Overall, I think the inaugural Translation Marketplace at the Miami Book Fair International was a huge success. Similar to what happens at fairs like BEA and Frankfurt, I came away re-energized, feeling like what we’re doing is important, vital, and exciting.
Aside from Martin Riker’s joke about not wanting his boss to find out about the New Directions t-shirt he wears sometimes, there was an overwhelming sense of camaraderie, which tends to happen when various segments of the book industry come together, and is very encouraging.
I tend to take my unique position for granted and forget that not everyone comes in contact with all other aspects of the business. Having been a bookseller for years before getting into publishing, and having worked at small presses where I did editorial, fundraising, sales and publicity, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, cultural organizations, and booksellers. Which is pretty unusual for someone involved in this business.
Usually it’s only the publicists who develop close relationships with reviewers. Booksellers meet with sales reps, not editors. Agents and booksellers rarely interact before a book comes out. (And rarely afterward as well.) Yet we’re all part of the same field, and by bringing together all of these different components of the industry for a sort of “think tank,” the Miami Book Fair created the perfect setting for new interactions and ideas to develop.
In terms of suggestions for the future, I think that there should definitely be a marketing panel, since marketing was what kept being referenced as one of the big problems in publishing translations, and we could all benefit by interacting with people like Jeff Seroy and Cary Goldstein. This isn’t necessarily the place to be handing out galleys and drumming up reviews for upcoming books (though Alan Cheuse was able to find out about Cortazar’s Autonauts of the Cosmoroute through a chance encounter at dinner), but the marketing department is incredibly important to the book industry and has to be included in these conversations.
Translators should be invited as well, since they’re obviously part of this “ecosystem.” (Too bad ALTA was going on at the same time this year . . .) And more international publishers should be invited to go along with the agents who attended.
Finally, I think it would be interesting to build on this year by having panels/events that are more theme focused rather than position focused. So instead of a panel with all editors, have a panel made up of an editor, publicist, reviewer, and bookseller to talk about why a particular book was successful. These cross-interactions could be useful, not to mention the fact that a panel like that would be fascinating to watch.
Overall, I think the Translation Marketplace has a bright future and is positioned to become one of the most exciting days of the year celebrating international literature. And everyone who made this possible—like Mitchell Kaplan and James Connolly—should be applauded.
This was by far the most uplifting, pragmatic, exciting panel at the Translation Marketplace. Not that the others were uninteresting, but for whatever reason, great independent booksellers have a way of making you feel like change is possible, like the situation isn’t that bad, like it’s really worthwhile to keep forging ahead.
Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum moderated this panel that included Sarah McNally of McNally Robinson, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company, and Paul Yamazaki of City Lights. With Mitchell Kaplan in the audience, we literally had five of the most knowledgeable booksellers in the country in one room discussing innovative ways for publishers and bookstores to work together to sell international literature. And with Barbara Epler from New Directions, Jill Schoolman from Archipelago, and Michael Reynolds from Europa Editions, publishers were also well represented.
Basically, this panel was an opportunity for each bookseller to highlight what his/her store was able to do to sell works in translation. Each panelist—maybe with the exception of Sarah—recognized that their store was somewhat unusual, yet they all put forth the idea that it’s not hard to sell international literature if you actually try.
Karl spent some time talking up Reading the World, a unique collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote international literature. Basically, this program is made up of 15 presses, 25 presses, and 200 bookstores that display these books and promo materials throughout the month of June. He also pointed out that independent booksellers need a new model to be able to survive, such as having a nonprofit component highlighting the good to the community that independent bookstores provide. (More on this in a future post . . .)
Sarah highlighted some interesting statistics from her store, including the fact that 52.5% of the titles in her fiction section are from international authors. She also said that the translations displayed on the front table of the store outsell American fiction on a regular basis. And echoing the day’s first panel, she believes B&N is to blame for helping create the prejudice that translations don’t sell.
