June started a few days ago, which means that my rambling monthly overview of forthcoming translations is overdue. It also means that World Cup 2014 is about to start, which means that for the next month my brain will be as filled with soccer tactics and outcomes as literary ideas . . .
But sticking with the now: For the past two weeks, I’ve been on editorial trips to Estonia and Latvia. So rather than write up a post about forthcoming translations and a separate one about all the interesting stuff I’ve learned about in the Baltics, I thought I would “skin two bears with one trap” (from what I understand, this is the Estonian equivalent of “kill two birds with one stone,” but a bit larger and darker . . . ) and merge my monthly overview with a bunch of observations and comments.
Since Estonia’s HeadRead Literary Festival and the Estonian Literature Centre were the main impetus behind this trip—they arranged for my flight over and back, all the accommodations, tons of great meetings with authors and other literary figures, etc.—I want to take a paragraph and just give some random shout-outs.
First off, Ilvi Liive and Kerti Tergem are two of the best people you could hire as representatives for your country’s literature. Always professional, super smart, incredibly helpful . . . Estonian literature wouldn’t be where it is today without those two. (And don’t laugh—I can name a half-dozen books that would win a couple rounds in the World Cup of Literature . . . if only Estonia’s actual football team wasn’t such shit.)
Also, the two translators who joined us—Matthew Hyde and Adam Cullen—are bloody brilliant and another reason I think we’re going to have access to more Estonian lit over the next few years. Adam recently translated Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio for Dalkey Archive, and is currently working on a mammoth book by Mihkel Mutt that should be out in late 2015.
Adam deserves another special shout-out for hanging out so much. He’s a great guy, with fantastic stories, and I really appreciated all the time he took showing me around, explaining things, drinking maybe too much with me at the amazing NoKu . . .
Same goes for Kaisa Kaer, who is probably best well known as the Estonian translator of the Harry Potter books. (See this entry in the Estonian Wikipedia.) She was there for the late nights at NoKu, but also showed me the part of Tallinn where Stalker was filmed. (Which is especially surreal during this white night period when it gets light way, way too early in the morning.)
Finally: All the other publishers on the trip—Gesche from Pushkin Press, Philip Gwyn Jones from Scribe, Frédéric Martin from Tripode, Artur from Piper, and Job from Prometheus—were all fantastic. I could write paragraphs about all the great things about each editors and his/her respective press . . .
I’ll get into some actual Estonian literature below, but for now, I just wanted to thank everyone who made this possible. OK, onto the books and the random shit.
La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Open Letter Books)
This is the third Saer book that we’re bringing out—we already have two more signed on though, so don’t worry—and it may well be the best. It is “grande,” yet a perfect introduction to Saer’s world, with characters from other books making an appearance, all the normal Saer themes being explored, and a shitload of wine being sold and consumed. It also was his final novel and feels a bit like a summing up. Great summer beach read!
For it’s size, Tallinn surely is a grand city. (See what I did there? Sorry, but after hearing foreign, unintelligible—to me at least—languages for the past couple weeks, my brain is responding with terrible puns [the other day I got into an elevator made by “Schindler” which quickly became “Schindler’s Lift”] and cheesy segues.) The Old City is such an interesting collection of very old buildings that are pretty well preserved . . . If ever there’s a city that deserves to be referred to as looking like a “fairy tale,” this one is it.
And while we were there, it was bustling with activity—the aforementioned HeadRead festival with its dozens of authors, a mini-festival of jazz music (which played very loudly over the opening ceremony of the HeadRead), and Olde Towne Days (I assume the “e“s are all supposed to be there), which was mostly people dressing up in Olde-Timey garb and doing crazy shit at the Town Hall, like playing horns out the windows and yelling “VIVA! VIVA!”
Leg over Leg, Volume 3 & 4 by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies (NYU Library of Arabic Literature)
One of the funniest parts of the Tallinn trip had to be our meals at Pegasus. Pegasus is a huge, beautiful restaurant that’s part of the Estonian Writers’ Union building. It’s a really great place, and one that was always completely empty when our group arrived for lunch. Without fail, the waitress would come up to the table and explain that due to “how busy the kitchen was” they had a limited menu today, and instead of the twenty or so delicious-sounding things on their menu, we’d have to choose between two starters, two entrees, and one dessert, and we must order everything right away, up front. None of this made any sense, but it made for a fun guessing game . . . “Do you think we’ll be able to get the chicken soup today?” “Nope, just the raw salad and the cheese plate.” “OH, ESTONIA!!!!!!”
The Iceland by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato (New Directions)
This was my first experience with the “White Nights” that impact most of Northern Europe. (And places like Iceland, which this book has fuck-all to do with.) That, mixed with the jet lag I’ve started to suffer in my oldering age, is really messing me up. It’s just disorienting to have the sun “set” at 10:30-11:00 at night, after which it will be “dark” for approximately two hours before the pre-dawn and official 4 am sunrise. Instead of curing my seasonal affective disorder (fuck you, winter!), it’s sort of driving me insane. I’ve been waking up most nights at 4:30 and having a hell of a time falling back asleep. But beyond that, my internal evening clock—where you can tell that you’ve been drinking long enough, it’s probably right around midnight given that the sun set a couple hours ago—is totally useless. I love these countries, but I don’t think I could live here . . . Not only would I never sleep in the summer, but the winters of no light would wreck my soul. You are all a strong people, which brings me to my next random observation . . .
Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated from the Portuguese by Stephen Henighan (Biblioasis)
Here in Riga, Latvia (which, contrary to Upstate New York beliefs is pronounced “Ree-ga,” not “RYE-ga”), we’re staying at a place on Lāčplēša iela (street). “Lāčplēsis” is the name of the most famous Latvian hero, a “bear-slayer” who “kills a bear by ripping its jaws apart with his hands.” According to Kaija—our resident Latvian and expert on bear slaying—a better translation of “Lāčplēsis” is “bear-ripper,” “the one who rips bears.” Although that didn’t work out so well against the Big Bear of Mother Russia, it’s best not to fuck with Latvians . . .
Plus, the bags Biblioasis gave out at BEA say “Ten Years of Fucking Amazing Books.” For that reason alone you should buy and read this.
Thirst by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, translated from the Persian by Martin E. Weir (Melville House Books)
This entry is a three-parter: First off, I really loved Dowlatabadi’s Missing Soluch. And although I was less into The Colonel, which got a ton of critical acclaim, I can’t wait to get my hands on this novel about the Iran-Iraq conflict and a journalist asked to fabricate a story to demoralize Iranian soldiers. One interesting note: Dowlatabadi has also written a 10-volume, 3,000-page saga about a Kurdish family. Melville should do this and bill him as the Iranian Knausgaard.
Speaking of thirst (again, apologize for my awful segues), the topic of alcoholism came up a number of times in our meetings with Estonian writers. It was most bluntly—and bleakly—presented in the talk with Peeter Sauter. He was reluctant to talk directly about the novel his was “pitching,” so instead he told us a bunch of stories about his life, other writers, Estonia in general. But then things took a turn . . . “When I got divorced, I got mad. I went around town attacking women . . . drunk. I knew this was a bad thing.” Amid the boozing and depression, he met a woman, and they started a relationship. Around that time, Peeter’s twenty-something son came to live with him. Then, suddenly, soul-crushingly, died of a heart attack. Peeter’s new book is about that.
And speaking of alcoholism, if you haven’t been watching Legit, the Jim Jeffries vehicle on FXX, you must. Not only is it a very funny show—a lot of it is laugh till you hurt funny in that way that mixes situational comedy with the sharp perceptions of a stand-up comedian at the top of his game—but over the course of its two seasons, it’s gotten real. It always had an undercurrent of emotional intensity—one of the main characters has MD and is paralyzed—but the second season is a heart-wrenching (to the point I can barely watch) depiction of alcoholism and how much it can ruin your life. Calling something “dark” is totally cliched, but that’s the best word for Legit. It’s a show that hurts in all of the best ways and way more people should be watching it.
Conversations by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
Although I’m only halfway through it, I’m pretty sure I’ve talked more about Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Radio with people than any other book I’ve read in the past couple years. Part of it is due to the fact that I’m reading it at the exact perfect time—it’s all about Estonia and Livonian history and culture, and I keep running into things referenced in the book—but there’s something to the narrator’s voice that makes this an incredibly easy book to get into and inhabit. Basically, it’s one man’s recounting of his relationship with a famous Estonian singer. Not necessarily a sexual relationship—he’s gay, she’s married—but there is a sort of sorting out on his behalf of how a woman like this, one from humble Estonian origins but converted into an East European diva, is wedded to his own self-perceptions, especially as an Estonian who’s been living in the great metropolis of Paris. It’s a brilliant book and a great entryway to Baltic literature.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker, translated from the French by Sam Taylor (Penguin)
Given the fact that this novel has received some truly mixed reviews, and sounds to me like a pop book constructed of well-worn elements of a different age, this seems like the perfect place to talk about music in Eastern Europe. One of my long-running jokes is that Bon Jovi (and Guns ‘n’ Roses) exist only for Eastern European radio stations. This is a harsh truth: traditionally, the pop stations in this part of the world play some really trashy American crap. The 80s never left the Soviet Bloc!
I’ve been pleasantly surprised in our visits to the local cafes here in Riga. For the most part they all have been playing indie rock circa 2012—Foster the People, Grimes, Dirty Projectors—which is both a relief and a disappointment. (We’ve heard some Latvian rock, but mostly stuff that’s more classic.) That said, on the drive home from Open Letter author Inga Ābele’s gorgeous estate we heard “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors. That’s more like it, Latvija!
(Of course, the Spin Doctors played the largest festival in Rochester last year . . . Because Rochester, NY is basically Eastern Europe—always twenty years behind the time. BOOM.)
Tonight we are going to Ala, a great bar with amazing live culture beer, to listen to folk songs and karaoke. I already know how this ends.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Random House)
Inga Ābele lives in one of the most relaxing, amazing estates I’ve ever been privileged to visit. I say “estate,” because there’s a very gorgeous modern house surrounded by three other barns and guest houses, including one that was built like a thousand years ago or something. Plus, they have a sauna next to a little pond and are only a short walk through the woods to a spring with pure, cool water. There are ostriches nearby. And peacocks. And a billion mosquitos.
While walking to the springs I stopped to read a bunch of the little signposts printed in English. Most all of them were about local flora and fauna—including some very rare ants that creeped me out—and were written in janky almost-English. “It is for the sprouting times!” Also, every single one ended with the phrase “PLANT IS SOMEWHAT POISONOUS!” in ALL-CAPS and bold.
I have so many questions about this . . . First off, the pictures on these signs made exactly none of these plant recognizable, and based on where the signs were posted, you may well have been trekking through the “SOMEWHAT POISONOUS” plant just to read about how it may poison you. Also, “somewhat”? The hell does that indicate? Like rashy poisonous or eat-it-and-die poisonous? And poisonous to what and/or whom? Birds? People? SO MANY QUESTIONS, LATVIAN SIGN WRITER!
The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau, translated from the Spanish by Joseph Mulligan (Black Cat)
I talked about this book on an upcoming podcast and it really might be the summer title that I’m most looking forward to. It’s also an appropriate title under which to include the story of the Riga Cat House.
The real story of this cat can be found on Wikipedia with a simple search, but I want to relay Kaija’s slightly embellished version (further embellished by me).
Way back in the middle ages of Latvia—aka the early 1900s—two businessmen got in a huge fight. One lied to the other, the other corrupted the first one’s daughter, there were more lawsuits more complicated than those found in Bleak House, both businessmen wanted the other totally destroyed—it was like a cold war of the merchant class. As a final effort to irritate Businessman A, the other businessman, knowing how much Businessman A hated the “filthy” cats that populate the Old Town of Riga, put a statue of a pissed off, about to poop cat on top of one of his turrets and aimed the cat’s asshole right at the other businessman’s window. This was like nails scratching on a chalkboard. Businessman A went totally insane, petitioning the city council to make Businessman B turn the asshole away from his window . . . “It’s just a cat!” “It’s a cat that wants to poop on me and suck out my soul! Filthy cats!” Eventually, Businessman A’s house burnt down, he died, and, out of a crippling karmic fear, Businessman B turned the cat around so it could shit on his own house, then he went and hid in the countryside and was never heard from again.
Now they sell shirts and coffee mugs and reproductions of the pooping cat. And as legend has it, if you drink Black Balsam (a regional herbal liquor that’s both kind of gross and kind of amazing, and which loosely translates as “Witches Brew”) under a full moon out of a pooping cat shot glass, you can control the mind of the Russian nearest to you. So, that. Rock on, Livonia!
That’s it for now. Enjoy June with all its sun, soccer, and books!
Welcome back to my monthly ramble about forthcoming works of literature in translations, which, as always, is punctuated by jokes, rants, and whatever else comes to mind.
Even more so than usual, I’m really excited about this month’s offerings—and I actually have some things to say about the books themselves!—so my usual intro will be a bit shorter (and less angry) than usual.
That said, I do have something serious that I’d like to talk about: retranslations. Specifically, what books from the last decade will be retranslated 50-60 years from now.
Way back when, I was on a panel at the London Book Fair with John Sturrock shortly after his retranslation of the “Sodom and Gomorrah” section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had come out. At some point during the conversation, he mentioned the accepted adage that every great work of international literature has to be retranslated every 50 years or so.
I’ve never heard a great explanation of why a translation “ages” faster than the original, but this belief—that a translation is somehow less “lasting” than the book itself—has been repeated by dozens of great writers and translators and, for whatever mysterious reason, seems to be true.
The cynical side of me would argue that the need for retranslations is tied to the financial windfall that comes from the “DEFINITIVE TRANSLATION!” marketing copy that accompanies these books. Especially since the books that tend to be retranslated are the ones with the largest classroom sales . . . Well, except maybe War & Peace, which would make most undergrads cry, but Random House still made bank off of that.
On a less cynical note, there is something to the idea that a translation can be “refreshed” every so often. That, for whatever strange mental reason, the changes to the way language is used in the target language make certain translations feel very dated. Which makes no sense when you think about it—outdated slang in the original is given a pass, but in the translation it seems glaring—but it happens.
From a translator’s perspective, a retranslation must be a fun challenge: How do you distinguish your Thoman Mann, Cervantes, Lispector, Tolstoy from the versions that came before? I feel like most translators who retranslate classics tend to have a specific reason for working on a given book. Something about the earlier versions doesn’t gibe with their interpretation or idea of how the book should be rendered. (This makes for great afterwords, such as Breon Mitchell’s fantastic one for his translation of Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum.)
Point being, retranslations happen. Classic texts are “made new” for new generations of readers all the time, and each generation of readers has “their” Dostoyevsky/Cervantes/etc. And there’s no reason to believe that this will stop anytime soon. (Back to Cynical Chad: If a publisher can make money on a retranslation of a popular book, they will.)
Which raises the question: Fifty years from now, which works of contemporary international literature will be retranslated?
I have a hard time thinking about this for some reason . . . My assumptions are that books that continue to sell in decent quantities (or could, given a “definitive” new translation), that have reached a certain level of “critical acclaim,” and that have some sort of theoretical justification for why they’d need a retranslation (for example, a book that was incomplete at the time of publication or whatever) will be ones that publishers will consider retranslating.
So projecting oneself 50 years into the future, which books might fit these criteria?
I’m interested to hear what everyone else has to say, but the first authors that come to mind are Bolaño, Knausgaard, and . . . I’m at a loss. Even with those two, I can’t imagine retranslating either. Especially not a Natasha Wimmer translation! But I have the same reaction to every author I think of (David Grossman? Mo Yan? Mikhail Shishkin?), but yet, I know this is going to happen to some book that I revere. It’s an interesting mind experiment though . . . if our goal is to bring out books that people will be reading in 2114, then essentially we’re trying to publish books that will inspire future generations of translators to work on them . . .
I think all of Knausgaard’s death stuff from the first volume of My Struggle is starting to get to me . . . on to the May books!
My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Archipelago Books)
Speaking of Karl Ove . . . On Friday, at the PEN World Voice “Literary Mews with CLMP” event, I had a chance to talk briefly with Eliot Weinberger about Knausgaard. Can’t remember how this came up, but he pointed out that My Struggle may well be the worst thing to ever happen to MFA program, because students will be tempted to imitate Knausgaard somewhat self-indulgent autobiographical style: “Hey, my life is as boring as his is!” As Eliot pointed out, there is a 100-page section about getting beer for a New Year’s Eve party . . .
Which is all absolutely true—I do not envy creative writing instructors—but, I think perceptive readers really could learn a lot about structure and form from Knausgaard. The reason his books work (and granted, I’m only at page 300-and-something in the first volume, so take this with a grain of ignorance) is partially due to his sentence writing, and mostly due to the way his digressions are organized and the grand shifts of the narrative. That 100-page bit on getting beer for the party is a perfect counterpoint to his father’s filthy drunken death. And within each of the parts, the way in which the narrative shifts from present moment (the writing of My Struggle, more or less) to the past (e.g., death of his father), to a pertinent moment in the more distant past (e.g., his adoration for his brother, which he unspools while considering whether he should propose having the funeral in their grandmother’s totally wrecked house) works like a musical score, almost like a fugue.
Young writers should pay attention less to the content—“I can chronicle every second of my life as well!”—and more to Knausgaard’s real art.
Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated from the Czech by Stacey Knecht (Archipelago Books)
This year is the 100th anniversary of Hrabal’s birth, which is why Archipelago has a number of great events lined up for this book. (Unfortunately, I’ll be in town for exactly none of them.) If you have a chance to check out any of the events in Brooklyn or Boston, I’m sure they’ll be quite entertaining . . . just like Hrabal’s prose.
Harlequin’s Millions is actually the next book that I’m going to start reading, once all my grades are in. I went on a Hrabal bender probably ten years ago, and haven’t read anything since . . . So I’m really looking forward to getting into this and into Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab.
Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri, translated from the Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem (Other Press)
So how about that all-Madrid Champions League final? Although Real Madrid looks like the best side in all of Europe right now, I’m really hoping that Atlético Madrid pull this out. After decades of Barça and Real Madrid dominance, it’s exciting to see a new team breakthrough—one that spent less than half of what those superpowered clubs did on wages.
Actually, I’m willing to bet that Ronaldo spent more on beauty products in the past year than Atlético did on its entire team.
(I’m sure Will Evans and George Carroll could see that joke coming a mile away.)
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)
Luiselli actually has two books coming out this month—this novel and Sidewalks, a collection of personal essays. Both of these books sound really interesting (I love the idea of Faces in the Crowd being told in four different times by two different narrators), as does Luiselli’s life in general: born in Mexico City, raised in South Africa, author of a novella in installments for workers in a juice factory . . . But here, just watch this:
Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Open Letter)
I’ll explain this in more detail in a later post, but my World Literature & Translation class selected this book as the “Best Translated Book of Our Class.” I had them read eight contemporary translations and then argue about which one is the best and why. Some classes focus on the translation challenges, other on the general enjoyability of the book itself, others on trying to raise the profile of a certain literary scene that might otherwise be overlooked . . . It’s kind of a perfect way for being able to bring up a ton of different issues related to literature.
WIKMBF has been getting a lot of attention recently. It was on Flavorwire’s Must-Read Books for May, and featured on _Music & Literature. Since I’m clearly biased in favor of this novel, I’m going to let Jennifer Kurdyla explain why you should read it:
Much like the exquisitely rendered friendship of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy, set during a similar time period in Italy, here is a portrait of what it means to use and be used by the people you love most, to see the best and worst of yourself in a face not your own. And it’s a sign of incredible maturity and wisdom for this fine, prolific, and audacious young writer to fearlessly embrace the challenge of brining that uncomfortable internal conflict to the page. She reminds us how it feels to be, as Maria is, knocked down by “a wild animal [that] charges into the room . . . before I know what’s hit me,” and to meet the gaze of “an eye glaring fiercely” at us when that eye is, perhaps, our own.
How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (Gallic Books)
This past weekend, I took my kids to a cabin in the Adirondacks where we all experienced the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Ropes Course. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t make it to the “Extreme” course . . . although I was somehow able to balance, climb, zip line, and swing through the five main ropes courses. This was my first ropes course experience, and it was fucking incredible. Zip lines are kind of the best thing ever. I want to travel to work by zip line. And to swing over a river 100-feet off the ground is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like a superhero . . . That said, this experience also reinforced just how out of shape I am these days. There was one section that involved crawling through three hoops while on a tightrope wire . . . I could barely lift my leg over the ring . . . It’s like that Louis C.K. bit about how the hardest part of his day is putting on his socks. Getting old and chubby is not fun. On the bright side, two days later I can actually lift my arms again!
A Man: Klaus Klump by Gonçalo Tavares, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive Press)
That cover reminds me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, although a lot less shiny. Given this post on Caustic Cover Critic the finished cover may be entirely different. And seriously, what’s going on with the four books listed on that blog? The original listed covers—the ones with the large images and the bibliographic info on the left—are totally fine. Nothing mind blowing, but respectable. Elegant. The new ones? OUCH. I just don’t get it at all. Also, you can now order all your books through Dalkey’s website using your Amazon account?!? I can’t imagine independent bookstores—or Barnes & Noble—are pleased about that.
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford (And Other Stories)
On the flipside, I really love And Other Stories’s covers. I also like the way in which the first batch all had one particular look—a lot of angles, “X’s” like on the cover above—and the second batch fits together—lots of circles, like with this book. These are books that, even if I don’t have time to read them, I must own. As a complete set. That’s powerful in terms of marketing and branding, and is one—of many—things that And Other Stories has done right in launching their press.
Ludwig’s Room by Alois Hotschnig, translated from the German by Tess Lewis (Seagull Books)
Seagull is also at the far end of the design spectrum—their catalogs are legendary in their opulence, and their books are well-crafted and always quite attractive. Tess Lewis was a judge for the BTBA a couple years back, and it’s great to see that she has a book eligible for next year’s award. And of (quite loose) category of “World War II” books, this one—about a man who comes to realize the disturbing lengths his great-uncle’s village went to in order to protect the people who worked in a nearby prison camp—seems pretty unsettling.
Fear: A Novel of World War I by Gabriel Chevallier, translated from the French by Malcolm Imrie (NYRB)
I’m personally not big on war books, but this bit of Chevallier’s bio caught my eye:
He began writing Fear in 1925 but did not publish it until 1930, a year after his first novel, Durand: voyageur de commerce, was released. Fear was suppressed during World War II and not made available again until 1951.
Books that are suppressed are the most intriguing books . . .
OK that’s it for May. Hope you find a couple of things on here worth checking out.
Every semester I tell my publishing students about the time I was walking around BEA with Jerome Kramer and he pointed out how the whole fair was “filled with failure.” Mostly I want to shock and break them—every good professor needs to upend his/her student’s expectations and their latent belief that they “know a lot of things”—but it’s also a statement that I stand by.
Pretend you’re a writer. Or rather, someone who wants to be a writer. You spend years working on your novel (or worse—collection of poems) and then spend three times that amount of time trying to find an agent willing to send this around to a bunch of editors who read approximately five pages (this is actually what happens, sorry) before deciding that your years of labor aren’t “good enough” (a.k.a. “potentially profit-making”) to be published. Even if you do find a publisher, unless you wrote the next Fifty Shades, you’ll end up selling less than 2,000 copies. Most likely, you’ll end up self-publishing your work through Amazon and 1/10 of your 400 Facebook friends will buy the $.99 ebook version. Congrats!
Or pretend you’re a publisher. You wade through hundreds of awful manuscripts every year and find 10-12 that you actually like. Along the way, you respond to approximately 1,000 emails from authors and agents harassing you for answers, questioning your judgement, making you wish that worked in a job that actually made money. Finally, the book you love, that you edited with all the best intentions, that you promoted to all your favorite Brooklyn tastemakers comes out . . . and no one talks about it. It sells 2,000 copies. Such a great book! And fuck, man . . .
Let’s say you’re a translator. You do samples on spec. You get someone to finally publish the book that you have always wanted to work on. You and your editor exchange five emails. The book comes out without your name on the cover. Reviewers praise the author’s style without mentioning you. The book sells 2,000. Because you only earn 1% of the list price on ever sale, you never earn back your $2,500 advance. (Which was what you received for a year of work.)
Booksellers don’t have it any better. You have to cater. You might have your own opinions on what books are great, and which ones you would rather not ever have to sell. But the customer is always right. Amazon killed your mojo. Ebooks are bitching up your profit margins. And instead of buying the extremely well-written, well-translated Dutch book you love, everyone is chuffing off with Freedom. The book you staff-picked and put in every customer’s hands sold 6 copies at your store. And you still earn just a smidgen above minimum wage.
I wouldn’t want to be a reviewer at a major publication. All the courting must make you want to puke. “No really, this is her breakout book. It’s got relatable characters, unexpected twists, and a midget! Can I buy you a drink?” And then you have to review the “big” books: Franzen, Eggers, etc., etc. Books that are fine, but which don’t make the world a better place. Life-changing, challenging books “aren’t of interest” to your demographics . . . So you pretend to give a shit about the latest debut author from Bushwick who “realistically” portrays her generation, knowing all the while that this whole thing is a fucking scam: that the only reason this book is being printed is because Ms. Bushwick used to write for the most-popular of popular blogs . . . And everyone hates you for not reviewing the much better book that only sold 2,000 copies . . .
There really is no logical reason to be in the book business. Kids would rather play with their iPhones than read a book, you’ll never earn as much as you’re worth, and even when you feel like you’re doing something good for the world, a minimum of 25 people are right there ready to complain and tell you how much you suck at life.
Case Study Number One. I have no idea why no one reviewed Dubravka Ugresic’s Europe in Sepia. Her last book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. I sent the new one to everyone. All the reviewers and booksellers were excited. It’s as good as Karaoke Culture and more timely. And yet? . . . Not enough. Every time I see that book on the shelf I feel like I let her down. I failed.
Case Study Number Two. We just finished editing one of our biggest books for the fall. As always, Kaija went through it, sent her edits to the translator (something that only a few presses do!), appreciated the translator’s kind response, inputted the changes, and proofed the book. Then, said translator emailed me to explain that, because Kaija switched three “as if I were” constructions to “like I was,” she was “concerned” and wondered if English was Kaija’s native language. (This translator also claimed Kaija wasn’t a “professional translator,” which is just untrue.) If I didn’t love the author, I would sabotage this book. Or just not publish it at all. Attacking my employees is crossing the line. Nevertheless, I feel like a failure because I can’t actually tell this person how pissed off I am—or how absolutely wrong they are—without seeming petty. Or anti-translator. And no matter how much I’ve done for translators over the past 15 years (just because I love international literature, I’m not a translator myself), I still get shit like this because I hired an editor who actually edits. FAILURE!
Case Study Number Three. The Best Translated Book Awards are up for the International Book Industry Excellence Awards presented by the London Book Fair and the UK Publishers Association. The other two finalists in the International Literary Translation Initiative category are Penguin India and Shanghai 99, two of the largest companies in the world. Two of the largest companies in India and China up against an idea originating from some guy who works in an office in the slowly imploding Rochester, NY . . . Guess who’s not going to be at the awards ceremony? The University of Rochester “doesn’t have $2,000” to send me to an awards ceremony with the publishing industry’s best and brightest. (Tuition plus room and board for the 2014-15 school year is $60,000.) Apparently, “they” don’t want to take advantage of the public relations opportunity or reward one of their employees for CREATING AN AWARD THAT’S A FINALIST FOR AN INTERNATIONAL AWARD. No money for failures?
It’s almost impossible to work in this industry and not feel like you’re being gamed on some cosmic level. The pay is moderate in comparison to other professions, and the hate mail way outnumbers the messages of appreciation. Great books never sell as well as they should. No one cares if you spent your weekend answering emails and reading hundreds of pages from a book that you don’t love, but want to promote in some way. (This is why all publishers are in New York. Not only because it’s the center of all media, but because if you work in books you can get invited to a bunch of scenester parties each weekend. And free booze and the company of other simpatico book people makes it all that much easier to swallow.)
