I don’t know the answer to that, and neither does Hephzibah Anderson, writing for the BBC, but she does summarize some of the arguments related to publishing literature in translation, and gives up heaps of praise to Pushkin Press, along with Open Letter, Words Without Borders, and a few others.
Some call it the two per cent problem, others the three per cent problem. It depends on which set of statistics you use and, as with most statistics, there’s ample room to quibble. But what they all point to is this: English-language publishers have a lamentable track record when it comes to translating great stories from elsewhere in the world.
Surely enough, in the recent flurry of ‘autumn highlight’ lists issued on both side of the Atlantic, scarcely more than one or two titles in translation made the cut. Haruki Murakami’s forthcoming tale of a loner spurned by his friends, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, snagged a spot on plenty, and Publishers Weekly gamely flagged The Three-Body Problem, a futuristic escapade by China’s top sci-fi writer, Cixin Liu. But the other new books crowding the limelight at this frenetic point in the publishing calendar were almost uniformly by English-language authors: Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Colm Tóibín, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Richard Ford…
Literature – fiction especially – offers a crucial window into the lives of others, promoting empathy and understanding in a way that travelling somewhere rarely does. By not translating more widely, publishers are denying us greater exposure to one of reading’s most vital functions. [. . .]
Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Pushkin Press, agrees that there are justifiable reasons why English-language publishers publish less in translation than their overseas colleagues, but insists that the balance is still out of kilter. At Pushkin, which he took over 2012, he’s been trying to change that. While other publishers take on the occasional book in translation, hoping for a hit in the vein of the Stieg Larsson trilogy or Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, 90% of Pushkin’s titles were originally written in languages ranging from Arabic and Icelandic to Hebrew and Greek.
Their London office is a mini Tower of Babel, with German, French, Italian and Russian all spoken fluently. This means that not only are Freudenheim’s staff reading books that originate in those languages, they’re also reading works translated into French from Japanese, say, or reading Hungarian novels in German. It’s a great boon to their scouting operation and most publishers, he acknowledges, do not have such expertise to draw on.
Worth checking out the article, and hopefully the BBC will follow its own lead and start promoting more literature in translation . . .
Although information started leaking last week, it wasn’t until this morning that the Penguin-Random House merger was made official:
Publisher Pearson says it has agreed a deal with German media group Bertelsmann to combine their Penguin and Random House businesses.
Under the terms of the deal, the two businesses will be run in a joint venture called Penguin Random House.
Bertelsmann will own 53% of the joint venture, while Pearson will own 47%.
First off, I think “Random House Penguin” is a much better name, mainly because of the ambiguity—is it a Random-House Penguin? or a Random House-Penguin? Makes the new über-publisher seem both literary and playful.
The tie-up between Penguin and Random House marks the first deal between the world’s big six publishers. The others are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. It would bring together the publishers of the Fifty Shades series and Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks.
I keep reading this “Fifty Shades AND Jamie Oliver” line, and, to be honestly ignorant, I have no idea what it signifies. “This new MegaPublisher will publisher Super-Successful Book #1 PLUS Super-Successful Book #2!!!! ZOMG!!” Honestly, if you told me right now that Random House already published both of these, I’d totally buy it. It’s not like these are two random products suddenly being lumped into one administrative mess: “It’s going to combine Twilight and Gilbert Sorrentino!! Holy shitsnacks!”
Anyway, on to the real content: the creepy consolidation of two massive publishing entitles:
Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino, who is leaving the firm at the end of the year, said: “Penguin is a successful, highly-respected and much-loved part of Pearson. This combination with Random House… will greatly enhance its fortunes and its opportunities.
“Together, the two publishers will be able to share a large part of their costs, to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers.”
In case you’re wondering, “be able to share a large part of their costs” equals “eliminate redundancies, especially in terms of personnel.” I hate to be the voice of cynicism, but all the “No jobs will be lost! We will rule the world together!” lip-service being paid to Penguin and RH employees has about a 99.9% chance of turning out to be utter and complete bullshit.
Based on recent results, combining the two firms will create a business with annual revenues of about £2.5bn and about one-quarter of both the UK and US book markets. [. . .]
“In the UK the market share will be around 27%, so they may have to divest themselves of some non-core interests,” said Philip Jones from the Bookseller magazine.