Paul praised younger staff members at City Lights for creating all the great displays in the store. He also pointed out that booksellers are naturally curious about literature and though, and seek out international literature from unique, independent presses.
Rick mentioned the readings Elliott Bay hosts for translators, and the incredible success booksellers there have in handselling international literature, especially in connection to people buying travel guides.
Mitchell gave us all the great idea of “Food for Thought” book clubs through which restaurants and booksellers work together to promote international literature. For a minimal cost—say $50—readers would get a copy of a book and be able to attend a lunch or dinner at a local restaurant where a facilitator would lead a discussion of the book. (This seems so simple and easy to replicate . . .)
There was also a great conversation about the ways publishers and booksellers could collaborate, how we could create self-contained promotions for bookstores, how we could get the books into the hands of enthusiastic booksellers who are searching for something new and exciting—and I truly believe this conversation will continue well into the future.
What was most exciting was the sentiment that contrary to the typical doom and gloom, it’s entirely possible to find readers for international works of literature—we just have to remain passionate and keep trying. And communicate more.
It’s also worth noting that booksellers are way more in tune with what’s being published than any other segment of the industry, and are more knowledgeable about what readers actually are willing to read than anyone else. They are at the front lines so to speak, and deserve to play a much bigger role in conversations about book culture.
And I was also struck by the way all of these booksellers (and publishers) are focused on passing on their passion for great literature to younger readers/employees. They clearly embodied the belief that taking a long-term view and looking toward the future is much more valuable than focusing on short-term results. This idea manifests itself in different ways in the publishing industry, including the way a lot of non-profits are dedicated to cultivating an audience for a book over decades, rather than focusing on net sales for the first year following a book’s release. But it can be applied in many more ways, and building upon an earlier post about the role founders and directors can play in encouraging people to start new initiatives, I think it’s really valuable to keep this in mind when talking about something like the book industry that usually doesn’t offer the same financial rewards as other fields.
These were the two panels I was unable to attend at the Miami Book Fair. Both sounded really interesting, with Aida Bardales (Criticas), Johanna Castill (Atria Books), Valerie Miles (Santillana), Lorin Stein (FSG), Andrea Montejo (agent), and David Unger (author) discussing Latin American literature in the first, and with Dedi Felman (Words Without Borders), Clifford Landers (translator), Sergio Machado (Record Publishing), and Goncalo Tavares (author) reading Portuguese literature in the second.
It sucks that the two truly international panels took place while other panels were occurring (the reviewing panel and the banned books one), but at least podcasts will be available in the near future for those of us who missed out. (Maybe this is something that will be addressed for next year . . .)
Steve Wasserman—one of my all-time favorite panelists for his great anecdotes and brilliant, witty comments—moderated this discussion, which included Marie Arana (author, book review editor at the Washington Post), Alan Cheuse (author, critic for NPR), Eric Banks (editor of Bookforum), and Carlin Romano (book review editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer). In other words, a group of great reviewers and publications.
(Although I’m sure that someone in the blogosphere will mention how strange it is that no one from the NY Times was on this . . . In fact, to pour fuel on the fire, I want to point out that no one from the NY Times even attended the conference . . . )
This panel was a bit loose and strange, making it tough to summarize in a meaningful way, so I’m just going to stick to the controversial points. . .
The conversation began simply enough with Wasserman asking whether or not the panelists give special consideration (good or bad) to literature in translation when deciding what to review.
The only person who claimed that they did was Romano, pointing out that he works for a U.S. paper in a very American city, and, aware of his audience, is very conscious of reviewing foreign books. He also said that there is a lot of blame to spread around as to why translations don’t get reviewed, which is something I think is absolutely true. Publishers generally put a lot more marketing muscle into promoting their American authors, setting the self-fulfilling “translations don’t get reviewed” prophecy into motion.
Marie Arana talked about Michael Dirda’s review of War and Peace and how she received several dyspeptic letters about the fact that Dirda avoided commenting on the quality of the new translation in his piece. She explained that he felt uncomfortable judging it since he can’t read the book in Russian, and that it’s difficult to find people capable of evaluating translations.
(Personally, I don’t think it’s that hard to find someone able to evaluate a translation, and I like reviews that comment on the quality of the translation. Although unless a translation is getting bashed, comments on its quality are generally about one adjective long.)
What’s really weird is that all four publications claimed that 10-20% of their reviews were of translations (much higher than the 3% of total books published in the States), yet the authors most frequently mentioned during this discussion were Ha Jin and Junot Diaz, both of whom write in English . . .
Alan Cheuse claimed that the biggest problem facing translations in the United States is that in other countries, the most famous authors are also translators, but that we don’t have people like that here. (He then quipped that Marie quit writing and editing to translate Latin American fiction for the next twenty years.)
Initially I was a bit put off by this, jumping to the conclusion that he meant that there’s a lack of talented translators here in the States (which is complete bullshit). But what I think he was getting at was the fact that aside from a few notable exceptions, translators are ignored, whereas in other countries, there’s a cult of celebrity around the author-translator drawing a lot more attention to these titles. It seems true that translations by “superstar translators” like Edith Grossman and Pevear and Volokhonsky do receive more attention in the press, so maybe publishers should draw more attention to their translators. . .
This logic runs counter to the current situation though . . . In attempting to get more copies into B&N (and elsewhere), publishers often try and hide the fact that a book is translated. The translator’s name is hidden on the back flap, on the copyright page, appearing in a tiny, nearly unreadable font. But if translators were more celebrated, publishers may be able to create a situation in which the translator has as much marketing power and name recognition as the author.
Generally speaking, this tension is reflected throughout the industry in the paradoxical tug-of-war in wanting to highlight translations as something different and worthy of special attention, yet at the same time believing that these books should be treated like any other book and not “ghettoized.”
Eric Banks was great on the panel, in part because Bookforum is one of the best publications in the U.S. when it comes to covering a wide array of international fiction and nonfiction. (He did mention that he felt like nonfiction in translation got a worse deal than fiction in translation, citing the recent Bookforum review of Geert Mak’s In Europe as one of the only reviews that book received.)
Finally, Carlin Romano stirred things up a bit more by claiming that one of the big problems with publishing was the fact that the hiring process in New York is incredibly lazy and that publishers should be hiring more people from MA and Ph.D. programs—which pissed off a number of people in the audience, including some of the most high-profile publishers and editors in America, many of whom only have BA degrees, yet have impeccable taste in literature.
Overall, this panel was a bit weird. And I wish we would’ve had a chance to talk about the “lemming syndrome,” and the way that most book review publications feel an obligation to review the same books—those ten or twelve titles that everyone seems to be reading at the same time. This situation really limits the number of “slots” available to translations (or more experimental English writers), most of which are then taken up by retranslations rather than by reviews of authors translated into English for the first time. Such as War and Peace one of the only translations discussed by this panel . . .
This was the panel that I was on, which makes it sort of difficult to write about.
I do want to say that Michael Moore—the Chair of the PEN Translation Committee—did a fantastic job organizing and moderating this panel. He provided a lot of information about the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the recent attempt to block the publication of books from Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, and the PEN-instigated lawsuit to challenge this.
He also talked about the Tariq Ramadan situation. Ramadan was denied a visa to teach at Notre Dame, and as a result PEN and the ACLU have filed a lawsuit, arguing that
American citizens have a First Amendment right to hear his ideas.
Helene Atwan from Beacon Press was great on the panel, telling many interesting, occasionally depressing, stories. She talked about publishing a nonfiction book by a foreign journalist that sold nowhere near as well as a book by an American journalist, and she also told of an over-ambitious copyeditor who transformed a wonderfully odd piece of fiction into a book that read like it was written by a dull American writer.
Jill Schoolman was wonderful as well, talking about her experiences publishing Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, and her surprise that American reviewers weren’t as critical and dismissive as certain UK reviewers.
