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.Tweet
This week’s podcast opens with the sad news of Harry Mathews’s passing, then goes deep on Winter Institute, and a couple really long essays Chad wrote for Three Percent. There’s a lot that gets unpacked in this episode, from anticipatory lists and market acceleration, to the way that bookstores choose which titles to stock and how comp titles work.
Here are links to specific things covered in this podcast:
This week’s music is “I’m Gonna Live Forever (If it Kills Me)” by William Tyler.
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Attached below is all the necessary information and details for for anyone interested in applying for the Translation Lab at Writers Omi at Ledig House. A couple of our translators have participated in this in the past, and they absolutely loved it. So if you’re at all interested, you should definitely apply.
Writers Omi at Ledig House, a part of Omi International Arts Center, has been awarded a grant from Amazon.com to fund Translation Lab 2017, a 12-day special, intensive residency for four collaborating writer-translator teams in the fall of 2017.
Writers Omi will host four English language translators at the Omi International Arts Center for 12 days. These translators will be invited along with the writers whose work is being translated. All text-based projects—fiction, nonfiction, theater, film, poetry, etc.—are eligible.
This focused residency will provide an integral stage of refinement, allowing translators to dialogue with the writers about text-specific questions. It will also serve as an essential community-builder for English-language translators who are working to increase the amount of international literature available to English-language readers.
The dates for Translation Lab 2017 are November 8-19, 2017. All residencies are fully funded including: airfare, train transportation from New York City to Hudson, car transportation from Hudson to the Omi International Arts Center. Please note: accepted applicants must be available for the duration of the Translation Lab (November 8-19, 2017). Late arrivals and early departures are not possible. Please do not submit a proposal unless both parties involved (translator and writer) are available for all dates.
Writers Omi will be accepting proposals for participation until July 15, 2017. Translators, writers, editors, or agents can submit proposals. Each proposal should be no more than three pages in length and provide the following information:
- Brief biographical sketches for the translator and writer associated with each project
- Publishing status for proposed projects (projects that do not yet have a publisher are eligible)
- A description of the proposed project
- Contact information (physical address, email, and phone)
Proposals should be submitted only once availability for residency participation of the translator and writer has been confirmed. All proposals and inquiries should be sent directly to DW Gibson, director or Writers Omi at Ledig House at: email@example.com.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Lori Feathers, an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote, freelance book critic and member of the National Book Critics Circle. Follow her online @LoriFeathers. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Most of us believe that we are something greater than a body, that our conscious self has significance beyond the physical shell and internal organs and systems that substantiate us. I am one of the believers. Yet thought, mood, and life itself are captive to the body’s faults, its intermittent betrayal of our desire to feel and project vigor and good health. Here are some favorite BTBA titles that captivated me with stories about the body.
Seeing Red, Lina Meruane (translated by Megan McDowell)
In her searing autobiographical novel Meruane describes what it was like to lose her eyesight at thirty, a side effect of severe diabetes. The precise moment when she loses total sight in one eye (followed soon after by an almost complete loss in the other) leaps from the page in vivid language that portrays a sense of wonderment that effaces self-pity:
And then a firecracker went off in my head. But no, it was no fire I was seeing, it was blood spilling out inside my eye. The most shockingly beautiful blood I have ever seen. The most outrageous. The most terrifying. The blood gushed, but only I could see it. With absolute clarity I watched as it thickened, I saw the pressure rise, I watched as I got dizzy, I saw my stomach turn, saw that I was starting to retch, and even so. I didn’t straighten up or move an inch, didn’t even try to breathe while I watched the show. Because that was the last thing I would see, that night, through that eye: a deep, black blood.
What resonates about Seeing Red is how intimate it feels, not simply in the manner that memoir is personal but the way that Meruane takes us insider her visionless existence, a world in which “seeing” the realities of life and love do not require sight.
The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, Lola Lafon (translated by Nick Caistor)
I remember Nadia Comãneci. She was the elfish wunderkind whose blurry image was ever-present on my family’s prehistoric television screen in the summer of 1976. I wanted to be like Nadia—taut and sinewy in a white leotard, defying gravity, moving through space straight and sharp as an arrow. But then how could I, an eight year old with little self-discipline, have any notion of the pain, persistence, and personal sacrifice required to be Nadia? In Lola Lafon’s fictionalized account of the gymnast’s career we come to understand just what it took and the repercussions.
