12 June 08 | Chad W. Post

So, after thirteen hours of being in transit (thank you, JFK and O’Hare!), I finally made it to Chicago in time to catch the reception part of the Reading and Reception in honor of the thirteenth Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize awarded to the best translation from German into English published in the past year.

This year the award was given to David Dollenmayer for his very lyrical translation of Childhood by Moses Rosenkranz, which was published by Syracuse University Press.

This memoir sounds pretty interesting in and of itself—Rosenkranz became a famous poet late in life, and was a friend of Paul Celan’s, who was in the same fascist work camp as Rosenkranz during WWII—but the translation was what really got people’s attention. During the morning session of the symposium, the jury for the Wolff Prize gave a presentation on the prize, how it works, how they come to their decision, etc., and they handed out a sheet with excerpts from the original book and from Dollenmayer’s translation. On at least three separate occasions, an attendee mentioned to me that although they had never heard of Rosenkranz or this book, they were going to buy and read it based on these samples. Pretty strong testament to the power of this translation . . . (A similar thing happened later in the day, but with a much more shocking book . . . More on that when I write about the Susan Sontag Prize.)

There were a few interesting points that came out of the panel about the giving of the award. First off, although they accept submissions from all categories (fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama), most submissions are of works of fiction (15 were submitted this year), and this book was the first nonfiction book int the thirteen-year history of the award to win the prize.

The reason the jury gave for that was that works of fiction were more likely to capture the creative imagination of readers (and jurors) and that it was this creativity that they wanted to award. Furthermore, and this is an important point that structured conversations throughout the rest of the day, in deciding who to award the prize to, they take the American audience into account and think about which titles these readers would be interested in. (Which is another reason why fiction titles win out more frequently than more academic ones, since the more academic books already have a built-in, somewhat limited audience, whereas works of fiction need a bit more help to reach readers, and have the potential to reach a much wider group.)

This idea of what “would work” with American readers, and what should/shouldn’t be published in translation threaded its way through a number of panels and discussions. One on hand, literary critic and editor Dennis Scheck felt that the books making their way over here weren’t very representative of contemporary German writing. (Which echoes some of Larry Venuti’s recent comments.)

Rudiger van den Boom’s presentation on the new funding program—in brief, U.S. publishers can request a free 25-page samples of all the works of fiction presented in the German Book Office Rights List and all of these works are guaranteed to receive at least partial funding of the translation costs—tied into this sentiment in the way that certain publishers in attendance viewed this program as a way of “centralizing” which titles get promoted and translated. A number of people (including Johannes Goransson of Action Books) expressed their affinity for the more chaotic, random way that certain titles get translated and not others.

It’s worth noting that the Goethe Institut doesn’t restrict its funding to only the books on the GBO Rights List. Rudiger encouraged all publishers interested in books not on the list to contact him to talk about potential funding. So it’s not as if this list is really that restrictive.

Nevertheless, this a complicated, fascinating issue. All publishers have their own individual aesthetic and interests, and this diversity of viewpoints should definitely be encouraged. It’s one of the reasons independent presses are better at branding themselves than large conglomerates that publish a vast number of titles across a vast number of aesthetics and tend not to have a centralizing editorial focus. These presses frequently turn to foreign governments to help subsidize the cost of doing translations (which is substantially higher than doing works written in English). A number of foreign governments—Germany being one of the best—recognize the importance of helping support cultural initiatives of this sort, and also want to assist by providing information about the contemporary scene and trying to get certain titles that they feel are important and could be successful in the American market translated and published here.

There are a number of push-pull type of situations involved in publishing literature in translation (such as keeping the text foreign or making it more American), and this one is pretty classic. Taken as a whole, independent presses do way more translations than commercial ones, and love to retain their independence. Foreign cultural agencies have a vested interest in getting their cultural works out to the largest audience possible, and in terms of sheer numbers, one of the best ways of doing that is for a commercial press to publish a book with great mainstream appeal. Which isn’t necessarily what indie presses want to publish, and around and around we go. (Same kind of circular argument comes up in regards to money: indie presses don’t pay as well as commercial ones, in part because they don’t do many best-sellers. Translators want to be paid more and some would prefer to do books that could become best-sellers for that very reason. But these aren’t necessarily books that indie presses want to do, etc., etc., etc.)

It’s this sort of situation that makes publishing so interesting and so idiosyncratic. At panels of this sort, people are always asking why publishers choose certain titles over others, why certain books make their way into English, and so on. A lot of publishing comes down to individual taste and chance. And that really is why this business is fun.

I also think that lists such at the GBO rights list or New Books in German or the equivalent from another country is one source of information that’s of use to a publisher. I’m not sure that anyone should rely on this exclusively, but taken into consideration along with recommendations from translators, from publishers and critics, from other authors, it can be very useful. It’s hard for any one publisher to know what’s going on in countries all over the world, so the more information the better.

Taken as a whole, the books published in translation here will never accurately represent another culture—there are way too many factors that go into deciding what to publish for this to happen. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. I’m not all for books getting translated solely for shock value and potential sales, but if a publisher wants to do a book for that reason, it’s his/her imperative. It’s the diversity of voices and aesthetics that I find so intriguing. Even looking just at German fiction coming out in translation this year there’s quite a range—as there should be.


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