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 . . .
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .