Two years ago, Yale University Press released The Dirty Dust, Alan Titley’s translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, a supposedly “untranslatable” masterpiece of Irish literature. This past year, Yale released Graveyard Clay, Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson’s translation of this same book. We’ll get into how unusual that situation is—and some of the thinking behind it—below, but first, here are a series of quotes from the two books, sometimes with the Titley coming first, sometimes the Iomaire and Robinson. As you read these, see if you can figure out which ones are from the same translation, and, more to the larger point of this post, see if there’s one that you’d prefer to read over the other.
Just to give you a quick bit of background, this novel takes place among the dead in a graveyard. Caitriona—a grumpy gossip—has just died, and spends most of the book complaining about her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law’s mother, about her own sister, about how it’s taking so long for her son to put a fancy cross on her grave, about everyone’s gossip about her, about whatever she can seize on. Her rants are surrounded by the gossip and wild stories of a dozen other characters, which come to the reader in bits and pieces, rarely in a straightforward, linear fashion. This really is a cacophony of voices, and, appropriately enough, given the setting, is incredibly claustrophobic. Voices pile on voices, there are few markers as to who is speaking, and the various motifs that drift in and out can be tricky to parse.
Anyway, here are some random snippets that capture the spirit of the book—and the approach of the two translations:
The children are no help to him, Muraed, apart from the eldest scamp, who’s a blackguard . . . Why wouldn’t he be! Taking after his grandfather, his namesake Big Brian, the ugly streak of misery.
He can’t do anything for the kids, Maggie, except for the eldest fucker and he’s a bollocks . . . that might be the case alright . . . Like his grandfather, same name Big Blotchy Brian, a total asshole.
—I hope he lies and never rises! I hope he gets the thirty-seven diseases of the Ark! I hope all his tubes get glutted and his bunghole stuffed! That he gets a clubfoot and a twisted gut! The Ulster flies! The yellow bellies! The plague of Lazarus! Job’s jitters! Swine snots! Lock arse! Drippy disease, flatulent farts, wobbly warbles, wriggly wireworm, slanty eyes, and the shitty scutters! May he get the death rattle of Slimwaist Big Bum! The decrepit diseases of the Hag of Beare! May he be blinded without a glimmer and be gouged like Oisín after that! The Itch of the Women of the Prophet! His knees explode! His rump redden with rubenescence! Be lanced by lice! . . .
—May his lying be long and without relief! The thirty-seven diseases of the Ark on him! Hardening of the tubes and stoppage on him! Graveyard club-foot and crossed bowel on him! May the pangs of labour consume him! May the Yellow Plague consume him! May the Plague of Lazarus consume him! May the Lamentations of Job consume him! May swine-fever consume him! May his arse be knotted! May cattle-pine, bog lameness1, warbles, wireworm, haw and stagger consume him! May the squelching of Keelin daughter of Olltár consume him! May the Hag of Beare’s diseases of old age consume him! Blinding without light on him, and the blinding of Ossian on top of that! May the itch of the Prophet’s women consume him! Swelling of knees on him! The red tracks of a tail-band2 on him! The sting of fleas on him! . . .
—May you be seven thousand times cursed tonight and tomorrow and a year from tomorrow, you Communist you, you Fascist, Nazi, atheist, spawn of the red Antichrists, you perfect pustule of the plebeian pricks, you dirty dregs of the dingy damned, you fester of fever, you fly’s fart, you maggot’s mickey, you earthworm’s slime, you belching bollocks that even frightened death himself so he had to send you a disease in the end, you muck muppet, you clap of crap, you rusty wreck of a useless git! . . .
—My seven cries of curses on you, tonight and tomorrow and a year from tomorrow, you Communist, you Fascist, you Nazi, you heretic, you red-haired Antichrist, you right mouthful of vulgar-blood, you putrid dregs of rustic table attendants, you remnant of disease, you leavings of fly, maggot and earthworm, you lifeless wretch who frightened death himself till he had to put a bad sickness on you, you worthless creature, you useless boor, you red ruffian . . .
I am the Trump of the Graveyard. Let my voice be heard! It must be heard . . .
Here in the Graveyard the spectre of Insensibility is violating coffins, grubbing up corpses and kneading the decayed flesh in his cold earth-oven. He cares nothing for cheek of sunlight, fairness of complexion or the pearly teeth that are the maiden’s pride.
I am the Trumpet of the Graveyard. Hearken unto me! Hearken to what I have to say . . .
Here in the graveyard the monster of Unfeeling is chewing coffins, hacking cadavers, and kneading the refined flesh into one great oven of cold earth. He cares not for the sunlit cheek, or for blonde beauty, or for the flashy smile which is the pride of a young woman.
“I wouldn’t marry you, you rotten poop, even if cobwebs grew out of me for want of a man,” I said.
“I wouldn’t marry you, you ugly streak of misery, if I was covered in green scum for the want of a man,” says I . . .
I’m pretty sure that if you read these carefully, you can figure out which ones are from the same translation. For those keeping score, numbers 2, 1, 1, 2, 1 are all from Titley, and 1, 2, 2, 1, 2 are from Iomaire and Robinson. The Titley snippets are marked by vulgarity (“rotten poop,” “eldest fucker”), a lot more alliteration (“you perfect pustule of the plebeian pricks, you dirty dregs of the dingy damned, you fester of fever, you fly’s fart, you maggot’s mickey”), a slightly more manic style within the various lists (“The yellow bellies! The plague of Lazarus! Job’s jitters! Swine snots! Lock arse!”), and, in general, a more colloquial feel (“a total asshole” vs. “the ugly streak of misery”). In the words of Yale University Press director John Donatich, Titley translated with an eye to capturing the energy of the novel, whereas Iomaire and Robinson treated the original text with more reverence.
What’s even more interesting is just how aware the different translators were of their approach. Here’s Titley in his introduction:
The challenge was to get some of the tone and vivacity of the original across without seeming too bizarre. English is a much standarised language with a wonderful and buzzing demotic lurking beneath. I tried to match the original Irish common speech with the familiar versions of demotic English that we know, mixing and mashing as necessary, and even inventing when required. But slang is always a trap. The more hip you are, the sooner you die. [. . .]
Ultimately, as we know, there is no easy equivalence between languages. It is not the meaning itself which is the problem but the tone, and feel, and echo. I have no idea whether this works or not in this translation. It may do so for some, and not for others. [. . .]
I have taken some liberties with this translation, but not many. [. . .] There was always a tradition in translation in Ireland of taking some freedoms, and it would have been untraditional of me not to do likewise.
That approach is a long way from what Iomaire and Robinson proclaim in their intro:
Our aim in this translation is modest: to give the Anglophone reader the most accurate answer we can provide to the question, What is in this book? There is ample space in the shadow of Ó Cadhain for “versions,” subjective interpretations, radical transpositions into other settings and periods, even parodies; these things will follow. But, be faithful to Ó Cadhain has been our first commandment. This of course involves much more than word-for-word equivalence. In English the words are often lacking. [. . .]
Hence the basis of our translation was produced by Liam [Mac Con Iomaire], and then the two of us worked through it repeatedly, almost phrase by phrase. In searching for the English words that would most clearly convey Ó Cadhain’s meaning, we have tried to avoid flattening out his extravagances, his anarchic wit, his otherness, his sheer strangeness.
In case you have any questions about how Iomaire and Robinson feel about the Titley translation, they also include this little dig:
The Dirty Dust is Alan Titley’s version of Cré na Cille, published by Yale University Press in 2015 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series, which treats especially of previously overlooked works of cultural and artistic significance. Initial enthusiasm regarding access to the narrative may ultimately be tempered by a more guarded analysis of the translation’s “free-wheeling” nature in general and a markedly creative interpretation of the text’s “rich and savage demotic base” in particular.
Before going any further into the differences between these translations, why a reader might prefer one version over the other, and the translation of humor and translation (or non translation) of humourous books, it’s worth taking a second to talk about why Yale published two versions of the same book in the first place.
Always level-headed, always thoughtful, John Donatich told my World Literature and Translation class a bunch of interesting things about this book when he Skyped in with us last week. In no particular order:
That last point gets to the heart of some of this, but again, before getting to that, getting to humor, getting to jokes and rants and energetic prose, I want to take a minute to talk about competing editions.
It’s difficult to overstate how radical and unusual Yale’s decision to publish two translations of the same book really is. This is not the norm. The norm is for one of the Big Five presses to commission a new translation (of a book that’s likely in public domain) and brand it as “definitive.” Or as more “faithful,” or “accurate,” “complete.” The new translation is generally done by a translator who has received a ton of plaudits, who is “known.”5
Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote is the “definitive translation of the Spanish masterpiece.” “Pevear and Volokhonsky have produced a translation true to [Tolstoy’s] powerful voice” with their rendition of Anna Karenina. In her “landmark translation” of Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis “honors the nuances and particulars of a style that has long beguiled readers of French, giving new life in English to the book that redefined the novel as an art form.” According to the publisher, by working with the author, scholarship, new reference works, etc., Breon Mitchell’s translation of The Tin Drum results in a work that is “more faithful to Grass’s style and rhythm, restores omissions, and reflects more fully the complexity of the original work.”
This should be obvious, but the basic marketing strategy of a publisher bringing out a new translation is to eliminate all competing editions by declaring that their version is the best/closest to the original/vastly superior/most accurate. You want your edition to be the only one available in bookstores. You want your edition to be the only one that professors are willing to teach.6
When I first heard that Yale was actually bringing out two versions of this novel, I figured the sales would tank. Readers already have myriad issues with the idea of reading works in translation—“it’s not the real book, so much is lost in translation!”—that forcing them, immediately, with no time for critics to pick apart the existent, first, translation, to choose version A or version B seems like it’s begging for readers to choose neither.
This was sort of what happened when I asked people on Facebook if they had an opinion about the two translations.7 Almost every person who responded said that they started reading the Titley, then felt like it was “too removed” from the original book, and then tried to read the Iomaire and Robinson, but then mostly didn’t.
Generally speaking, humans are pretty bad at making decisions. I’m a long time reader of books on behavioral economics, and if you’re not, I highly recommend checking out Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project. In a way, this is a spiritual follow-up to Moneyball, recounting the life and works of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—the two foremost chroniclers of fallacies in the way humans think.
I don’t want to summarize this book or recap the findings of behavioral economists as a whole (check out Priceless if you’re curious), but basically, Kahneman and Tversky research and write about the traps we fall into while making decisions. Things like heuristics and “confirmation bias,” which is all the post-Trump rage, and depicts the ways in which we overvalue data that supports our pre-existing ideas. They were also the first to write about “anchoring”—the way in which we are given a random number that shades future assumptions—and assumption dangers that come when you ignore the concept of “regressing to the mean.”
This is way oversimplifying and, again, future post, more material, but I only really wanted to bring this idea up now, in this particular post in this series, for one specific quote from Lewis’s book:
But these stories people told themselves were biased by the availability of the material used to construct them. “Images of the future are shaped by experience of the past,” they wrote, turning on its head Santayana’s famous lines about the importance of history: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. What people remember about the past, they suggested, is likely to warp their judgement of the future. “We often decide that an outcome is extremely unlikely or impossible, because we are unable to imagine any chain of events that could cause it to occur. The defect, often, is in our imaginations.”
As I told John Donatich, I prefer the Titley translation. It’s not perfect, and I frequently switched over to the Iomaire and Robinson for clarification, but I love vulgarity. Give me a book loaded with four-lettered insults and I’m generally in. Does that mean that the Titley is the objectively better translation? Well, no, probably not.
Going back to our conversation one last time, John mentioned how his relationship to various art works tended to evolve over time, implying—at least to me—that if one was to read both of these translations several times over a life, one might vacillate between the two. At one point, you might want wild; at a different point, reverence.
And this is the lesson that’s hard for people to swallow: your preferences are always present. We may use terminology about the “more faithful” translation, the one that captures the “style of the original” in a better way, but to be honest, that’s mostly bullshit and biases.
I acknowledge that this viewpoint is based in a sort of never-ending whirlwind of subjectivity, but a) I have doubts about how objective we are in our analyses, especially in terms of style and fiction, b) the worship of the “original text” is inherently flawed, and finally, c) we craft stories about why something is “good” based on how it fits into things we’ve liked in the past.
I have always liked humor. Generally the crass kind—and the ranting kind—but as an overall philosophy, I’ve felt like life is too short, too meaningless, not to enjoy it by laughing.
That doesn’t mean that I like shit like Friends.8 There are personalized ideas of humor . . . or comedy. Which is actually a worthy distinction—one that Julio Cortázar lays out in the forthcoming (in English translation at least) Literature Class:
For starters, as is the case with music in literature, nobody knows what humor is; there is often a somewhat dangerous confusion between humor and simple comicality. There are things that are comical but don’t contain what is inexpressible, indefinable, which real humor does. To give you a very simple example from movies by two very well-known actors of our times: someone like Jerry Lewis is, for me, a comic, and someone like Woody Allen is a humorist. The difference is that Jerry Lewis is trying only to create situations that will make the audience laugh for a moment but will have no subsequent impact. Comics end with a joke, which are closed-circuit systems, very brief, and though this can be very beautiful and we’re fortunate they exist, in literature I don’t think they’ve had any important consequences. On the other hand, the comic effects that Woody Allen achieves at his best moments are full of a sensibility that goes way beyond the joke or the situation itself: they contain a critique, a satire, or a reference that can even be very dramatic, as can begin to be seen in his more recent movies. [. . .]
If we analyze the text containing that element of humor, the intention is almost always to desacralize, take something down a notch from some importance it might have, some prestige, take it off its pedestal. Humor is constantly swinging the scythe under all pedestals, all pedantry, all those words that are capitalized.
I’m down with this. When I think of the idea of “comedy,” I think of bad stand up, or sit-coms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Works that are meant to just be funny tend to be more staged, more focused on set-up and delivery. Works that are richer, of which the goal isn’t just a few laughs—maybe The Onion, or, in Cortázar’s case, Cronopios and Famas—tend to incorporate humor as one element within a larger scope.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is comic, is situational comedy, (minus the bits that include Jason Mantzoukas), is a bit with sort of tone, but not something you’ll ponder decades later while you’re peacefully dying at the age of 95.
Why are so few translations actually funny?
A couple of years ago, I tried to shit on the concept of the year-end list by creating a million of them. Best Books by European Women, Funniest Books, Best Books that Deserve a Second Read, Ten Books Flavorwire Won’t Feature, Fourteen Books that Received Zero Reviews, etc. The only list I had trouble creating was the one about humorous translations—those books are hard to come by.
I’ve heard people talk about the difficulties of translating humor before, generally focusing on the challenges of rendering jokes in English that are based in cultural stereotypes or references. The general thought is that the humor will get lost because the target audience has no clear understanding of what’s at play in the original. We don’t quite get French jokes about Belgians because we don’t have any pre-existing stereotypes about Belgians. (Well, not as many as the French?) As a result, a lot of jokes that play with specific stereotypes or cultural norms fall flat, and a book that’s supposed to be funny just sounds wooden.
David Bellos writes against this in his wonderful Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, arguing that you can frequently find good matches for jokes across cultures. That a translator can figure out the conditions at work in the joke that make it funny, and then reconstruct them in a way that retains those conditions, even if the specific targets of the joke have changed.
In reference to a “jump for Stalin” joke9, he has this to say
Provided the two general conditions given above can be met [the idea that “thinking about your family” means both provide support and provide protection, and that evil rulers punish disobedient people through their families], the jump-for-Stalin joke can be rejiggered to fit a wide variety of other historical and geographical locales in the same language or any other, and still be the same joke. There are very many transportable, rewritable joke patterns of that kind—including those politically incorrect ethnic disparagements of near neighbors that you hear in structurally identical form when the French talk about Belgians, Swedes about Finns, the English about the Irish, and so on.
Translating these kinds of circulating jokes means matching the pattern made by the interplay of presupposition and meaning that constitutes the point, and then rewriting all the rest to suit. An ability to recognize the match is not rare, and may be almost universal. But the the ability to find a good match is one that only some people have.
That’s one type of humor, and one approach to resolving it. But there are a lot of other types of funny: puns and wordplay, invective lists, a character’s strange and silly delusions about their self or the world, etc. Bellos defends the ability of translators to capture this sort of humor as well, but to be honest, I’ve never had any doubts as to the possibility of translating a funny book from whatever language into English. I’m personally more interested in why publishers don’t try to publishing more explicitly funny books.
This essay is getting long and unwieldy, so I’m going to try and pull together a few threads here and just lay them out without a ton of digressions, examples, caveats, etc.
Before writing this section, I tried to find some sort of proof that there really are a lack of funny translations coming out in English. I feel like this is true—anecdotally—but even though I enter hundreds of titles a year into the Translation Database, I don’t necessarily read every book, or even look at them all that carefully. That said, it feels like for every César Aira, there are twenty serious books about World War II.
So I did a couple Google searches. “Funniest books of 2016” leads to a ton of lists, including this list of the top ten humorous novels of the year, which lists ten books all written in English.
By contrast, a search for “funniest translations of 2016” leads to 7 Big Translation Fails of 2016. “Funniest international fiction of 2016” isn’t any better, nor was any other combination I could come up with. (Although I did find this list of funny Arabic works in translation on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog.)
If we accept that humor can be translated, then there must be another reason for this weird lack. Sales would be an obvious sort of explanation, but I’ve never actually heard a publisher say, “funny books just don’t sell” in the same way that they’re quick to dismiss poetry or short stories as unsalable categories of books.
But even if they don’t explicitly state it, I do think that there is an underlying belief that humorous books in translation just won’t find an audience. Not because they’re funny, or not funny, or too culturally specific, or too hard to translate, but because we’ve created a framework within which translations are meant to be serious.
From a reader’s standpoint, most of the early exposure to international works of literature takes the form of large, ambitious, serious novels. Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. Proust. There are funnier novels that readers are exposed to in high school or college—Candide for example, or Don Quixote—but these are still treated with a sort of reverence that can temper the sheer joy of reading them. We’re frequently taught that translations should be Great, Important Books.
Publishers tend to build upon this idea in their selection of books to translate, and, more importantly, how they’re marketed. There’s the ever-present idea that one should read literature in translation to “better understand a foreign culture.” Reading translations is like taking your medicine—you might not thoroughly enjoy it, but it’s good for you. (This idea even comes up in Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters.)
This is especially true when it comes to smaller houses—the ones who are doing the bulk of literature in translation. If they’re not doing genre books, they tend to look for high minded works of literary fiction that gather up a sort of importance by addressing societal or historical ills. This isn’t to fault publishers—if you’re going to invest the money and time into doing a book in translation, you want to do something that’s lasting, and more than just entertaining. And this ends up being reflected in the marketing of translations, with jacket copy emphasizing how a novel provides essential insight to a foreign culture, or represents that culture in a meaningful way. The books aren’t necessarily fun, but instead are great learning opportunities.
Because we’ve been conditioned to think this way, we expect translations to be serious and thoughtful, foreign in a way that’s complicated, cultured, and challenging. There’s a reason that Yale believe Graveyard Clay with its footnotes, its Irish names, its lengthy critical introduction, and its assertion that it is more “faithful” to the original, is the version of this book that will be more widely adopted by academics. That’s what a translation should be: deferent to the original text, which it treats seriously, allowing a bit of insight into a different literary culture.
That’s what we expect from foreign books. I can’t count the number of times this sort of impression has come up in conversation: “I would bring the new Krasznahorkai with me on my trip, but I can only read things that are fun while traveling.” “I need to find the time to dig into the new Open Letter title—these books require more concentration.” Because of all this, I think the industry has created a self-fulfilling prophecy that favors “serious” works of translation, and that, as a result, we read translations with this in mind, reframing them to fit our pre-existing belief that these sorts of books are somehow more meaningful and staid. Or, another way to put it, we don’t value the humor found in international literature to the same degree that we tend to value the insights into other lives and cultures that we seek out in these books.
One last note: Dalkey Archive has traditionally done a great job of publishing books in translation that contain a lot of humor.10 These books tend to be of the very dark, self-deprecating, my-life-didn’t-turn-out-how-I-wanted variety, but also includes a lot of works whose humor is based in the voice of the characters, the strange turns of phrase that unveil the odd inner workings of a character’s mind. It would be interesting to trace how these books are received, and how often the humor is downplayed in favor of discussing the book’s cultural significance.
1 This is footnoted in the actual book with: “Aphosphorosis. Phosphate deficiency causing lameness in cattle.”
2 Also footnoted in the original: “A strap passing under a horse’s or donkey’s tail.”
3 Even as a translation advocate, there’s something about this viewpoint that inherently appeals to me. Admittedly, it’s rare for me to come across a “fuck you” that I don’t like.
4 Open Letter has yet to have a book sell as many copies as either version of Cré na Cille. In fact, our total sales for all our books combined, is just barely more than the number of copies Yale sold of the Modiano. Hearing other publisher’s sales can really put one’s life into perspective. To be completely honest, I don’t know of a single press our size/reputation that doesn’t have at least one book that far outpaces our top selling books. This is why I drink and write rambling essays about humor. Because if you can’t laugh, right?
5 How these translators build their reputation and how their translations are evaluated after their reputation is solidified are questions for another post.
6 The how and why this happens is, again, material for another post. One that can probably be summed up by saying: money + reputation + penetration = victory. Whether or not a new translation is objectively “better” is so irrelevant. As long as you can force something down the consumer’s throat—like Sam Tanenhaus did with the Pevear and Volokhonsky version of War and Peace—you’re fine. To be honest, the general reader won’t notice the difference between a translation that’s a 4 out of 10 in quality, and one that’s a 8 out of 10. At least in terms of sales. Again, material. Another post.
7 Yes, I know that a Facebook poll of 14 people is not statistically significant, or even just significant. But this anecdote makes sense within the context of the title of this post, which I will get to, I promise.
8 I recently tried rewatching the episode with the stoned Jon Lovitz, which, in my memory, was one of the only hysterical episodes of Friends, and felt like the whole thing was torture. How was this ever popular? Don’t answer that.
9 The joke: Stalin and Roosevelt had an argument about whose bodyguards were more loyal and ordered them to jump out of the window on the fifteenth floor. Roosevelt’s bodyguard flatly refused to jump, saying, “I’m thinking about the future of my family.” Stalin’s bodyguard, however, jumped out of the window and fell to his death. Roosevelt was taken aback.
“Tell me, why did your man do that?” he asked.
Stalin lit his pipe and replied: “He was thinking about the future of his family, too.”
10 A short list of funny authors from Dalkey: Svetislav Basara, Lydie Salvayre, Louis Paul Boon, Jean Echenoz, Gert Jonke, Raymond Queneau, Stig Sæterbakken, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Dubrakva Ugresic, and Boris Vian.
In terms of funny authors we’ve published, Quim Monzo, Ilf and Petrov, Jerzy Pilch, Bragi Ólafsson, and Ror Wolf all come to mind.
For a few years now, on the first day of my “Translation & World Literature” class, I give my students an impossible task—translating the first few paragraphs of Diego Marani’s Las Adventures des Inspector Cabillot into English. Inspector Cabillot may well be the only book ever published in Europanto, a macaronic language Marani invented that uses common words from any and all Western European languages, and has no fixed rules. Here are a few of the paragraphs I make the students translate:
Inspector Cabillot put seine Europanto crossverba under der desk, hanged der telefono und jumped op der cuirassed liftor por emergence cases.
“Moi demanded, Captain What?”
“Ja. Ich habe eine delicate mission por you. Als you know, die europeanos countries send plenty aid zum developingantes countries und superalles, butter, second hand bicyclos, italian beer, english vino, germanische fashion, olde stamps, greek horloges, rumenian shoes und bulgarische used tyres. Well, some van diese aid never arrive zum destinatione. There must esse eine hole someplatz in Sudamerica, plus exacto in der Petite Guyane Luxembourgeoise. There esse tambien eine klinika por invalidos europeanos polizeros die esse eine poquito suspecta. Ich wand dat you make eine enquest, inspector. You shal pretende de esse eine invalido Europeano polizero und make toiself hospitalized. Sergent Otto Oliveira van der Europeane Polizei Brigade por Paranormale Eventos (EPOBRIFOPAREV) shal mit you in touch permane und toi assiste from Brussel.
Even though I group the students by the languages they know (all Romance language speakers together, everyone familiar with Japanese or Chinese, etc.), there are a few things that are almost always present in their translations:
1) There’s a tendency to overemphasize the English words present, ending up with sentences like “You shall pretend to be a sick European policeman and make yourself hospitalized.”
2) To date, every single group has translated “bulgarische used tyres” as “Bulgarian used tires,” which isn’t nearly as natural as “used Bulgarian tires.” Because all the other items in the list follow the “country modifying noun” format (“Italian beer,” “English wine,” which is weird for a different reason), I think they just get caught up in that repetition.
3) Generally they have a similar experience when reading this: at first it seems like nonsense, then, after they realize that they know more cognates than they initially assumed, they can read it quickly, fill in the blanks and get the general gist. Once they start going through it sentence by sentence and word by word though, they realize that they don’t actually understand the text in full. (“Superalles” and “greek horloges” tend to cause the most difficulty in this section.)
4) They always translate for meaning instead of style. Given how the task is presented (“OK, go have fun and translate this into English. We’ll read all of the versions out loud and talk about which one is the best.”) this isn’t entirely fair, but no one ever tries to capture Marani’s style per se. They go after some aspects of the tone—trying to make it kind of madcap, a bit off kilter yet drawing from detective story tropes we’re all familiar with—but generally just try and take each little bit of this and figure out what it means. Sure, they can figure out what the story is about, but does that capture what makes this example of Marani’s writing unique? Shouldn’t they leave some of it as is, incorporating some of the foreignness, the strangeness into their translation? Isn’t part of the point of this story/book to force the reader to slow down and enjoy some weird language jokes?
Translating Style by Tim Parks starts off from a related idea: For one of the seminars he taught, he would give students the same text (generally from a travel brochure or advertisement) in both English and Italian and ask them to guess which one was the original and which was the translation.
Rather than simply replicate one of his travel brochure examples in Italian and bad English translation, I thought it would be more interesting to compare bad English translation to Google Translate. See if you can guess which is which:
The limpid poetry of the landscape on which descend sweet sunsets, the fertile earth with long rows of poplars and lazy currents of rivers and canals, the vigorous and hard-working people of the vast agricultural and industrial area (simple and tenacious in their traditions) are as wreath at the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom of local governments has duly respected.
The clear poem of the surrounding landscape, where very sweet sunsets go down, the fertile land with long poplar-rows and slow streams of rivers and canals, the laborious and strong people of the vast agricultural and industrial zone (simple and persevering in their own traditions) form like a ring round the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom of the local administrations has opportunely respected.1
Parks found that it’s pretty easy to figure out which is the original when you’re looking at texts of this nature. The translation tends to be overly wordy, and more or less ridiculous. (“Form like a ring round the historical group of the city that the exemplary wisdom.”) What’s fun about bad translations (like English As She Is Spoke) is that they’re oftentimes incredibly funny.2
What he found—and which shouldn’t be all that surprising—is that literature was much more difficult to judge.
In a few minutes the train was running through the disgrace of outspread suburbia. Everybody in the carriage was on the alert, waiting to escape. At last they were under the huge arch of the station, in the tremendous shadow of the town. B shut himself together—he was in now.
Di li a qualche il treno percorreva gli squallidi sobborghi della città. Tutti i passeggeri erano all’erta, in attesa di evadere dal convoglio. Finalmente entrarono sotto l’enorme arco della stazione, nell’ombra terribile e immensa della città. B si chiuse in se stesso: ormai era preso.
In this case, most of his students didn’t recognize D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, instead assuming that the Italian was the original.
The rationale of his students does make some sense: “disgrace of outspread suburbia” isn’t a natural phrasing in English, and “waiting to escape” lacks a direct object (what are they escaping from?). By contrast, the Italian is much more “normal”: “the squalid suburbs of the town” and “escape from the train.”
By looking at the differences between original works by Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, Pym, and Henry Green and the translations, Parks zeros in on the way in which the translations tend to normalize the original style, oftentimes obscuring the larger philosophical-linguistic intent that prompted the author to bend English in his/her particular way. Style had been pushed aside in favor of meaning.
But rather than dwelling on possible alternatives in Italian, the thing to grasp is how all the translator’s changes, whether forced or not, are in the same direction, towards more conventional, commonplace concepts than those generated in the English. In diverging from ordinary usage here, Lawrence insists that the experiences he is talking about require thought, and what’s more deserve to be thought about in new ways. Again expressions like “in complete ease” and “her complete self” get their meaning through their provocative distance from the conventional. Without wishing to be unkind, the Italian reads like the kind of text Lawrence was eager to escape from.
This sentiment recurs over and over throughout Translating Style. Boiling the book down into two main points, it’s about a) how translations tend to standardize innovative prose styles and b) by back-translating and examining the differences between the translation and the original, interesting things about the author’s global approach tend to emerge.3
There are at least three tangents that this book inspired me to think about, and which I want to elaborate on:
1) The obvious tension between translating for style vs. meaning.
This goes back to my initial Marani example, but I’ve always argued in class (inspired in part by Adam Thirlwell’s The Delighted States) that the goal of translation isn’t fidelity to the original or making the text work in the target language, but capturing the style of the original. The problem with this is that the idea of style is, almost by definition, incredibly elusive, mostly because it can manifest in so many different ways.
In short: It’s not what you say, but how you write it. This is an incredibly lame, obvious statement to make. But one that’s harder to follow than you first imagine.
First off, there’s the difficulty of determining what aspects—on the line-by-line level—are distinctive, rather than something that needs to be normalized when it’s mapped onto English. What’s weird about the author’s style that’s intentional and distinct from the trappings of the language the author writes in.
Secondly, not many people feel comfortable translating ambiguously. So many times an editor—who is basically just doing his/her job—will ask a translator, “what exactly does this mean?” with the expectation that the translator will be able to parse a particular sentence. Sometimes that’s the case, and once the translator explains the line in question, both parties realize that switching one word or reversing one phrase makes everything click. But again, what if the author was trying to do something strange and non-normal in his/her writing that, taken in the aggregate, points to a larger philosophical belief? When are you normalizing the larger idea out of the text?
Which brings us to:
2) Translators and editors need to be great readers.
I don’t want to go full Venuti here,4 but it’s crucial that anyone undertaking a translation have a justifiable read on the book’s overall style. Almost every pitch letter we (being Open Letter) receive deals with what a book is about. It’s important because it’s the first book from XXXX to deal with women’s issues during the reign of YYYY. It’s a book that should be translated because nothing from ZZZZ has ever been translated into English.
All of these reasons for translating a book—or reading one—are totally fine. But they also don’t even brush up against the idea of what makes that book unique. These are structural things based in meaning; books that last are books that are stylistically unique and convey their larger ideas in a way that is inimitable. A pitch letter detailing how a particular author employs language in a strikingly unique fashion is much more likely to make it through our editorial process than one that emphasizes the social issues present in a novel.
That said, it’s terrifying to translate or edit a book on this basis. I don’t think many people who read are all that keyed into these ideas of language and structure. Some are, sure, but they are in the minority. Reading Parks’s book just reminded me over and over how stupid I am about interpreting and understanding books. It’s much, much easier to read for visceral pleasure. To take oddities as odd and just jam them into your cognitive schemas, scraping books for general ideas and momentary pleasure before moving on to the next book/Netflix show/album/political kerfuffle. Being able to break down a text on such a detailed level (“the lack of a direct object in this sentence is related to the author’s general approach of how boxes work on humans in general, unspecified ways, which then becomes a core part of his writing style”) requires more self-confidence and concentration than most people are capable of.5
Editing a book brings with it a basket of neuroses. Getting things “into English” might be the smartest way to find people interested in reading and buying a book, but might fuck that author’s chances of being known as a Beckett-level stylist forever.6 We all tend to normalize. This doesn’t mean whitewashing every instance of the foreign (like changing place names and fashions), but on a more syntactical level, translators and editors want things to “sound right.”
I am super guilty of this at our weekly translation workshops. Partially this is due to the fact that I’m just tired of everything—I feel old and like literature doesn’t really matter in the end—and also because I find it hard to understand an individualized style based on three pages of a novel that I’m reading for the first time. In my defense, when a book is sufficiently weird (re: written in an interesting style), I glom on to it and we try and publish it.
But way too frequently, I rip on something for “not being in English.” About 75% of the time that’s because the translation is sloppy—an event that happened without a terrible amount of thought during the execution—and the rest of the time it’s because I have an idea of how English can be written and I want the book being translated to fit into that.7
Sometimes that’s pretty minor—a type of phrasing that is a frequent translation issue, or a word choice—other times it’s much larger—the overall voice. Either way, I have a frame that the book needs to fit into. And as weirdly as my frame might be bent, it’s not absolutely forgiving.
This sentiment is what’s behind translators’ laments that editors tend to “smooth out” their translation. Lawrence Venuti wrote a long, sort of diatribe about this in relation to his translation of Melissa P.‘s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. His piece frequently focuses on specific word choices and fashions that the editor “normalized” according to her belief in how this character would “talk” in English:
My editor thought otherwise. I had to use “beautiful” instead of “lovely,” since “American teenagers generally don’t use this word to describe things.” Likewise “pants” instead of “trousers,” “crying” instead of “weeping,” “totally” instead of “utterly.” Archaisms provoked disagreement, even in a Gothic sex dream in which the cold enters the “finestrello” (embrasure) of the castle cell where Melissa lies naked, and she smells her “umori” (humors) on her monkish companion’s face. Ethnic dialects were out. For the “sugo” on the spaghetti eaten by Melissa and her parents I chose “gravy” precisely because the word is Italian-American for this meal. It was changed to “sauce.”
Occasionally my choices met with obtuseness. “Some people have plans that are linear and orderly,” Melissa is told at an orgy, “while others prefer a rococo caprice.” That curious phrase is my calque of the Italian (“un capriccio rococò”). My editor judged it “so obscure as to be meaningless,” so she consulted colleagues at Grove/Atlantic, who concurred. Yet Melissa is simply using an art historical metaphor to distinguish between conventional sex and kinkiness. Amazing that a publisher of erotic classics doesn’t employ editors who could get the point.
Venuti’s piece can be a bit aggressive, and I’m not sure I personally always agree with him, but he’s not alone in making complaints of this sort. Gather a group of experienced translators together and give them a bottle (or three) of wine, and you’ll hear about all sorts of egregious “fixes” that editors made to their translations—frequently at the expense of an author’s unique style, which is then subsumed into the dominant mode of contemporary American writing.8
Defenses can be made for the actions of these editors (this is a book that’s being sold to an American audience, and most of publishing is a business first, concerned with sales, not aesthetic advances), and there should be a healthy conversation between and editor and a translator, but one idea related to this has stuck with me for more than a decade: When an American writer does something strange with language, editors and critics are much more likely to praise this as innovative or progressive or new; when a translation twists the usual sentence structure or phrasings, it’s assumed that this is a problem with the translation, that the text hasn’t made it all the way over yet.
This is an idea that I’m definitely going to pick up in future posts.
3) Do contemporary authors write in styles that will be philosophically and linguistically meaningful 80 years from now?
This is a question that can’t possibly be answered either in this post, or at this time. If we could somehow transport ourselves to the year 2100 and look back on the books that came out from 2005-2015 to evaluate what stylistic quirks and philosophical-aesthetic advances changed the way we thought about literature and the way writers wrote, who would we focus on?
Again, there’s obviously no way to evaluate this, since it’s impossible to predict literary trends in advance, but at the same time, for me, there aren’t that many people who come to mind who will be studied rigorously, with their prose painstakingly analyzed in the way that Parks did with D. H. Lawrence or Henry Green.
One complicating reason is that the books that will last for the next 80 years will likely need to be popular right now. New York Review Books Classics and Dalkey Archive (along with Melville House to a lesser degree and a handful of others) have spent decades rediscovering major books that have been out-of-print, generally unavailable to readers for years and years. Books like Stoner by John Williams, or the aforementioned works of Henry Green. Not that long ago, Dalkey “rediscovered” the early works of Carlos Fuentes—while he was still alive and actively writing. Given the publishing landscape, it’s much easier to envision stylistically innovative works having to be rediscovered by a future press interested in preserving literary history, than it is to imagine these books staying in print and influencing writers and readers in such a pervasive way. That doesn’t necessarily preclude these writers from developing a cult readership and exerting a significant impact on the literary world, but it sure does make it more difficult.
There are a number of popular literary writers of the moment who might have their works survive until that period of time, but I’m not personally certain that they’re doing anything stylistically unique—at least not on a world-changing level. That may not be possible anymore, given the democratic—and ever-expanding—nature of today’s publishing scene; that may not be something that writers are as interested in. (At least not the ones with large enough sales to have a big enough platform to talk about this.) Without using a lot of examples, and really digging into this, I’m 100% sure that I’m going to say some stupid shit, but my impression is that the American authors we think of as the most literary and/or important are doing more in the realm of representing traditionally underrepresented (or completely absent) voices and addressing major social issues, than they are in terms of altering the shape of writing on a sentence-by-sentence, stylistic level. Writers like Claudia Rankine and Roxane Gay immediately come to mind, along with Maggie Nelson and Chris Krause. There are counterexamples, obviously, and there are authors like Jonathan Franzen and George Saunders, who may or may not be all that influential in 80 years and who, it could be argued, are masters because they distilled the lessons of preexisting writerly techniques (at the moment in which audiences craved those distillations), rather than inventing something totally new.
And while I’m saying random shit, by contrast, it seems like at least some of the big names writing in languages other than English (Knausgaard and Marías, Ferrante much less so) are much more focused on style and form. There are social issues in the background of all of these books, sure, but what makes a Marías book unique are his long, mannered sentences that progress by a sort of one-step-forward-two-steps-sideways fashion.
Again, I’m way over my head here, and pretty definitely wrong in this general assessment. But the idea of style and how it’s represented in contemporary fiction—from English and elsewhere—is something I’m sure I’m going to pick up again in future posts. Especially how these styles play against the business of books, and how they come through (or don’t) in translation. And I’m going to start down this path next week by looking at Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay.
1 The first is from Google, the second from Translating Style. I think “descend sweet sunsets,” “fertile earth,” “vigorous and hard-working people”—all from Google—are better than the version Parks used. Both are garbage, obviously, but still.
2 Who hasn’t put things through Google Translate for a cheap laugh?
3 Just to give an example, in the section on Samuel Beckett, the Italian translations totally lack the rhythm and pointed attention to language present in the English (and French) versions. So instead of getting the sort of playful linguistic humor evident in Murphy, Italian readers get a pure bleakness. But this sort of play is what Beckett aimed for—ramping it up in the French versions—and is a key element underlying his whole literary career. Trying to capture the meaning at the expense of the style basically kills Beckett’s prose for Italian readers. It’s just bleak, not bleakly funny. (All of this is based on Translating Style. I read zero Italian and know nothing of what contemporary Italian readers think of Beckett. But the examples in the book are pretty convincing.)
4 The incredibly famous and influential translation studies theorist and writer Lawrence Venuti gave a speech at an American Literary Translators Association conference a number of years back in which he argued that everyone involved in the translation process—editors, translators, etc.—needed to be familiar with the literary history of whatever country a book is coming from, along with the history of translation theory. Basically, he set forth a sort of ideal in which publishers and translators knew as much as possible about the context for every project they embarked upon—a really idealistic and admirable situation, but one that’s also 100% impractical.
5 All the math in the footnotes . . . So, let’s say you’re translating a 300-page novel. You’ll get paid approximately $9,000 for that. How much of your year does $9,000 pay for? Depending on where you live, this can vary wildly, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that everyone should earn at least $41,600 a year or $20/hour. (Yeah, whatever.) That means that you have about two and a half months in which to translate this book. That’s four pages a day, which, at first blush, sounds totally doable, and probably is, but not necessarily if you want to read the book two three times so that you can figure out what exactly makes this book’s language work and then replicate it. And that two and a half months includes no time for arguing with your editor about specific phrases.
This isn’t to say that translators don’t do an amazing job—they do, hands down—but by necessity, there’s a lot of slippage. Phrases that could be illuminating in their awkwardness get rendered into “normal” English, by fault of the translator and editor. And what do we miss out on? Everything, maybe.
6 Thirlwell occasionally argues in The Delighted States that even bad translations tend to capture the overreaching style at the expense of other literary aspects. I think that’s maybe true with classics but only because they became classics. It isn’t possible to read the average literary novel translated in 2017 in this way.
7 If you stick with me through this
book or series of unpublishable essays because they are neither interesting nor have anything intriguing to say or, rather, blog posts that will dissolve into the ether by the end of the year, this core idea will come up about seven hundred times.
8 The more a translation sounds like it was written for an American audience, by an American writer, the better chance it has of selling. At least that’s one working theory.
Although not as long as “last week’s post,” I would recommend downloading the PDF version. Besides, it just looks prettier in that format.
Although the main point of this post is pretty general and obvious—the rich get richer by already being rich—it was inspired by some publishing-specific, inside baseball type stuff, so I think it’s probably best to start by explaining how we (Open Letter) input all the information about our forthcoming books.
Every six months, I have to create “Advance Information” entries for each one of our titles in Helix, the operating system that Consortium currently uses1 to keep track of info—metadata, sales, inventory, etc.—for all the titles that they distribute. Like most publishers, I have a love-hate relationship with this process. On the one hand, it’s the first opportunity to start building out information for your forthcoming titles—which can be really exciting. I’ve spent the past week reading (or rereading) the books that we’re coming out with between September 2017 and March 2018 and have worked myself into a frenzy to share these books with reps, booksellers, and readers.
We have six books coming out during those months, and aside from a new Bae Suah and a collection of poems from Per Aage Brandt, the other four have never been translated into English. One of these authors is Madame Nielsen, whose first novel was recommended to me by the Icelandic author Sjón: “The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen is my literary discovery of the year.” In all seriousness, I believe this book could be our first ever bestseller. It is both that good, that short (just over 100 pages), and that accessible (it’s a love story with a lot of tension and tragedy).2
So there are aspects to filling out these entries that make me really excited. In two weeks, I’ll be pitching all these books to the core staff at Consortium, who will give me some pointers for jacket copy, blurbs, promotional ideas, etc., based on what’s worked in the past for books like this. Their advice is invaluable, as is the process of taking five minutes to try and reign in the abounding enthusiasm for a book (“Holy Shit! The way the melancholy that runs throughout the book is so charming, as it spirals forward and backward in time, touching upon all these various lives, but all told by a ‘boy, who is perhaps a girl, but does not yet know it’ with a sort of writerly grace that I haven’t experienced in ages, especially in a translation so evocative and!!!) and hone it into something that others can latch onto, that they can process, that makes sense—that experience is also invaluable.
The part that sucks is actually entering all of the information. There are fields upon fields begging for metadata. Price, page count, carton quantity, four BISAC codes,3 shelving category, contributor bio, contributor role, contributor place of residence, promotional plans, selling and marketing points, and so on and forth.
Then there are the descriptive fields: key notes, which is a twenty-word “one-sentence summary crafted to grab the buyer’s attention,” and the description, which is limited to sixty words. Sixty! I can’t describe my mood in sixty words, much less a piece of literature. But again, as frustrating as this is—in part because I, and probably most of us, finish it last minute—it’s a great exercise in boiling things down to their core.4
All of that is fine—and not at all what I want to talk about. The main point is that, for every title we ever publish, we create these records that have a dual function: 1) to log all the important data about our books (price, ISBN, title, contributors) into Consortium’s database, and 2) to provide sales reps with some guidance for talking about these books to bookstores.
One of the toughest things to explain to my publishing students is why bookstore buyers bring certain titles into their stores. It’s easy enough to grasp that a store can’t carry everything, but the mechanisms behind their decision making can seem bafflingly opaque.
Over-simplifying here, but a successful bookstore tends to do a couple things really well: create a brand for itself by stocking a particular range of books (which oftentimes helps tie it to its community and make it something unique when compared to a “general” chain store), and stock books that will turnover fast enough that the store can generate enough revenue to stay in business. As much as one would like to stock only the books that they like, there is a need to have the books in stock that customers will come looking for. These don’t necessarily have to be the poppiest of the crap titles (Twilight, etc.), but the books that have the right amount of marketing push and publicity buzz to enter into the consciousness of a significant number of general book buyers.
For example, you need to have enough copies of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead before it’s reviewed on NPR and New York Times and becomes a finalist (or winner) for basically every single book award possible.
There are two things related to this that anyone outside of the book industry might not realize: 1) if a customer comes looking for a book and you don’t have it, you lose the sale, period, and 2) you have to order your initial stock on these titles 4-8 months before publication date. Granted, you can always order more copies from the wholesalers, but the numbers work out a lot better for the store if you order the right number up front.5
Let me go back to an idea from last week’s essay to help bring this forward. From that piece:
To know which books will do well enough, to cover the titles that people will definitely be talking about (thus perceived as “important”), to stock the titles that are most likely to sell—the closer these things are to certain, the more stable and profitable the industry is. Hits can come out of nowhere and far exceed sales expectations, but it’s best if that happens in a context in which you already control the baseline for as close to 100% of the products you’re putting into the market as possible.
To reiterate and clarify: Publishers, booksellers, critics, authors never know for certain which books will be hits. But there are titles that we can know—with a high degree of certainty—will sell a particular amount. Because of x, y, and z (review coverage, past sales, author profile, book topic), there is a range that publishers can rely upon. A particular book might sell 300,000 copies, but will likely sell 30-50,000, and will only in the most catastrophic of circumstances, sell a mere 5,000. Being able to project this—the stable books, with decent upside and high floors—is the key to being a successful large(ish) publisher.
Bookstores play a dual role in this: to stay alive, they need to make a significant portion of their revenue from these “solid” books, and also, the more they stock these books, the more likely they are to hit the upper level of the predicted range.
Sure, there are all sorts of unpredictable and unexplored (at least for now, until future essays) mechanisms for why a book goes from selling 30,000 copies to 300,000 copies, but still, if I owned a bookstore, I would want the majority of my inventory to consist of titles that are almost guaranteed to sell 30,000 across the country, saving a small portion of my space (maybe 15-20%?) for the strange indie books that would differentiate my store from Barnes & Noble, yet would probably sell 3,000 copies across the country. To make this as specific as possible, for every eight copies of The Underground Railroad that I stock, I’d stock two titles from Open Letter/Deep Vellum/Dalkey Archive/Archipelago (sans Knausgaard)/NYRB/etc.
If I were a bookstore, I’d want in on stocking the titles that will make up 80% of the revenues for publishers and other bookstores. I want to be the norm, for the most part, and variate on the fringes.
Which brings us to comparative titles. Comp titles. And a caveat.
With every entry that I create for our forthcoming books, I have to enter five (or more) “comp titles.” As the people at Consortium have explained (over and over and over and again), comp titles are books similar in format (paperback original vs hardcover), publisher (indie vs big five), marketing budget (again, indie vs big five), author brand (six previously published novels vs some dude from the Faroe Islands), and publishing proximity (all comp titles have to have been published in the last five years).
This probably seems weird to anyone outside of the publishing industry, so it might make sense to go over what doesn’t make a good comp title: book that is similar in theme or setting to a book published ten years ago, a book similar in theme or setting to a book by a best-selling author, book similar in style and character to one by a publisher significantly like you.
As I’ve been told over and again, comp titles are for bookstores to know how many copies to order upfront, based on three-month sales of books similar—in publisher, publicity access, marketing budgets, overall prominence—to those of Open Letter.
One the first6 level, I totally get this. Comp titles are signals to bookstores of which titles are in that group almost guaranteed to do really well (30,000 sales or whatever), with huge upsides. They want to know what books they can get a couple copies of and restock whenever.7 If you haven’t been reading the footnotes, you might want to go do that now.
Theoretically, except for Amazon, all bookstores are limited in the number of titles that they can carry. And the more titles you can carry that will sell 80+ units, the way better. (See footnotes, but if you buy right on a popular book, or over, that’s for the best, even at the expense of shelf space.) The best option is to buy “slightly” under on books that are “Solid Titles,” and buy way under on “Indie Books” that might break out. In terms of numbers AND common sense, this feels right: if you have a solid bet, go for it, buy a bunch, and then buy as many titles as possible that might take off, but probably won’t. I feel like this is a legal betting strategy.
What I’ve been told time and again about Comp Titles is that these are used by booksellers to help them decide how many copies of a book to order up front. They look at how similar (or “comparable”) titles sold over the first few months, and then place their bets. Given all that’s come above, that totally makes sense. You want to buy right on the books that will do the best for you, because maximizing turnover of stock bought with the highest discount, is the most efficient pathway to profit.
But what makes for a good comp title?
Here’s what most people assume: A good comp title is a book similar in plot, or setting. (Like comparing a mystery set in Morocco to another Moroccan mystery.) A book with the same tone (comic, suspenseful, etc.), or general appeal (“family sagas about Italians are hot right now!”). The assumption is that books should be compared to books that have a similar aesthetic, since readers tend to look for titles that are in line with what they already like. (“I just finished Ferrante—what do you have that’s just like that?”) So a store would be well served to operate under a “If you liked X, you’ll love Y” sort of methodology.
All of that is completely wrong.
Relying on Consortium’s expertise in this (which has been backed up by various sales reps), what makes a good comp title is a title with more paratextual similarities related much more closely to the publisher’s position in the marketplace than the book itself.
What makes a good comp title? A title that is published by the same publisher or publisher of a similar size and situation. A title with the same sort of marketing budget and initial print run. Titles from authors at a similar point in their career, or that have other structural similarities. And all comp titles have to have been published within the last three years.
All of this makes good sense—especially from a buyer’s perspective. They don’t want every tiny new indie press comparing their 700-page “postmodern masterpiece” to Infinite Jest, since there’s a one in one trillion chance that this book will sell one one hundredth as well as IJ. When it comes to books that aren’t necessarily likely to sell 30,000 copies total, stores are deciding whether they should initially buy 3 copies for their shelves or 1. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, the store will order 7 for a display. To show buyers comparisons to books that sold 50+ copies in their first couple months is in no way helpful, when the book they’re considering is very unlikely to sell more than 5.
But there is something within these parameters that constantly nags at me . . . In this system, the quality and nature of the books themselves have been eliminated, and your chances of getting significant pre-sales depends on the pre-existing size of your publishing house, and how much money you have.
For example, we published Bae Suah’s A Greater Music last year, a book that has some general similarities to The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Preference for one book or the other put aside, it would seem to make sense—on the surface—to use The Vegertarian as a comp title. After all, Han Kang and Bae Suah are two of the hottest authors coming out of South Korea, and are more or less equals in that country. People who read and loved The Vegetarian would presumably be interested in reading another female writer from South Korea—especially one translated by the same translator. (Who, it’s worth noting, was responsible for promoting and getting both of these authors published in English translation.)
But that’s totally wrong. On the one hand, the odds of any book selling as well as The Vegetarian (even pre-Man Booker) is highly unlikely, so the numbers you get from looking at past sales are pretty garbage. And, more importantly, Crown has money and power, whereas Open Letter is run on a fraying shoestring of grants, kindness, and self-sacrifice. I wouldn’t be surprised if Crown spent more on marketing The Vegetarian than Open Letter spent total in the last six months.
If Crown were to have done A Greater Music, they could definitely have used The Vegetarian as a comp title—and bookstore buyers would’ve taken the numbers seriously. They wouldn’t have ordered quite as many copies as what they sold of Han Kang’s novel, but they would’ve bought in at a far higher rate than they did for us. (Throwing out bullshit numbers here, but it’s not unreasonable to assume an average store would’ve ordered 12-15 copies of A Greater Music from Crown, versus 1 or 2 from Open Letter.)
In short, if you’re of a certain size, you can compare your books to books that came from publishers of a similar size which, in almost all instances, sold much better than books from smaller publishers (like Open Letter). As a result, your books take up more space in bookstores, are more frequently displayed, and end up selling better.8
As helpful as the comp title process might be for buyers, reps, and the like, its very structure reinforces the core inequality of the publishing business: the haves get to take up more space and sell more books, the have-nots have to get really lucky and work outside of the system to get a book to take off. And for smaller presses, it makes it almost impossible to get through to buyers about the quality of your book. Unless they read a title and fall in love with it, all the signals in place telling them what to buy, what to pay attention to, are pointed away from the indie press book toward titles from the most successful. All of which reinforces the idea that there is no meritocracy at work here. The best books very rarely rise to the top; a mediocre book with more resources behind it will always beat the “better” book from a smaller press.
The quality of the book itself—this cherished object, this artistic enterprise that editors, booksellers, and the like tend to fetishize—is less important than the business structure surrounding that salable object.
1 Consortium was recently purchased by Ingram, so starting in April we’ll be using something called “TitleSource.” (Everything at Ingram ends in “source” for some unknown reason. Like LightningSource. Not sure what this is about, but it’s pretty essentialist and pervasive.)
More importantly, every distributor uses a different one of these management systems, but in the end, they’re all basically the same: a database to store metadata about titles and track the movements of all units into the warehouse, out to stores, back to the warehouse. So what follows in the piece above is not Consortium-centric.
2 It’s also written in an inimitable style, which, in today’s book world, is probably a strike against it. But that’s a topic for next week’s essay.
3 Basically the codes that help categorize books. For example, “Fiction, Literary.” Or “History, Latin America, General.” You can see the whole list here. Even a cursory glance will show that this list is both incomplete and gated in funny ways.
4 CoreSource perhaps? Sorry. So sorry.
5 Here’s a mathematical model for you that should help to make this clear: Let’s assume that over the course of a month, you end up selling 80 copies of The Underground Railroad (retail price: $27). This is obviously contingent on the size of the store, but let’s just see what happens under three different scenarios: you order too few, you order the right amount, you order too many.
Couple more premises: 1) you get a 47% discount from the publisher, 40% from the wholesaler, 2) you get free freight from both, 3) it costs $50 to return excess stock—no matter the amount, and 4) 75% of people who would buy from your store decide not to, if you’re currently out of stock.
Scenario A: You initially order 32 copies of the book from the publisher. You sell all 32 copies ($27*32*.47=$406.08), but have 48 customers who come in to buy the book when you’re out of stock, only 12 of which end up buying the book from you ($27*12*.4=$129.60). (These copies you order from the wholesaler because it’s faster and more efficient.) You don’t return any copies, so you make $535.68 on this title.
Scenario B: You somehow order exactly 80 copies right off the bat and sell all 80 ($27*80*.47=$1,015.20). You make almost twice as much as you did by under-ordering—$1,015.20.
Scenario C: You buy hard, because fucking Whitehead, you know? So you get 120 and sell 80 ($27*80*.47=$1,015.20) and return 40 (-$25). That’s not bad; you made $965.20.
Scenario D: What happens if you buy hard on a dud? What if you only sold 20 of the 120 you bought? Then you make $286.20 on the sales ($27*20*.47), but lose $50 (or more?) on returning the extra 100. So you end with $236.20. That’s a better per copy revenue ratio (barely) than scenario A ($236.20/20=$11.81 vs $535.68/48=$11.16).
Main point: Getting it right is how to maximize your income. Know which books are going to sell, get enough to cover demand, but not too too much. (Especially if you multiply these numbers out across 100 or so titles a year.) But how to judge which books and how many copies? Those are the questions.
7 I think the crucial point is that bookstores maximize profit by stocking titles that have a large turnover rate. You have to figure out what that rate is for your store (maybe you sell 20 copies of The Underground Railroad every month, and five copies of War, So Much War; whereas a different store does 100 of the former and .25 [one every four months] of the latter), and adjust to that. But the more information you have when you place your initial order—the more likely a title is to sell 20+ copies—the better off you are.
8 Another idea to explore in a future post, but I doubt anyone would question the fact that the more copies of a book on display in a store, the more likely it is to sell. These are the books you notice, that bounce off the periphery of your awareness over and over, and which a lot of people end up buying. Especially in comparison to the single copy of A Greater Music hidden back in the fiction shelves . . .
Given the insane length of this post, I would recommend downloading the PDF version. Besides, it’s easier to read the footnotes that way. Some of which are pretty fun, I think.
Much in the same way it’s impossible for me to choose a single part of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading that I like the best, I can’t quite settle on what it is about Moretti and his approach to literary studies that gets me jazzed. He’s iconoclastic and disruptive (his initial paper on “distant reading” was intended to jar the comparative literature department at Columbia out of its rut and resulted in a number of aggressive critiques), he’s obsessed with data and quantitative analyses that are less about close reading and interpretation and more about asking larger questions that can be backed by data (which has a sort of kinship with baseball sabermetrics), and his writing is almost anti-academic in the way it conveys a sense of wonder and exploration. I’ve never met the man, but his writing is stimulating, fun, and varied.
Hitting a number of different topics, the ten essays in this collection touch upon, in no particular order: data analysis of the length, type, and structure of titles for novels in the eighteenth century; the spread of Hollywood movies; evolutionary theory as applied to the literary marketplace; a geography of literary history; the vast structural differences in the European and Chinese novelistic form, which developed in parallel; and how the tracing of a single textual element (clues) through the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his rivals can explain why Sherlock Holmes survived and 99.5% of the other books published at that time have been eliminated in the “slaughterhouse of literature.”
For me, personally, I haven’t had this much fun reading a critical work of literary scholarship in ages. Maybe ever. And to go back to that sabermetric thing, the way Moretti’s mind works throughout this collection reminds me of the great baseball stats books—the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, obviously, and Baseball Between the Numbers—tend to function: they ask large questions rooted in comparison and evaluation, then turn to the analysis of large data sets (or large swaths of history) to deduce facts and frameworks about individual works or groups of works. Admittedly, I don’t read a ton of contemporary literary criticism, but this seems a long way away from the traditional analysis of meaning found in most monographs and is based in the practice of “close reading.” (Selected at random: Melville’s Vision of America, Moby-Dick and Calvinism, Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Moby-Dick, Moby-Dick a Hindu Avatar, or, simply, Meaning of Moby-Dick.) In the words of Moretti, “We do not need more interpretations [. . .] not because they have nothing to say, but because, by and large, they have already said what they had to. A lot of good work has been done on the relation between meaning and meaning; far too little on meaning and forces.”
If I had to point to one bit of Moretti’s book that captured my critical imagination though, it has to be the part about reader selection and market magnification. This comes up in two separate essays (“The Slaughterhouse of Literature” and “The End of the Beginning”), both related to an experimental data-centric analysis of Sherlock Holmes stories and other detective stories of the time.
In one of Moretti’s graduate seminars, he and his class chose a single “unit of analysis”—in this case, clues—to focus on while reading mystery stories, and saw how those played out in all the texts at hand. So, rather than doing a “close reading” of a ton of different mystery stories of the late 1800s, they read these pieces searching just for the presence or absence of clues. (Like looking through baseball stats for players with high strike-out to home-run ratios, and ignoring the rest of the data.) This lead to a tree-like diagram in which some stories showed the presence of clues, whereas others of the time did not. The stories with clues were then subdivided into ones with clues that were “necessary,” which were further subdivided into stories with “visible” and then “decodable” clues. Of all the twenty-one stories they looked at (twelve of which were Holmes stories), only four ended up with clues that were “necessary,” “visible,” and “decodable”—and all four were written by Doyle. (Worth noting that eight of his twelve stories didn’t meet this categorization. Moretti posits that this might be due to Doyle’s focus not on the mechanism that made his best stories—like “The Red-Headed League”—work so well, but on his desire to build up Holmes as an almost mythological detective. If all the clues were decodable and visible to the reader, just how good of a detective is this Sherlock?)
That’s interesting in itself, and Moretti develops this idea as a possible explanation for why Holmes stories survived instead of any of the alternatives. Even if readers—or Doyle himself—couldn’t explain why they were drawn to these sorts of stories, this crucial formal unit (“clues”) worked in their readerly brains and lead them to prefer these sorts of stories. Market forces lead to more Holmes-esque writing, Doyle’s books stay in print, and decades later, academics cotton on and Sherlock Holmes stories are ratified as the paragon of a certain type of detective literature.
All that’s fascinating and makes me want to draw all sorts of trees and charts in my world lit class, but here are few paragraphs from Distant Reading that I want to mention before trying to develop my own argument. The first is a quote Moretti uses from an article by the economists Arthur De Vany and W. David Walls on an economic model for the film industry:
Film audiences make hits or flops . . . not by revealing preferences they already have, but by discovering what they like. When they see a movie they like, they make a discovery and they tell their friends about it; reviewers do this too. This information is transmitted to other consumers and demand develops dynamically over time as the audience sequentially discovers and reveals its demand . . . A hit is generated by an information cascade . . . A flop is an information bandwagon too; in this case the cascade kills the film.
In other words, word-of-mouth generates hits, creates buzz or an “information cascade” that develops almost exponentially. This likely sounds familiar to anyone involved in book publishing. What I’m most interested in here—and want to apply to the current book market—are two processes that Moretti teases out: acceleration and selection. Moretti here:
As more readers select Conan Doyle over L. T. Meade and Grant Allen, more readers are likely to select Conan Doyle again in the future, until he ends up occupying 80, 90, 99.9 per cent of the market for nineteenth-century detective fiction.
And, Moretti again:
A few sellers for the entire market; just like Holmes for the mystery niche. But it’s important to disentangle the two discrete processes that converge onto this single outcome: the process that centres on readers, and on their selection of Doyle’s formal solution over those of his rivals; and the other one, in which the market amplifies that initial selection over and over again. Readers and markets, in other words, are both causal agents, but in different ways: in the sense that readers select, and then markets magnify.
This is where I want to turn from Moretti to the current literary marketplace, especially as it relates to translations and the creation of buzz and acceleration. My working observation (I hesitate to use the word hypothesis given the paucity of data that I have at hand) is that the acceleration of two related phenomenon—media and the ability to comment on media—has resulted in a situation in which the processes of “reader selection” and “market magnification” have become divorced from one another and are now essentially reversed.
In a million ways, this is an impossible topic to talk about and analyze. The word-of-mouth buzz that leads to market magnification is generated from a number of different sources (booksellers, professors, friends, celebrities, tastemakers) and is notoriously hard to pin down and run experiments on. So, to make this as concrete as possible, I’m going to focus on my favorite hobby-horse of hate: anticipatory lists.
I have a corollary idea that (hopefully) justifies yet another post about lists.1 Over the past decade, the number of works of international fiction and poetry that you could consume as a reader—or, more pertinent to this post, review as a critic—have expanded greatly. In 2008, there were 361 different titles; in 2016, 602. That’s only 241, but how many critics read more than 100 books last year? Fifty? One hundred?
And that 100 books is taking into account all the possible books, of which, works of original English-language fiction and poetry take precedent to a degree that so far exceeds the number of works in translation published on an annual basis that a critic reading a work in translation is almost the same as random.2 Which ones do they choose to read? Why?
Historically, advance review trade magazines—Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal, among others—provided a sort of roadmap of what to pay attention to and what could be ignored. An average issue provides an overview of 60-70 titles, a handful of which are “starred,” a similar handful of which are works in translation.3
It would be interesting to track this: How many “major” reviews do “starred” titles get versus those that are simply reviewed in a trade magazine, versus those unreviewed? How do sales compare across these categories? These are ideas I’m totally marking for future posts . . .
But more to the point, I’m not sure if trade magazines are the major gatekeepers critics pay attention to anymore.
This is the most easily criticized statement in my post so far, so have at it, knowing that I’ve anticipated all of your immediate objections and still decided to put this out there.4 The majority of book criticism being written today is operating in one of two spheres: the personal-professional blog (everything from Flavorwire to Quarterly Conversation to Words Without Borders to Asymptote to Tony’s Reading List to Complete Review to Arabic Literature (in English)) or the professional-legacy arena (which includes online journals like Salon or Slate which pay their writers, to Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, L.A. Times, NY Times, The Nation, and other entities that are more obviously corporate and concerned with revenue flows, be it from subscriptions or paid advertisements). Both of these spheres live or die by the page view/like/retweet. Thanks to this moment of quantifiable late-capitalism, basically everyone has to justify themselves by generating clicks. Granted, the local blogger who “does it for fun” can engage with books (or, more likely, social politics) in a way that pays no mind to the number of visitors their piece draws in, but: that doesn’t mean anything, since criticism with no stakes is hardly criticism; and also, everyone writes out of self-interest and a desire for “enough” people to read and respect them.
The point being: Everything is based in shares/retweets/pageviews. Quantifiable results. This is an age of measurables. So how should a critic meter out the 100 books they read in a given year?
There are no stats on this (yet), so let me speculate irresponsibly: In that position, I would read 50 books by pre-ordained “literary” writers (let’s pretend for a hot second that I’m a critic of literature generally), so, in 2017, I’d read the new Roxane Gay, Paul Auster, Rachel Cusk, Ali Smith, George Saunders, J. M. Coetzee, Viet Thanh Nguyen, etc., etc., etc., books, along with the two dozen titles that are hyped at BookExpo America, at the American Library Association Summer Conference, at ABA’s Winter Institute, and so on and forth.5 Let’s pretend that takes up seventy of the hundred titles I’ll read in any given year. Twenty of the remaining are books that catch my eye for one reason or another—I met the author, the publicist convinced me to take a chance, it’s a book I think I can make my brand on. The last ten—translations.
That was all an epically long route to trying to demonstrate how “lists” function. There are a dozen websites (re: tastemakers) out there who do “best of XXXX month” lists capable of guiding my reading to the ten most viable works of translated literature.6 None of the sites I have in mind (such as Flavorwire, Buzzfeed, The Millions, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the latter two of which are discussed below) are nearly influential enough7 to causally determine which books get covered, but the slightest bit of research points to a significant overlap between books included on these lists and books that receive reviews in more mainstream, traditional (re: more widely read) outlets.
In March 2016, Flavorwire and the BBC highlighted seventeen different books to read that month. (Two titles appeared on both lists: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours and Margaret the First.) Of these books, fifteen were reviewed by the New York Times, and the two that weren’t (Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America and Blackass were reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle and NPR respectively. It’s not like they went unnoticed.) Out of the 10,000 or so trade titles published that month (using Bowker data for fiction, science, biographies, sociology, poetry, history, philosophy, etc.), these two sites chose seventeen books, and had an almost one to one correspondence with which titles our country’s most influential newspaper chose to review. It would be more interesting—and illuminating—to look at sales data for these various titles and see how that correlates with being included on lists and/or reviewed in the New York Times, but I don’t personally have access to that data.
In the end, a list of books to look forward to is no more than a list of books to look forward to, but there is an inherent value to being included on a list. If nothing else, these list-making sites precipitate—and participate in the creation of—the “information cascade” that overwash successful titles.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of how these lists treat the books they choose to highlight. First up is Vol. 1 Brooklyn’s recent post on books to read in January 2017:
Han Kang’s first novel to appear in English, The Vegetarian, was one of the most jarring works of fiction we’ve read in a while. Human Acts takes a broader view of humanity, focusing on a host of reactions to the death of a young man in a political action in South Korea. We’re looking forward to experiencing her prose in a new context with this novel.
Two things about this write-up: it posits a pre-selection criteria on Han Kang’s previously published book (“one of the most jarring works of fiction we’ve read in a while) while openly admitting that the list-maker has yet to read the book being put forth as one to read this month (“we’re looking forward to experiencing her prose in a new context with this novel”).
In case you think this is a one-off example of choosing to promote a book before reading it, here are some other lines from this list: “we’re eager to read this,” “we’ve been curious about what’ll come next,” “given the setting and thematic aspects of this book, it may also be a timely read,” “we’re eager to see a new side of his work show up here.”
(As a side-note, I did the exact same thing when I was writing previews for this website. I understand and acknowledge the challenges to featuring only books you’ve read on those sorts of post. This isn’t meant to criticize Vol. 1, but to look at how that particular type of post functions and what it means for book culture and book marketing as a whole.)
The write-ups in the Great First-Half 2017 Book Preview from The Millions are written in such a way to make it at least seem like the list-makers have read these books that they’re including. (Although I highly doubt they’ve read many/any of the titles coming out in June or beyond.) But there’s still a lingering question of why these particular books have been chosen. Have the editors of The Millions read even 5% of the works of fiction coming out between January and June of this year? 1%? .01%? There’s no question that these selections are primarily anticipatory, that they assume these are the books that culture and readers will embrace once they’re available, the books that will be reviewed and bought instead of the titles left off of the list. This happens by necessity, but also raises the question of what elements are at play to make the contributors anticipate these particular books instead of others. (The answer to this is probably pretty obvious, but still, are they looking forward to the “best” books, or the most hyped?)
Again, having a book appear on one of these lists doesn’t cause it to become popular or successful, but given the overlap between a) these lists, b) mainstream reviews, c) bookstore availability, and d) sales (all of which should be investigated more in a different post), it’s very likely that the particular books on these lists will be the ones dominating the cultural conversation. Everything converges to support a very small number of titles, pre-selected from a pool of titles far too large to thoroughly explore and evaluate.
I have suspicions as to why certain titles are pre-chosen to “make it,” along with some understanding of the power dynamics and book market logistics that help these titles become successful, but here’s what I’m more interested in: the way in which book coverage seems to have reversed the “selection” and “market magnification” processes of book promotion. Readers and critics don’t read hundreds of titles and uncover a new form or technique that makes a novel particularly successful and then promote it through the marketplace; instead, the books that will be promoted and disseminated widely are already selected, known to the culture almost as soon as they’re announced8, and only then do critics and readers find reasons why these books are so great. We start from a point of view that these are the “best” books, the ones “worth reading” and then work backward. No one has the time or patience to read all the books coming out in 2017 from contemporary Argentine writers, so we just assume the tastemakers have it right and that the one book included on these lists/reviewed by mainstream media/displayed on a bookstore table must be the best representative of that category of writing. And even if a reader disagrees, how many other Argentine books have they read this year to compare the pre-selected title against? Less than ten, I’m certain.
We live in an age in which it’s not just information that’s accelerated, but the markets themselves. The magnification aspect of the book market—in which sales increase exponentially—is set in place before readers ever even see a particular book. This keeps the messiness of reader responses as far from the market as possible, consolidating power by offering readers a choice that never really was a choice at all. Or at least is very limited and predetermined by the sphere of critics, tastemakers, and promoters, who used to react to the market, instead of driving it. The biggest players in this market gravitate towards this situation, since it’s much safer and more predictable that way. To know which books will do well enough, to cover the titles that people will definitely be talking about (thus perceived as “important”), to stock the titles that are most likely to sell—the closer these things are to certain, the more stable and profitable the industry is. Hits can come out of nowhere and far exceed sales expectations, but it’s best if that happen in a context in which you already control the baseline for as close to 100% of the products you’re putting into the market as possible.
1 I have to point out that this post is not a rant about list as “dumb,” but an analysis of how lists function. Which elevates it. In my eyes, at least.
2 This is a maybe bullshit claim, but here’s my breakdown. On average, over 50,000 works of fiction are published in the U.S.annually. Translations made up 1% of that in 2016. (There were 500 works of fiction published in translation in the U.S. last year.) If I randomly selected novels from my local bookstore—independent or Barnes & Noble—it’s likely that at least 2 in 100 would be translated. Given the plethora of “known” English writers with new books published in a given year—50? 100? 500?—more than 90% of the works read by an average critic will have been originally written in English, leaving what?, 10 books maximum from the rest of the world? Feels like chance to me.
3 I can actually calculate this, and will. Either for this piece, or for a future one, depending on how much time I have in the very near future.
4 Come at me, bro?
5 You’re not a real critic until you review the most reviewed authors.
6 “Viable” as in, I’ll review them and someone will pay me for those clicks.
7 Alexa site popularity rankings are a good enough means for demonstrating the relative influence of the websites I have in mind. First off, the list-making sites, the ones that I think help sort the great unread books and provide a sort of precipitory guidance: Flavorwire is the #15,576 most popular site in the world (not necessarily for their books coverage, but), The Millions is #175,585, Vol 1 Brooklyn #1,979,614, and Lit Hub #43,012. By contrast, the New Yorker is #1,413, New York Times #103 (again, not just books coverage), NPR #662, and Slate #920. None of this is surprising, but it does tie into my core idea: to get more eyeballs, small sites want to anticipate what the significantly more well-read sites will eventually cover. It’s infinitely better to be part of the information cascade that outside of it.
8 Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire is a perfect example of this. The novel is decent enough, but before anyone had even read it, it was guaranteed coverage in every possible outlet simply given the size of its advance. From Ron Charles’s review in the Washington Post: “Having reportedly paid nearly $2 million for the manuscript, Knopf must be praying that City on Fire is worth its weight in Goldfinch. Such irrational exuberance can’t buy a spot on the bestseller list, but it can guarantee coverage. So prepare yourself for what passes for a book publicity juggernaut: Over the next few weeks, you’ll read about this novel everywhere, and you’ll hear the young author interviewed on NPR, and you’ll see pyramids of City on Fire at your local bookstore. And at some point, you’ll wonder, ‘Should I read this novel — or three others?’”
I know I’ve mentioned this on the blog (and podcast) a million times, but every spring I teach a class on “World Literature and Translation” that features somewhere between eight and ten recently published translations. Although the individual arrangement of ideas and books shifts every year, the overall structure and goals of the class remain the same: to explore what we mean by calling something a “good translation,” and how to we evaluate works of world literature.
As a mechanism for getting students to participate in class discussions, I force them to act as if they were a jury for a major literary award: the “Best Translation of LTS 206/406 Award,” I guess. This process opens up a wide array of topics, such as how to evaluate books from a literary culture you know nothing about, whether it’s better to focus on the quality of the book itself or the translation, and what politics of award giving should be considered, among many others.
Schedule permitting, I try and spend one class day discussing each title, providing a literary and historical background, discussing how the work is put together, looking for gaps (or the lack of them) between the way the book functions and the presence of the translation, and then follow that up with a Skype conversation with the translator. It’s a really fun class—especially since I tend to include books that I’ve been looking for an excuse to read.
I like posting the books I chose here, partially because I want to show off what titles I’m able to include in this class, but also because these books tend to end up influencing what I write about on the blog during this time. This year, I’m hoping to make that more specific, and write a post a week about the book under discussion. In fact, starting next Tuesday (in an insanely long essay that I’ve already written), I’m going to post about the books that I’ve been reading in preparation for the class. Things like Six Memos for the New Millennium by Italo Calvino, Translating Style by Tim Parks, and Literature Class by Julio Cortazar.
I’ve never conceived of it in this way, but teaching this class creates a sort of feedback loop about how I read. It’s pretty self-indulgent, but I’m curious to see how my thoughts about literature morph as I work my way through these books, reading (or rereading) them with an eye to trying to convey something interesting about them to a group of undergrad students. If I were using books that I’ve read a million times—or better, written articles about—I don’t think this project would be very interesting at all. But given that there’s next to no critical material available about the majority of these books, there’s a sort of precariousness to every class. And for me, personally, I think about books the best when I’m trying to write about them.
Inevitably, I’ll get too busy with garbage work to keep up with this, but for now, I’m going to try. And if you want to play along at home, listed below are all of the works of international fiction we’ll be reading for class.
The Dirty Dust and Graveyard Clay by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Rage by Zygmunt Miłoszewski
A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar
Zama by Antonio Di Benedetto
Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac
The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
Moonstone by Sjón
Between Dog and Wolf by Sasha Sokolov
The Last Wolf by László Krasznahorkai
Vaseline Buddha by Jung Young Moon
Frontier by Can Xue
If you’re really interested and want to see my syllabus, let me know—happy to email it along!
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
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. . .