The world’s imagine of Nadia as an unbreakable, doll-like creature was the product of an obsessed media and her indomitable coach, Béla Károlyi. Much of Lafon’s story focuses on how a once-adoring public turned on Nadia when her body started to mature. Nadia’s developing breasts and widening hips were met with derision. No one wanted to see the tiny prodigy become a woman. They needed her to continue looking like a child to feed their adoration. As a result, Nadia felt betrayed by her body. She referred to puberty as “The Illness” and fought to keep it at bay:
The Illness is advancing. It’s invading her, gnawing away at her previous existence. Its latest manifestation: last Friday as she sprints towards the vault. Everything seems normal. But as she runs, something else begins to move, a ridiculous, jolting movement: extra flesh that isn’t part of her, but of which she can feel every quiver, every repugnant autonomous fatty cell.
…unacceptable betrayal, a sniggering uppercut: she would love to cut them off, these whatsits—she refuses to say the word breasts—this capitulation forcing her in the direction of all the others: the girls at high school. [ . . . ] They’re so comfortable you can sink into them like cushions. And now, it makes her nauseous, she too has become comfortable. Ugly. Shapeless. [ . . . ]
Lafon’s book is a painful story of objectification that sheds a damning light on the way that society views female athletes and how these views distort girls’ self-image. Today we may have become just a bit more accepting of a variety of female athletes’ body types but without a doubt, the prejudices and misogynistic attitudes mostly persist.
The Heart, Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Sam Taylor)
From its title it would be easy to assume that The Heart is about romantic love. Buyer beware: this is not the stuff of cupids and roses, but a novel about a heart, the internal organ of a certain young man:
The thing about Simon Limbres’s heart, this human heart, is that, since the moment of his birth, when its rhythm accelerated, as did the other hearts around it, in celebration of the event, the thing is, that this heart, which made him jump, vomit, grow, dance lightly like a feather or weigh heavy as a stone, which made him dizzy with exhilaration and made him melt with love, which filtered, recorded, archived—the black box of a twenty-year-old body—the thing is that nobody really knows it; . . .
At the risk of revealing too much, Simon suffers a life-threatening accident, and his parents are faced with painful and exigent life and death decisions regarding his care. De Kerangal’s descriptions of Simon’s body and the medical procedures that are performed on it are so crystalline that you cannot help but feel a deep sense of awe for the human body:
. . . The heart is explanted from Simon Limbres’s body. It’s crazy, you can see it—there, in the air—for a brief moment you can apprehend its mass and its volume, attempt to grasp its symmetrical form, its dual bulge, its beautiful color (crimson or vermilion), seek to match it to the universal pictogram of love, the playing card emblem, the T-shirt logo— . . . the organ held in the hand and exhibited to the world, streaming with tears of blood but haloed with radiant light . . .
Rage, Zygmunt Miloszewski (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
A different sort of “body book,” Rage is a murder mystery set in modern day Poland. The prosecutor’s primary clue is a complete, seemingly intact skeleton comprised of the bones of a number of different people including that of a man who disappeared only two weeks prior, too soon to have naturally decomposed into a skeleton:
“Somebody has gone to a lot of trouble to complete the perfect skeleton,” he said. “To make sure that nothing is missing. You’ll be getting a full report from me, but the main findings are as follows: Most of the bones are Najman’s. But not all. [. . .]”
. . . Several theories ran through his head, each worse than the last. And each one featured a miserable psycho, lurking in the cellar of one of those Warmian Disney castles, surrounded by little heaps of bones sorted by type, and ticking off the missing items needed to complete his work. Screw that.
“So these are the bones of five different people?” he asked, to confirm it. “Our victim in the starring role, the bit players being the man who owned the hand, the man who owned one ear, the woman who owned the other, and in a walk-on role, the lady who kindly donated the missing parts.”
Author Zygmunt Miloszewski is Poland’s best-selling author, and reading Rage it’s easy to understand why. The novel’s protagonist, Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, strikes the perfect balance of sarcasm, determination, and jaded sophistication—a gumshoe with a distinctive voice that, in Llyod-Jones’s flowing translation, makes for a thrilling read.
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.
Small in size and epic in scale, Moonstone is Sjón’s fourth novel to be translated into English from the Icelandic. The setting is 1918 Reykjavik and besides a Europe on the cusp of war, a global influenza epidemic has reached the city. Mani Steinn, the main character, is a young man attempting to survive the threats, both seen and unseen, which arrive from every direction of the city and world. Steinn is also a homesexual at a time when being queer was not only unacceptable, it was unfathomable. Steinn finds solace and companionship in the quiet escape of movies, their titles sprinkled cleverly throughout the novel that make clever nods to periods of time as well as art movements.
The cinemas themselves are seen as breeding grounds for corrupting the imagination of the young as well as eventually becoming sites of the flu contagion itself. The writing is lucid and sharp, and the translation by Victoria Cribb elegant and restrained. It was the first Sjón novel I had read and I found it particularly moving. Certain scenes from the book, fumigating a cinema with chlorine, the main characters sheathed in black, stayed with me for weeks. As well as powerful, Moonstone is an exercise in precision, never falling into pretension when it would be all too easy.
Mixing sex and history, even cinema, Moonstone is an inspiring novel that explores the ways dreams and imagination inform our realities while quietly showing a Europe on the edge of apocalypse. Although fiction, the book is something very personal to the author and which only announces itself on the final page. Wonderful indeed.
Things are strange out there on the fringes, as the always adventurous Xue’s latest novel illustrates. There is magical realism aplenty in the pages of Xue’s beguiling story, but magical realism by way of Calvino, not García Márquez. The opening is a scene from a waking dream, in which a young girl named Liujin strains to make out what voices caught in rustling poplar leaves are saying. By the end of the book, by which time the reader has explored every corner of the quiet frontier town and its strange portals, the wind is still blowing, warm and portentous, threatening to become nightmare as Liujin thinks, “Something must be about to happen.” Indeed. [. . .] Odd, atmospheric, and enchanting: a story in which, disbelief duly suspended, one savors improbabilities along with haunting images and is left wanting more.
Official pub date is March 14th, but you can order it now via our website.
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.
George Henson is a translator of contemporary Latin American and Spanish prose, a contributing editor for World Literature Today and Asymptote, and a lecturer at the University of Oklahoma.
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During a recent trip to Havana, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Cuban writer Yoss (né José Miguel Sánchez Gómez), whose Super Extra Grande is under consideration for the BTBA 2017, which fiction judge Rachel Cordasco profiled in her September blog post.
I met Yoss by chance as I meandered down the sidewalk that runs along the Coppelia ice-cream park (think Strawberry and Chocolate), opposite the Yara movie house, at L and 23, arguably Havana’s most iconic intersection. I was with Eliezer Jiménez, the owner of Cuba’s most colorful independent bookstores, frequented by every American, Latin American, and European academic worth their salt.
After returning from Havana, it occurred to me to check the number of books on the BTBA list written by Cubans. The magic number turned out to be four: Zoé Valdés’s The Weeping Woman (Arcade), translated by David Frye, who, it so happens, also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande (Restless Books), Agustín de Rojas’s The Year 200, translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, also published by Restless Books, and, finally, 33 Revolutions by Canek Sánchez Guevara, the late grandson of Che Guevara-cum-anti-Castro-dissent, translated by Howard Curtis and published by Europa Editions. [Ed. Note: The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, translated by Nick Caistor, published by Atria, also counts.]
Of the four writers, only Yoss and de Rojas, who died in 2011, wrote their nominated books on the island. My interest, however, is not to engage in a polemic about, much less downplay the importance of, Cuban diasporic writers. My point, I hope, will become clearer as you read.
Valdés, who began her writing career in Cuba, now lives and writes in Paris. Sánchez Guevara’s claim to the laurel “Cuban writer,” however, is much more tenuous. Although born in Cuba, to Che Guevara’s oldest daughter, his father was Mexican Alberto Sánchez, a revolutionary who hijacked a Boeing 727 in Monterrey and forced it to land in Cuba. Raised in Milan, Barcelona, and Mexico City, Sánchez Guevara returned to his native Cuba in 1986 at the age of 12, only to abandon the island nine years later, following the death of his mother. If nothing else, these biographical details remind us that the label “Cuban writer” can be fraught with complexity.
With the exception of Leonardo Padura, and perhaps Wendy Guerra, Yoss is perhaps the writer most well-known outside the island. Like Padura and Guerra, that recognition comes not just from translation but also from having been published abroad. Indeed, one could argue that the fact that their works were published outside the island is responsible for their having been translated.