Personally, I didn’t have a lot to add, although I was able to tell my story about receiving an e-mail from the Department of Homeland Security requesting a copy of Dubravka Ugresic’s Thank You for Not Reading . . .
The main ideas that came out of this panel was the belief that American have a right to be exposed to viewpoints and ideas from other cultures, and that it’s the responsibility of publishers to make this possible. And that PEN is doing a remarkable job helping to protect the right of free speech.
When I was out in Iowa with Dedi Felman from Words Without Borders, we talked about how rare it was to have a panel about translations in which people actually talked about the books they’re reading. Usually panelists wax on and on about “obstacles” and “problems” and about “losing money,” but only once in a great while does anyone talk about what books they’re most excited about, despite the fact that this is probably the reason they got into this business in the first place.
Instead, “buzz” panels generally take place at BEA and are reserved for commercial publishers to talk about the titles receiving the most marketing dollars in the upcoming season . . . This is yet another way the publishers of translations fail to take advantage of outlets to talk portray what they do in a positive fashion . . .
So, this panel was made up of a stellar group of agents—Isobel Dixon of Blake Friedmann, Lucinda Karter of the French Publishers Agency, Carol Frederick of Sanford Greenburger, Carmen Pinilla of Carmen Balcells—and David Draper Clark from World Literature Today, and the purpose was to talk about titles/authors readers should know about.
The list of authors mentioned was long and varied, and the Book Fair is gathering all the information (including correct spellings) and sending this out later this week. As soon as I receive this, I’ll be sure and post it in its entirety.
One of the books mentioned that sounded most interesting to me was Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk, translated from Afrikaans and which made the recently announced IMPAC long list.
From the IMPAC description:
The novel deals with the relationship between a 67 year old white woman Milla (the first person narrator and focaliser) in the terminal stages of ALS (motor neuron disease) and her coloured caretaker Agaat. (Agatha).
This book is available in the UK from Little, Brown, although for marketing reasons, the title was changed to The Way of the Women.
Other authors mentioned included Augusto Monterroso and Daniel Sada, and Carmel Pinilla recommended three Cuban authors that sounded quite good: Senel Paz (En el Cielo con Diamantes and Fresa y Chocolate), Wendy Guerra (Todos Se Van), and Ena Lucia Portela (Cien Botellas en una Pared).
The one disturbing thing—which I was able to mention during my panel on banned books—was the way that several titles were praised for being “like American books” either in terms of the theme or style of writing. I understand that for agents this is a necessary evil, and that publishers are always on the lookout for copycat successes. Publishers want the “German Franzen” or the “Swedish Harry Potter,” or the next Shadow of the Wind.
That’s fine and understandable, but personally, I love international literature for the very fact that it isn’t like American fiction. If I wanted the same old thing, I’d spend more time watching TV . . . And it saddens me that at an event of this sort, populated by people passionate about translations, we’d still feel the need to use such rhetoric It’s almost as if we feel guilty and have to apologize for loving books that clearly aren’t American. Personally, I think we should always seek out the new and the odd. . . .
For those who aren’t familiar with the Miami Book Fair International, it’s the brainchild of Mitchell Kaplan, one of the smartest booksellers in America, and owner of Books and Books. The fair is one of the largest and liveliest in America and started in 1984 with the mission to “promote reading, encourage writing, and heighten an awareness of literacy and the literary arts in our multi-ethnic community.”
The Translation Market is a new addition to the fair, a joint production between the fair and Reed Expo (the people who put on BookExpo America) and based in the belief that there needs to be a day for the trade to celebrate translations, to come together for the purpose of networking and to share ideas, with the hope that through these interactions, the world of literary translations will thrive. This year was supposed to serve as a “summit” of sorts to lay the groundwork for how this could work in the future and consisted of a day of panels featuring authors, editors, reviewers, agents, and booksellers.
To kick things off, there was an Opening Session moderated by Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly and featuring Barbara Kennedy Epler of New Directions, Kent Carroll of Europa Editions, Dan Halpern of Ecco, and Peter Mayer of Overlook.
This panel opened with the typical litany of gloom about the state of translations—less than 3% of all books published are in translation, America is become more provincial and cut-off from the rest of the world, translations don’t sell, publishers lose money on these books, etc., etc.
Both Dan Halpern and Peter Mayer commented on the misperception that customers are automatically adverse to translations. It’s not like people walk into stores predisposed to ignore anything originally written in a foreign language—the problem is more complicated that that. (This is something that came up over-and-over—especially in the booksellers panel—and is one of the interesting motifs of the day. It’s not true that readers hate international fiction, making it impossible to publish these books, but that the industry is busted and working off inaccurate, self-fulfilling prophecies and untenable models.)
Regardless of the whys and wherefores, it is true that translations are tough to break even on, especially if the typical sales for a literary work in translation is under 3,000 copies.
Peter Mayer’s viewpoint—the same that he expressed last month at a panel in New York—is that nonfiction is a much easier sell, and equally as beneficial in providing readers with access to other cultures. We’re all snobs and elitists for thinking of fiction as the only real type of literature instead of focusing on books that are more likely to travel across borders.
Barbara Epler blamed Barnes & Noble (another theme of the day) for aggressively not stocking international literature, which, in my opinion, is absolutely true. B&N reflects all our worst assumptions, and by only trying to stock books that “will sell,” has made it much more difficult for general readers to encounter books from other countries while browsing.
Barbara also had one of the greatest quotes of the day: in talking about the Frankfurt Book Fair, she said that because so few presses are interested in international lit, it was like “walking through huge fields of great literature, picking the most beautiful flowers.”
What was interesting to me, was that after all the normal complaints about publishing translations, a number of positive things came out of this conversation, including the following:
This was the most well-attended event of the day, and it was encouraging to see the panel—completely on its own—shake off the usual complaints and end on a hopeful note.
All of these panels were recorded and as soon as the podcasts are available, I’ll update these posts with links to the appropriate files.
As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate enough to attend both The Translation Market at the Miami Book Fair and the American Literary Translators Association Conference last week.
I promised to blog about both of these events for PEN America and for Three Percent, but because all three days were chock full of interesting events, great conversations, long nights of eating and laughing (and drinking), I wasn’t able to do this concurrently with the conferences.
To make up for this, over the rest of today (and tomorrow), I’ll recap all of the panels I attended and other related stories and events. In short, both conferences were amazing. (It totally helps that they both took place where it was 80 and sunny . . . ) So, if you’re interested in the state of translations among publishers, booksellers, and translators—and I assume you are if you’re reading this blog—then stay tuned. I have a dozen posts lined up containing a ton of information, some comments and reflections, and a few funny anecdotes . . .
I’ll be gone for the next few days, first to the Miami Book Fair International for the Translation Market. A complete list of events can be found here and from the Opening Session to the closing reception, I think this will be an amazing day of panels and events.
It looks like I’ll be blogging about both conferences for PEN America, so if you’re interested, be sure and check in there. E.J. will still be posting on a daily basis here at TP, and may end up linking to some MBFI and ALTA coverage.
The Miami Book Fair International has just announced a The Translation Market: A World Literature and Translation Summit.
In its launch year, the event will offer professional seminars and panel discussions as well as invaluable networking opportunities among an exclusive collection of professionals in this critical, emerging segment of the industry. Located in the most international city in the Western Hemisphere – Miami – the Translation Market will provide unparalleled education and a unique venue for connections to be made and borders to be crossed by spreading literature across nations and languages.
The schedule of events looks fantastic, with a slew of interesting people in attendance, ranging from Dan Halpern of Ecco, to Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum, to Carmen Pinilla of the Carmen Balcells Agency, to Steve Wasserman, to Jose Eduardo Agualusa.
This is a very smart move on the part of the MBFI, and I can see this becoming an annual “must attend” event for everyone interested in international literature.
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