27%?! That’s fricking INSANE. And in no way can this be good for the book world. I don’t want to get into all that right now—I have sales calls to make, classes to teach—but putting so much power into the hands of one entity that produces a limited amount of books, yet will be defining culture, is fucked.
Which, for many, will bring to mind Amazon’s position in the marketplace . . .1 Speaking of Amazon:
“Amazon has 90% of the ebook market – if [the competition authorities] allowed that to happen, how can they block a merger that gives Penguin Random House 27%?”
And that’s really what this about, isn’t it? Making a company big enough to negotiate with Amazon in a way that will reap it shittons more money and profit. Great.
By random contrast, I just want to point out this WSJ article about the “semi-socialist” Bundesliga. (Referred to as a “soccer paradise.”) It’s a really interesting contrast between the free-spending, unmonitored Premiere League in the UK, and the less-profit motivated Bundesliga in Germany. Not only is the quality of the Bundesliga better—there are more teams with a legit chance to win the title, in contrast to the Chelsea, Manchester x 2, dominance in the Premiere League, or the Real Barcelona duo in La Liga—but the clubs are financially better off (Munich made $230 million last year, which exceeds the commercial revenues of Arsenal and Man United combined) AND more people are attending the matches.
What does this have to do with RHP? Nothing, really. But the idea that there is an alternative model to flat-out late-age hyper-charged capitalism—one that can be more successful in all the key areas—is a very captivating one.
1 This is a bit of a flawed analogy though. Amazon is a provider, a retail outlet that takes what is made elsewhere and dominates the chain from production to consumption. By contrast, Random House Penguin will control what is made available. This is a stark and horrifying difference. Amazon is predicated on the idea that “more of everything is better”—more books sold to more people in more formats equals more money—RHP is all about the production and sale of products that will benefit itself only. For all of the issues that people have with Amazon’s corporate practices, they are geared towards providing customers with what they want, when they want it, and at a reasonable price—it’s their tactics to achieving this that are circumspect. RHP will be about blockbusters and leveraging its enormous impact to restrict buying options, or at least direct customers into buying its products for the benefit of the corporate shareholders. In my mind—in which product diversity trumps everything, since the things I like are often not in line with mainstream anything—this RHP situation is a million times worse.
For all of you Murakami fans out there, embedded below is Haruki Murakami: In Search of this Elusive Writer, an hour-long BBC documentary by Alan Yentob (presenter) and Rupert Edwards (camerawork).
According to this post about it:
Haruki Murakami holds the titles of both the most popular novelist in Japan and the most popular Japanese novelist in the wider world. After publishing Norwegian Wood in 1987, a book often called “the Japanese Catcher in the Rye,” Murakami’s notoriety exploded to such an extent that he felt forced out of his homeland, a country whose traditional ways and — to his mind — conformist mindset never sat right with him in the first place. [. . .]
Rupert Edwards’ camera follows veteran presenter Alan Yentob through Japan, from the midnight Tokyo of After Hours to the snowed-in Hokkaido of A Wild Sheep Chase, in a quest to find artifacts of the supremely famous yet media-shy novelist’s imaginary world. Built around interviews with fans and translators but thick with such Murakamiana as laid-back jazz standards, grim school hallways, sixties pop hits, women’s ears, vinyl records, marathon runners, and talking cats, the broadcast strives less to explain Murakami’s substance than to simply reflect it. If you find your curiosity piqued by all the fuss over 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, you might watch it as something of an aesthetic primer.
Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg was recently published in the UK as a part of The Myths series—“a long-term global publishing project where some of the world’s most respected authors re-tell myths in a manner of their own choosing.”
She appeared on BBC Radio 4 recently to discuss the book.
The myth of Baba Yaga is one of the most famous stories in Russian and Eastern European mythology. Baba Yaga is a witch-like character who lives in a house on chicken feet and kidnaps young children. In her latest novel, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg the Croatian writer and academic Dubravka Ugresic tackles the myth through contemporary narratives, from the story of a women’s relationship with her mother, and the tale of three ageing women on holiday at a spa. Jane talks to Dubravka about her novel and leaving her homeland of the former Yugoslavia and moving to Amsterdam.
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .