drainage pipe, and took them to live in one of the 1940s mansions that still survived in the neighbourhood around the school. Most of them had been pulled down or converted into car workshops, but the house where the Cuervos lived was just as it had always been, with its lofty English appearance. Others said they were her legitimate grandsons, flesh of her flesh, but that every weekend she chained their hands and feet, locked them in the basement, and only gave them wheat broth and stale bread to eat. That’s why they smelled so badly when they came to school on Mondays, it was said. The most dreadful aspect of the whole thing was imagining them having to eat that thick soup, that slimy gruel we all hated when it was served up in the school canteen. Some boys even said the dungeon they were kept in communicated directly with the basements in Avenida Jiménez, the ones near the spot where Gaitán was killed, and that his real killer had escaped through them. I myself invented the rumour that the younger one suffered from a strange illness which meant he could only see in black and white, and that was why his eyes were wrinkled like prunes. Nobody liked that one. So I invented a syndrome which gave him convulsions and made him clasp his balls if he spent too long in the open air. That explains why he never plays football, I said, to clinch the argument.
[. . .]
One of the more sinister rumours had it that when the drug traffickers began exploding car bombs, the brothers used to go to the scene of the explosion and take photos of the burned-out wrecks, the buildings with shattered windows, the mutilated, wounded, and even of the dead bodies. Although no one at school ever saw these photos, I discovered them one evening when they left me alone in their second-floor library. They had classified them in different folders. There were some of the bomb at the El Espectador newspaper office, and the DAS security headquarters, others of the one in the Quirigua neighbourhood, or at the Carulla supermarket on 127th Street in 1990, close to my auntie’s house. I remember that last one very well. It was a Sunday, Mother’s Day. The bomb went off an hour after we bought a cake with confectionery roses on it in the shopping mall where the bombed supermarket was. They also had photos of the bomb at the 93 Centre. It was dreadful to imagine them catching a bus to the scene of the explosion, then standing there in the midst of the tragedy, calmly taking photos. I calculate that when the DAS bomb went off they must have been thirteen and fifteen, if that. And now I come to think of it, when the school put into practice an evacuation plan in case of an attack – the son of an army officer who was at loggerheads with a drug baron was studying with us – the Cuervo brothers started carrying gas masks in their satchels. Diego and I saw them and asked where they had got them. They said their grandmother had bought the masks in the flea market. As extravagant as ever, Zorrilla assured everyone they must have belonged to their grandfather.
The first time I went to their house, the grandmother received me in a small reception room that was obviously for brief, informal visits.
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