31 March 08 | Chad W. Post

We mentioned this a couple weeks back, but this morning, the Literary Saloon has a more factual follow-up to Douglas Kibbee’s claim that translations are on the rise, as evidenced by the increase in coverage for translations in the New York Times Book Review.

Michael Orthofer—who both questioned the veracity of this statement and the idea that a review of a translation a week was a success—compiled some stats on the last three issues:

Of the 62 books reviewed in all a mere two — Ogawa Yoko’s The Diving Pool and Michael Krüger’s The Executor — were originally written in a foreign language (and they only received the ‘books-in-brief’-treatment).

I have a complicated relationship to all of this, in part because I feel that Kibbee’s kind of right—things are getting better for translations, he just chose an odd way of “proving” it—and that it’s not necessarily the mandate/responsibility of the NYTBR to cover a certain number of literary translations. True, it’s unfortunate that so few foreign voices make their way into the Book Review, and as a publisher who is always scrapping for any review coverage we can get, I wish the Times reviewed only literary translations, but I don’t feel like the Times is unilaterally hostile towards all books in translations.

(I’m sure many bloggers will disagree with me about this, but I really believe that what gets reviewed is tied up in a more complicated dynamic including who the publishers are, what’s hot, how publishers publicize, etc., etc. It’s just not as simple as translation vs. English . . . It may fall more into the realm of large publisher—with all the clout and organizational resources associated with that—versus small—and often disorganized or too busy to focus—and since large publishers have the means to really promote their books, and since so few are works in translation, these statistics turn out the way they do. I’d be interested in seeing what the percentages are for coverage of translated books from commercial presses versus translated books from indie presses. I suspect that a healthy percentage of books reviewed in the NYTBR from independent presses are literature in translation—but that the number of reviews of books from independent, or university, presses is rather modest. In shorthand, it’s complicated . . . )

One thing that came up at the Translation Conference panel was the relative lack of translator-reviewers. At a panel that took place a few weeks ago, representatives from the New York Times and The New Republic commented on how it can be difficult to find a good reviewer familiar enough with the context and tradition surrounding a particular work of international literature to be capable of writing a really thoughtful, interesting review.

That may be a bit of a cop-out, but it is absolutely true that there are far more American writers reviewing these days than there are translators . . . Not sure in the end if this would make a difference, but if there were a couple dozen very active translator-reviewers out there pitching books, capable of writing about a work from Brazil without relying solely on the English version and flap-copy bio of the author, maybe there would be an overall increase in the amount of general coverage of translations. . . .


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