2009: The Year of Translations?

At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bob Hoover has an article about the troubled publishing industry—specifically Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and their “acquisitions freeze . . . err wait, no, we’re not going out of buisness, please agents, keep sending us submissions” situation—that has an interesting prediction about the future:

If the freeze mentality spreads to other publishers, where will the material come from for new titles?

Easy: Translations of books already published abroad. Republishing them in English for American readers addresses three issues:

• Saving money. There’s plenty of established international writers out there who don’t need expensive editorial development, high-priced agents or glitzy New York publishing parties.

• European literary snobbery. Before this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, an official for the competition pooh-poohed Americans’ lack of taste for international literature. A pile of translated novels by U.S. publishers would shut him up.

• Competition for American hacks. Translated novels would give readers a break from their steady diet of James Patterson, Robert B. Parker, Danielle Steel, Mary Higgins Clark and Joyce Carol Oates.

Seriously, folks (to stick with the comedian theme), the globalization trend is already bringing great writers from other countries into American bookstores.

The only international authors he then references are Bolano and Le Clezio, so, well, he might not be the most well-versed in translated literature, but still, it’s nice to see someone advising publishers to do more translations. (A shitload of editors/publishers probably spit out their coffee when they saw the words “saving money” and “literature in translation” in the same article.)

Here’s my bit of counter-advice: why don’t all newspapers take a couple pages a month away from their local “arts” coverage (where books are rarely, if ever, recognized as an “art”) to cover international literature. You’ll have to turn to smaller presses to find good stories, but editors interested in broadening their horizons, and those of their readers, can contact me for a list of people, presses, books, authors, stories that would be worth writing about.

(It may be because I’m feeling a bit bleak today, but I’ll predict that a) no one contacts me, b) newspapers continue to cut books coverage in 2009, and c) that the overall number of original translations published in the States next year doesn’t exceed 400. But it’s OK to hope, right?)

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