In fact, of the four novels, only El año 200 was published in Cuba, by Editorial Letras Cubanas, a publishing house located in Old Havana, on Calle Obispo. Founded in 1977, two years after the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, during the years of the so-called restoration, Letras Cubanas, which also published Valdés’s first novel, was charged with publishing works by national authors as a means of incentivizing and promoting Cuban literature. Unfortunately, as Leonardo Padura pointed out in a 2012 address to the Casa de las Américas, being published on the island can be more a curse than a blessing. Please indulge the lengthy quote:
What changed in the territory of creation, and specifically of Cuban literature, was a sum of material and spiritual circumstances that, combined, were able to redefine the situation of the writer living in Cuba and to alter in a rather radical way the content and intentions of his work. Among those elements was the aforementioned paralysis of the country’s publishing industry, which motivated writers to search the world for a literary prize that would save them from poverty and, at the same time, enable them to publish their work without, for the first time in three decades, their editorial intentions being a sin, punishable like all sins. [. . .]
Above all, there is the certainty that Cuban writing is an act or vocation of faith, an almost mystical exercise. In a country in which publication, distribution, commercialization, and promotion of literature functions according to generally extra-artistic and noncommercial circumstances, a search for cultural balance, and even random codes of impossible systemization, the writer’s situation and role become unstable and difficult to maintain. Writers who publish in Cuba receive for their work royalties paid in the increasingly devalued national currency, amounts often paid independent of the quality of the work or its reception by the public. These fees, of course, make the option of writing professionally almost impossible (which, it’s fair to say, is rather common in the rest of the world), often influencing the quality of the work. [. . .]
Nor can one forget that with considerable frequency the Cuban writer who lives and writes in Cuba must also confront a scarce advertising industry, many times due to the very absence of a book market within the country, but also due to the disastrous state of domestic literary criticism and the still-present political suspicion about what a critic can be subjected to if his work does not comply with the precepts of orthodoxy established during those distant times, or with the limits of “correctness” imposed in the 1970s. The sum of these elements has created, against the very validation of the literature that is being written in the country, the feeling that for two generations the island has scarcely produced—or simply has not produced—writers of importance, creating a false image of a vacuum.1
Ironically, it is precisely Padura’s international (read: commercial) success that provided him a platform from which to criticize the state of publishing in Cuba. What’s more, it is precisely the industry that he criticizes that drives Cuban writers to publish their novels off the island, or, in Yoss’s case, to submit their novels to competitions, such as the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) Prize in Science-Fiction, which he subsequently won. The prize not only carried a 6,000 Euro purse but also digital publication, which created, at the very least contributed to, the likelihood that the novel would be translated and, consequently, eligible for consideration for the BTBA.
If we are to believe Padura, and I do, of the four novelists, Yoss and de Rojas traveled the most obstacle-laden path to the BTBA, as much for their genre, science fiction, as for their publishing provenance. That Valdés and Sánchez Guevara published their works for Planeta and Alfaguara respectively made the path much more travelable.
All in all, the four novels seem to have little in common. I will not quote or comment on Super Extra Grande or 33 Revolutions, which have already been featured on this blog. See instead Rachel Cordasco’s and Jennifer Croft’s excellent introductions. This leaves me, instead, to comment briefly on Valdés’s The Weeping Woman and de Rojas’s The Year 200.
Winner of Planeta’s Azorín Prize, Valdés’s novel follows the relationship of Picasso and his lover-muse Dora Mara, the subject of many of the Spanish artist’s paintings, including, you guessed it, one titled “The Weeping Woman.”
At first blush, the novels of Elena Poniatowska come to mind, especially Querido Diego and Dos veces única, both of which rescue the memory of two women who were married to and served as muses for Diego Rivera, but with hints to Jackie Collins. Unlike Poniatowska’s novels, The Weeping Woman seems less inclined to rescue Dara Mara than to novelize her. The prose, at times, reads like the light literature of nineteenth-century French feuilletons of writers like Ponson du Terrail:
Yes, it was a young woman, not exactly pretty, but by her shape she was the type of woman the artist might find attractive. Blond, sublime green eyes, shock of straight and slightly flaxen hair, a soft complexion. She wasn’t vulgar, and she knew how to walk—that is, she walked with a sway in her hips, as if she were dancing, undulating with the rhythmic disdain of a mermaid.
As mentioned, The Weeping Woman was translated by David Frye, who also translated Yoss’s Super Extra Grande. As a translator, I cannot imagine shifting between two more radically different genres and registers. Frye does so, however, with aplomb.
Translated by Nick Caistor and Hebe Powell, The Year 200 (Restless Books) was originally published in 1990 as El año 200. Known perhaps best for his translation of Andrés Neuman’s The Traveler of the Century, and for working with co-translator Lorenza García, Caistor is one of my favorite Spanish-English translators working today. The following excerpt may give you an idea why:
The Hermitage Walls had vanished behind panels and consoles.
Multicolored dots zigzagged across some of the screens; others were covered with constantly changing figures; still more were dark. Flashing lights, leaping from bulb to bulb, column to column, in an unpredictable pattern.
Although I am not particularly a fan of science fiction, the novel’s quick, unadorned prose succeeded in holding my attention, which says as much for de Rojas’s writing as Caistor and Powell’s translation. That the second science fiction novel in this quartet of Cuban novels, Yoss’s Super Extra Grande, accomplished the same feat suggests that I should rethink my opinion of the genre.
After meeting Yoss in Havana, I continued with Eliezer down Avenida L to his bookshop, where I bought $250 worth of books, the majority written by Cuban writers, published on the island in a book industry imposed by socialism. Each of these books, however, are worth far more than the pennies they originally sold for or the CUC I paid for them. They also share another unfortunate fate: Most, if not all, will never be translated. More unfortunate, perhaps, is the knowledge that de Rojas didn’t live to see his novel translated and nominated for this prize. It is, after all, writers like de Rojas to whom Padura was referring, indeed championing, when he said:
Let’s not forget, as we recall the current situation of the resident Cuban writer and take note of some of his troubles and achievements, the most essential of the elements that define his character and the character of this work. Unlike other countries, where the most prominent or engaged writers tend to have a social or artistic presence thanks to the support of media with the greatest circulation or prestige, the Cuban writer has only his work and an occasional interview as a way of expressing his relationship to the world, to his reality, to his obsessions.
1 My translation of Padura’s address, “Writing in Cuba in the Twenty-first Century,” originally appeared in World Literature Today in May, 2013.
Three Percent is once again looking to expand its team of reviewers! If you’re interested in reviewing for Three Percent, please contact us at: submissions [at] openletterbooks.org.
We’ve put together a quick list of titles we’d like to have reviewed at this time. Reviewers are not strictly limited to the books listed below; if you would like to review something not listed, please include that in your email! Print copies of the books will be sent to selected reviewers. However, we are currently unable to mail print review-copies for Three Percent internationally. In some cases, electronic files may be available.
If you have previous experience (strongly preferred), please send us a link to some of your work!
Agnes by Peter Stamm, tr. from the German by Michael Hofmann, Other Press
At Twilight They Return by Zyranna Zateli, tr. from the Greek by David Connolly, Yale University Press
By the River: Seven Contemporary Chinese Novellas, Charles A. Laughlin, Liu Hongtao, Jonathan Stalling, eds., University of Oklahoma Press
Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, tr. from the German by Anthea Bell, Graywolf Press
Confessions by Rabee Jaber, tr. from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid and Patrick Creagh, New Directions Press
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović, tr. from the Serbian by Jovanka Kalaba, Dalkey Archive Press
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard, tr. from the French by Matthew Amos and Fredrik Rönnbäck, Yale University Press
Library of Musical Instruments by Kim Jung-hyuk, tr. from the Korean by Kim Soyoung, Dalkey Archive Press
Luminous Spaces by Olav H. Hauge, tr. from the Norwegian by Olav Grinde, White Pine Press
Melancholy by László F. Földényi, tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, Yale University Press
Moonstone by Sjón, tr. from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The Other Island of the Songs by María Eugenia Vaz Ferreira, tr. from the Spanish by William F. Blair with Pablo Rodríguez, Song Bridge Press
Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya, tr. from the Spanish by Lee Klein, New Directions Press
Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson, tr. from the Swedish by Sarah Death, Other Press
You As of Today My Homeland by Tayseer al-Sboul, tr. from the Arabic by Nesreen Akhtarkhavari, Michigan State University Press
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 . . .Tweet
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