I guess my point is as cheesy as it could be: Why don’t we all just calm the fuck down? It’s not like anyone’s intentionally trying to fuck anyone over—the game is just rigged. If the NPR reviewer doesn’t talk about how mindblowing your translation is, it’s not because he hates you; if an editor makes some suggestions to your book, it’s because they respect you and want your translation to be the best translation possible; if a bookstore can’t sell your book, it’s not because it’s bad, it’s because most people all want to read the same thing and that thing is banal; if Flavorwire won’t review your books, it’s because they receive . . . or, well, actually, that one’s because you, Chad W. Post, made fun of Jason Diamond on Twitter, and TWITTER NEVER FORGETS.
I didn’t have time to read shit this past month, so the April Previews are mostly of books I want to read, and I’ve highlighted them with stupid jokes. Enjoy my failures.
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (FSG)
This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year. It’s depressing as fuck, but so well written with its three voices and three timelines. I can’t wait to talk to my students about this novel, and am even more excited that Andrés will be in Rochester on April 22nd for an event with Carlos Labbé (see below). That will likely be one of the best Reading the World Conversation Series events ever, and will be followed by an epic afterparty.
Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé, translated from the Spanish by Will Vanderhyden (Open Letter)
If there’s one thing that the Internet has utterly ruined, it’s April Fools Day. Instead of spending months coming up with interesting, convoluted pranks to pull on family members and enemies, this “holiday” now consists of posting random lies online and seeing who’s willing to retweet it. Granted, NPR’s prank was pretty ingenious, but for every joke of this kind there’s a Flavorwire 10 Must-Read Books for April, which I didn’t even realize was an April Fools joke until I noticed that neither Talking to Ourselves nor Navidad & Matanza are on there. YOU GOT ME, FLAVORWIRE!
Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon)
This Tuesday is the second annual Bulgarian Fiction Event at 192 Books in Manhattan. Kaija Straumanis will be representing Open Letter and talking with Virginia Zaharieva and Albena Stambolova about Nine Rabbits and Everything Happens As it Does. These are the only two novels by Bulgarian women available in English translation. Everyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 should be there.
And anyone participating in #ReadWomen2014 might also be interested in knowing that on Thursday, April 10th, Viriginia and Albena will be up in Rochester and will join Danish author Iben Mondrup and translator Kerri Pierce for a panel on “Women in Translation.”
Viviane by Julia Deck, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
Last night, trying to find some crappy TV to entertain me after Kentucky’s last-second win, I came across Amish Mafia. This is an absolutely terrible show—you must watch it!
Now, I’m sure this is common knowledge, but this “Pennsylvania German” language that the Amish speak is totally insane. It’s just a bunch of German words—pronounced as if you’re absolutely wasted—put into an English syntax. This is the least threatening language a “mafioso” could use.
And speaking of these “Amish mafiosos,” they sure do have a hankering for sledgehammers. In the episode I watched, anytime shit went wrong, one of the “toughs” would attack with a sledgehammer. I kept wanting this to devolve into the “Gun Fever” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia featuring Mac trying to prove to Charlie that he could defeat a gunman with a samurai sword. “What if I zig-zagged like this?” BANG BANG BANG. Sledgehammers are stupid.
Finally, from what I could figure out, the “Amish Godfather” is a schlubby dude named Levi whose main criminal activity was SELLING BEER. Beer? That’s like the lemonade of mafia activities, buddy. Get yourself some hookers and a point-shaving scandal and we’ll talk.
Radio by Tõnu Õnnepalu, translated from the Estonian by Adam Cullen (Dalkey Archive)
Is that a concealed nipple on the cover of this book?
This summer, I’m going to be skipping BookExpo America this year to attend HeadRead, Estonia’s annual literary festival. I haven’t been to Talliinn in almost a decade, and this is a perfect opportunity to return, with Sjón, Ben Okri, John Banville, A.S. Byatt, Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud, and many more authors on the docket. So if you’re looking for a reason to visit the Baltic States . . .
A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund (Other Press)
Recently, my ex-wife signed my kids up for a weekend “Kids CrossFit” class at someplace called “BoomTown.” I’m not a big fan of the crossfit cult (more on cults below!), but whatever, the kids love it because they get to run around and throw balls at walls and swing on hanging rings and pretend that they’re bad ass. So when I had them last weekend, I took them myself, and may well have stumbled upon some underground revolutionary party of Rochester.
The crossfit “gym” was just a small room tucked behind a half-abandoned strip mall. (I know, I know, what in Rochester isn’t half-abandoned?) If the tires waiting to be flipped weren’t enough to prove you were in the right place, there was a sales counter selling all sorts of gear with “CROSSFIT” written all over it. Because if you crossfit but don’t tell the world in every way possible that you’re a crossfitter, you’re just not doing it right.
All of the walls were scratched over with people’s names, as if this were one huge bathroom featuring the worst graffiti ever: “MUSCLE CLUB 2014! JENNI! ALEX! SHAUN!” I have the feeling that if you graduated from high school you’re not allowed to join.
The weirdest part had to be all of the kegs and beer for sale. Who crossfits and then does a keg stand?
Wait, no, check that, the weirdest part had to be this sign:
Yes, that is an axe and a AK-47. Thanks, but I’ll take my exercise without the advertisement for deadly weapons.
Pybrac by Pierre Louÿs, translated from the French by Geoffrey Longnecker (Wakefield Press)
A new translation from the author of The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners! If by chance you haven’t see the Handbook, it’s the filthiest book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not something you should give your niece. Ever.
And Pybrac, a collection of Louÿs’s poems, is equally as “erotic.” I just spent way too long trying to find a verse that I can quote on here that won’t get me in too much trouble, and this was the safest thing I came across:
I do not like to see the immortal mother
Jerk her son off in bed, get him stiff as a tree
Then encunt him and say: “Now fuck me, you duffer!
You don’t have to ask twice, just stick it to me.”
Wakefield Press is the most daring publisher of the present moment. And their books are amazing—not just for the sheer vulgarity, but for the quality, range, and uniqueness or all that they bring out. Kudos.
With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris (Melville House)
I love Hilda Hilst, and feel like she’s the frontrunner for the 2015 BTBA. Multiple books, loved by everyone literary . . . this may be her year. Also, she was from Brazil and Brazil is hosting the World Cup this year. That’s a clear advantage.
Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, translated from the Russian by Jeff Parker (DISQUIET)
We have a review of this book posting in the next few days. And any book that comes recommended from both Bromance Will and Jeff Parker HAS to be good.
So, this “Happy” song? It can fuck itself. Total propaganda. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t happy. Why? Incredible wealth disparity, the fact that douches like Sean Hannity hate anyone who can think, winter is never going away ever, it seems like earthquakes are about to rip apart half the hemisphere—a million reasons.
But this song is all about feeling good. Take a old timey musical arrangement—one our brains all recognize and feel is “safe”—add nonsensical lyrics and create a trend. That way you have a swarm of people ready to berate the handful of people who fail to get the message and aren’t quite sure if they should be clapping their hands because they “feel happy.” Also, what the fuck?
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
“If you feel like a room without a roof”? My seven-year-old son thinks this is a bullshit lyric. What does that even mean? A house has a roof, a room has a ceiling. “A room without a ceiling” makes more sense. And “If you feel like happiness is the truth”? These lyrics make no sense at all, and every time you sing along, a G.W. Bush supporter gets his wings.
Selected Stories by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated from the Portuguese by Rhett McNeil (Dalkey Archive)
I love Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Brazil, and football. Also, I met Rhett McNeil at Penn State before it became “Sandusky State” and for those reasons you should buy this book.
Last week I finished reading/listening to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief, and I really hope this sold more than 2,000 copies. It’s an amazing book—I bought the audiobook of Wright’s Looming Tower because of how good this is—and something everyone should read. Not because Scientology is awful—it is, and man am I never watching a Tom Cruise movie again, because, asshole—but because this book lays out the way power structures work in a way that’s incredibly useful. Scientology is even weirder than the Amish. I mean, I get the Amish—just not their mafia—but Scientology? What’s the point? It’s clear that the “church” has a handful of hippie ideals, but the claim that this is bettering the planet is totally batshit given the preponderance of evidence in this book. Yet, Tommy Davis, the Church’s spokesperson, had this to say:
The real question is who would produce the kind of material we produce and do the kind of things we do, set up the organizational structure that we set up? [. . .] Or what kind of man, like L. Ron Hubbard, would spend an entire lifetime researching, putting together the kind of material, suffer all the trials and tribulations and go through all the things he went through in his life . . . or even with the things that we, as individuals, have to go through, as part of the new religion? Work seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, fourteen-, fifteen-, eighteen-hour days sometimes, out of sheer total complete dedication to our faith. And do it all, for what? As some sort of sham? Just to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? [. . .] It’s ridiculous. Nobody works that hard to cheat people. Nobody gets that little sleep to screw over their fellow man.”
That comes after 348 carefully documented pages of abuses and should-be-illegal-if-they-aren’t-already behaviors. I mean, shit, the FBI was going to raid Scientology because of human trafficking violations involving slavery. That’s not good.
Also, the only published book I’ve ever burnt was Dianetics. It took forever. That book is way too thick to catch on fire. Should’ve used more lighter fluid. I suppose I failed.
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. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .