12 November 07 | Chad W. Post

Steve Wasserman—one of my all-time favorite panelists for his great anecdotes and brilliant, witty comments—moderated this discussion, which included Marie Arana (author, book review editor at the Washington Post), Alan Cheuse (author, critic for NPR), Eric Banks (editor of Bookforum), and Carlin Romano (book review editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer). In other words, a group of great reviewers and publications.

(Although I’m sure that someone in the blogosphere will mention how strange it is that no one from the NY Times was on this . . . In fact, to pour fuel on the fire, I want to point out that no one from the NY Times even attended the conference . . . )

This panel was a bit loose and strange, making it tough to summarize in a meaningful way, so I’m just going to stick to the controversial points. . .

The conversation began simply enough with Wasserman asking whether or not the panelists give special consideration (good or bad) to literature in translation when deciding what to review.

The only person who claimed that they did was Romano, pointing out that he works for a U.S. paper in a very American city, and, aware of his audience, is very conscious of reviewing foreign books. He also said that there is a lot of blame to spread around as to why translations don’t get reviewed, which is something I think is absolutely true. Publishers generally put a lot more marketing muscle into promoting their American authors, setting the self-fulfilling “translations don’t get reviewed” prophecy into motion.

Marie Arana talked about Michael Dirda’s review of War and Peace and how she received several dyspeptic letters about the fact that Dirda avoided commenting on the quality of the new translation in his piece. She explained that he felt uncomfortable judging it since he can’t read the book in Russian, and that it’s difficult to find people capable of evaluating translations.

(Personally, I don’t think it’s that hard to find someone able to evaluate a translation, and I like reviews that comment on the quality of the translation. Although unless a translation is getting bashed, comments on its quality are generally about one adjective long.)

What’s really weird is that all four publications claimed that 10-20% of their reviews were of translations (much higher than the 3% of total books published in the States), yet the authors most frequently mentioned during this discussion were Ha Jin and Junot Diaz, both of whom write in English . . .

Alan Cheuse claimed that the biggest problem facing translations in the United States is that in other countries, the most famous authors are also translators, but that we don’t have people like that here. (He then quipped that Marie quit writing and editing to translate Latin American fiction for the next twenty years.)

Initially I was a bit put off by this, jumping to the conclusion that he meant that there’s a lack of talented translators here in the States (which is complete bullshit). But what I think he was getting at was the fact that aside from a few notable exceptions, translators are ignored, whereas in other countries, there’s a cult of celebrity around the author-translator drawing a lot more attention to these titles. It seems true that translations by “superstar translators” like Edith Grossman and Pevear and Volokhonsky do receive more attention in the press, so maybe publishers should draw more attention to their translators. . .

This logic runs counter to the current situation though . . . In attempting to get more copies into B&N (and elsewhere), publishers often try and hide the fact that a book is translated. The translator’s name is hidden on the back flap, on the copyright page, appearing in a tiny, nearly unreadable font. But if translators were more celebrated, publishers may be able to create a situation in which the translator has as much marketing power and name recognition as the author.

Generally speaking, this tension is reflected throughout the industry in the paradoxical tug-of-war in wanting to highlight translations as something different and worthy of special attention, yet at the same time believing that these books should be treated like any other book and not “ghettoized.”

Eric Banks was great on the panel, in part because Bookforum is one of the best publications in the U.S. when it comes to covering a wide array of international fiction and nonfiction. (He did mention that he felt like nonfiction in translation got a worse deal than fiction in translation, citing the recent Bookforum review of Geert Mak’s In Europe as one of the only reviews that book received.)

Finally, Carlin Romano stirred things up a bit more by claiming that one of the big problems with publishing was the fact that the hiring process in New York is incredibly lazy and that publishers should be hiring more people from MA and Ph.D. programs—which pissed off a number of people in the audience, including some of the most high-profile publishers and editors in America, many of whom only have BA degrees, yet have impeccable taste in literature.

Overall, this panel was a bit weird. And I wish we would’ve had a chance to talk about the “lemming syndrome,” and the way that most book review publications feel an obligation to review the same books—those ten or twelve titles that everyone seems to be reading at the same time. This situation really limits the number of “slots” available to translations (or more experimental English writers), most of which are then taken up by retranslations rather than by reviews of authors translated into English for the first time. Such as War and Peace one of the only translations discussed by this panel . . .


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