8 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The following is an excerpt from an interview that was conducted by David Damrosch and Delia Ungureanu—both of Harvard University—with Madame Nielsen in Copenhagen this past July. If you would like to see the entire piece, email me at chad.post [at] rochester.edu

David Damrosch: Across your career, your several avatars have delved very deeply into questions of identity and I was wondering, as a way of contextualizing your work for our readers, maybe you could talk a bit about these stages of identity, how you reflect on them and what has impelled the changes?

Madame Nielsen: I was born nameless, and well, most people say I’m born as Peter Hansen, but I guess no one is baptized before birth. I was named Claus Beck-Nielsen, a Danish name, as my parents are Danish. I grew up in Denmark. I made my debut as a writer, but not as Claus Beck Nielsen because I was still a wannabe poet—I started by writing poetry—and I thought that if I write and send in my poems under the name Anders Claudius West, if they then are rejected, it will be bad for Anders Claudius Westh, but not for me. They ended up being accepted, so it was good for Anders Claudius West, but maybe not that good for me. So at that time, Anders Claudius West was me and not me. After that, I also did performances; my second solo performance was about Andy Warhol, where I incarnated him. I had my hair dyed light blond as his, which made me look completely like him, and that’s why there is a photo of Andy Warhol in my passport. I originally made the performance in Hannover in Germany, and started to work with a German photographer; we made a company called Beck-Nielsen Hannover, where I was “the man with the famous face” and I met with all the important people of the Niedersachsen region— Gerhard Schröder, a princess, mayors and business men, lawyers, philosophers, and the rock band The Scorpions, among others—to discuss the future of Hannover in the years leading up to Expo 2000. Then in 1997 and 1999 I published two books as Claus Beck-Nielsen. I moved very much as a small child, and everywhere I was the new person in the class, and it was always a provincial city. My mother was a fan of the Beatles and she wanted me to have the Beatles’ hair. Being always in the provinces, when I came to a new school and a new class with my Beatles haircut, the boys wouldn’t believe I was a boy until we had the first gym class. There I took off my clothes and they saw and somehow accepted that I was a boy. I was always between a boy and a girl, especially with my feminine features.

DD: Was it hard for you to make friends, or did they accept you once they realized you’re a boy?

MN: It meant that I was always the outsider, but it also meant that I was interesting for the girls, they fell in love with me as I was handsome. The possibility of being an Other was always at hand. In 2001, when I had declared Claus Beck-Nielsen dead, I wrote a biography of him, and there I tried to show how this idea came to be. I had an idea in 2000 that took shape slowly: I wanted to show something real, not to make fiction, only reduction. I reduced my name to Claus Nielsen to make it more generic. I picked up an old thin sports suit I had and a cap and I took a train to Germany, where I had lived in 1994-5 and then I took the train back to Copenhagen and somehow erased the years between 1995 and 2000. I had no papers and no money, and I had removed from my memory all names I knew, all places, as well as my social relations. This meant that I was like a blank sheet of paper. Then I made up a very basic rule to follow: Each day you must find food, drink, and a warm shelter, considering it was December. I was waiting for a new life to start, and it did. It was very hard but also very fascinating. I lived like that for two months, listening to what advice other people would give about how to get a life. It turned out that I was more than simply homeless: I was like an illegal sans-papiers. So, following the advice from the other homeless people, I took my story to the local newspaper Ekstra Bladet—pretty similar to The Sun. Soon after I was taken by the Police and interrogated for twelve hours by four people, until I gave in because of my wife and newborn daughter. I figured it would cause problems for them if I didn’t give in.

DD: During those twelve hours were you still not having memories from seven years before?

MN: Well, it was one of the rules. And then the big article in the newspaper came out; it included a note by a doctor discussing whether this could be caused by a tumor or a case of amnesia, but the doctor felt that this wasn’t the case and thought there was hope for me. The article included a picture of me and a telephone number where people could call if they knew me. My cousin in Jutland whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years was very upset and called, saying he knew me. Newspapers started debating whether this was a social crime, so I wrote a series of ten articles from the point of view of Claus Nielsen for the more left-wing newspaper Information, which is closer to The New York Times. This double life led into divorce as my wife couldn’t live with these two persons. I was now addicted to this Claus Nielsen. I brought him home and he kicked me out, and I found myself in the situation he had been. For the next year, I lived in the apartment of a professor of semiotics who was on research leave at Stanford. For a year, I lived in his clothes, wearing his underwear, using his desk, receiving his correspondence, etc and even voted for him at the elections in 2001.

DD: You became a semiotician for a year?

MN: Exactly.

DD: Under what name were you answering his correspondence at that point? His name, or a different name?

MN: I was using his name, Per Aage Brandt. After that, I was offered to become director at a small theater, which was part of a big musical theater on the outskirts of Copenhagen, where the musical theater director wanted to have some kind of artistic blueprint of his boulevard theater and thought I’d bring him that. I had also done some performances and written some plays, so I made this theater look like a worn-out East German nuclear power station. I chose to call it Das Beckwerk. We made it into a legal company with a board of directors, and I was employed as a nameless being; what you would call in English a “subject,” but in German Versuchsperson, a person or body with which you could carry out experiments. The board of directors could tell me what I should do. For ten years, 2002-2011, I was this nameless leader of this company, until in 2011 we organized the funeral of the now long-since dead Claus Beck-Nielsen, including a seven-day deathbed, a funeral procession of a thousand people, a burial ceremonyy by a priest and a grave in a cemetery with a gravestone and everything.

DD: And you published death notices in the press . . . ?

MN: Yes. The reason was that since 2001, where I had declared Claus Beck-Nielsen dead, people had nevertheless continued to refer to me as Claus Beck-Nielsen. So I wondered what was it that was missing for CB-N’s death to be publicly accepted. Then I found this theory in Carl Ginsburg related to what makes the death of a person, what makes it real in a society. It’s not the biological death, but the ritual, the burial, and we hadn’t carried that out. So we organized a real funeral; however, not being able to use my actual body for it, we organized it in the Roman way of the funus imaginarium. They always kept a double of the emperor made in wax in case the emperor died abroad, or his body was lost in a shipwreck or battle in a foreign land. So they buried the double instead in order not to make him haunt the city. We kept the body for seven days in a building constructed especially for this project in the center of Copenhagen. After that the company Das Beckwerk had become a celebrated part of the arts world, and we really wanted to become something else. We decided to close it down before it became just another marketable art product, which all kinds of curators could move from biennial to biennial around the world making money but no art. After we closed down Das Beckwerk I took a year off any public performances trying to find the way to a new life and a new form of art. I wondered: Were there any other artists in the course of history who had produced two lifeworks? It was a very dark and suicidal year, I didn’t see the light, no ideas came from just waiting. And then one day I put on the dress of the mother of my boy; I thought: hey, you’re not that young anymore, you’ll be just a skinny middle-aged man, but you look much more beautiful as a woman! This wasn’t something really that astonishing as in my teens everybody thought I was gay! So I thought: why not become a woman? And interestingly, there were almost no women in the history of Das Beckwerk. Since then, I have been Madame Nielsen and I hope to stay that way until my death. If a cat has seven lives, I have nine deaths.

Delia Ungureanu: Any reason why you chose a French designation?

MN: I realized I just told about Madame Nielsen as if it happened in a moment, but it was in fact a gradual becoming. I had put on this dress, and felt good. Then, at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen I got a lovely white dress, and I brought it to Paris where I was going to live in a residency for four months.

DD: Was that your first salon?

MN: Yes, exactly. Once I was there, I realized I should organize a salon. In Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu Madame Verdurin has a salon. So I thought Madame Nielsen should have one as well, where I was doing all the music.

*


DU: It seems there’s no real distinction between the text and the body for you. I think all these revolutionary actions you’re been involved in are remarkable. How do you relate your poetry to the tradition of revolutionary poetry like Rimbaud and Lautréamont?

MN: I’ve always read a lot, though I have no formal education and I’ve always been disturbed by that. As a child, I was living in the provinces where there’s only sport, then, when I was a teenager, someone forgot to turn off the TV after a football game and there was a transmission from a concert hall where Sergiu Celibidache was presented as a doctor in philosophy, mathematics, nuclear physics, psychology, and music. So I thought: I want to have that too, five doctorial degrees! Because I was too busy to get an education I became very disciplined in reading. I did read a lot of revolutionary poetry, but when I write poetry and make music it’s because I’m too tired to work. Other people watch TV to relax; I take my guitar and start playing. When I write poetry, I don’t have any heroes in mind who inspire me. But indeed, all the things I’ve read go through me. I’ve been very interested in the avant-gardes, especially the Russians (1910-20), but also in the second avant-garde of the ’60s. Rimbaud and Baudelaire come in very early for me, and also the German romantics.

DU: You must like Nerval and Hoffmann for their obsession with the double that goes through all their writings.

MN: I’ve never read Hoffmann, but I do like Nerval, Schiller, and Heinrich von Kleist. The utopian dimension is something that I am fascinated with in this revolutionary poetry.

DU: Since I’ve started reading your poetry and lyrics I was struck by the multingualism—you mix Danish with English, French, Spanish, German. We were wondering whether this is another way for you to engage with the world politics you’re so interested in.

MN: The ideal would be to be a world citizen able to speak all languages. I can’t separate the dimensions of my work, so I can’t say that I’m a novelist, or a poet; I’m not even an artist, I’m just someone who does all sorts of things. In general I write in Danish, but in my poetry, I like also to open the space for many languages. I also wrote a novel that is a mix of German and Danish, it’s a linguistic hybrid.

*


DD: I have a pen from Belgrade with a quote from Tito saying “every revolution consumes its heroes.” Now to close up, we’ve heard who is Madame Nielsen. But who is Madame Nielsen going to be?

MN: I want to think of the human being as a potential, and instead of becoming “the one I really am” or that one I want to be, I’ll try to live as many different aspects of these potentials I have. I will stay Madame Nielsen as long as she’s producing things I’m interested in. My writing—The Endless Summer, The Invasion, and The Supreme Being—has changed completely for me with this identity change and these three recent novels are very different from the things I wrote before. I’ve always loved the French writers—Flaubert, Proust, Rimbaud, Stendhal, Claude Simon, Patrick Modiano, Marguerite Duras, Koltés, and Celine—so I think they influenced me from the way I conceive the sentence to questions of love and memory. My body is getting older, so I have more and more past to host in. I became more reflective and more Proustian in a sense.

DU: So is this the reason why your Endless Summer is in the form of a requiem, like Vinteuil’s sonata for Proust?

DD: . . . or the cathedral for Proust . . .

MN: Yes, well, you know, a requiem fits perfectly in a cathedral. Now I’m writing the music for Proust’s cathedral. Maybe that is what I’m doing in these years. It takes time.

7 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a few weeks away from podcast, Chad and Tom reunite to talk about sales of Fire and Fury and its lasting impact, Milo’s edits, the TA First Translation Prize Shortlist, Rochester’s failure to land the new Amazon HQ, Wormwood, and more.

For those keeping track as you listen, here’s the baffling video presentation Rochester & Buffalo sent to Amazon and here’s a link to A.N. Devers’s article on Brigid Hughes and The Paris Review.

Sorry, while we’re goofing on Rochester’s delusional ambitions, I have to share this. Please try and make sense of those statements.

This week’s music is Crooked Numbers by Unlikely Friends. Now that football is over with Minnesota’s crushing defeat to the Eagles, it’s almost time to pay attention to America’s game!

As always, feel free to send any and all comments or questions to: threepercentpodcast@gmail.com. Also, if there are articles you’d like us to read and analyze (or just make fun of), send those along as well.

And if you like the podcast, tell a friend and rate us or leave a review on iTunes!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Three Percent Podcast you can find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and other places. Or you can always subscribe by adding our feed directly into your favorite podcast app: http://threepercent.libsyn.com/rss




7 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Rochester, NY—National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu has approved more than $25 million in grants as part of the NEA’s first major funding announcement for fiscal year 2018. Included in this announcement is an Art Works grant of $35,000 to Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester for the Open Letter Books Women Writers Series. The Art Works category is the NEA’s largest funding category and supports projects that focus on the creation of art that meets the highest standards of excellence, public engagement with diverse and excellent art, lifelong learning in the arts, and/or the strengthening of communities through the arts.

“It is energizing to see the impact that the arts are making throughout the United States. These NEA-supported projects, such as this one to Open Letter Books, are good examples of how the arts build stronger and more vibrant communities, improve well-being, prepare our children to succeed, and increase the quality of our lives,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “At the National Endowment for the Arts, we believe that all people should have access to the joy, opportunities and connections the arts bring.”

“There are few things as gratifying as receiving an NEA grant,” said Chad W. Post, publisher of Open Letter. “It’s thanks to grants like these that we’re able to bring international voices to American readers, and it’s especially gratifying this year, since we decided to focus our entire project on publishing women from around the world. Less than a third of the books published in translation over the past decade have come from women writers, and that’s pretty appalling. Thanks to the NEA, we can help make a little bit of a difference in changing this.”

Specifically, this project will consist of the publication of six works by women writers, all in translation: The Endless Summer by Madame Nielsen, translated by Gaye Kynoch (Denmark), Ma Bo’le’s Second Life by Xiao Hong, translated by Howard Goldblatt (China), the easiness and the loneliness by Asta Olivia Nordenhof, translated by Susanna Nied (Denmark), Fox and American Fictionary by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams, and Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać, respectively (Croatia/Europe), and Night School by Zsófia Bán, translated by Jim Tucker (Hungary).

For more information on projects included in the NEA grant announcement, visit arts.gov/news.

6 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Before getting into the February translations, data on what’s being published (or not being published), and all the random stuff, I wanted to point out a few modifications to the Translation Database at Publishers Weekly that were recently implemented.

First off, when you’re entering a title, you can now choose “Male,” “Female,” “Both” (for books with multiple authors or translators of different genders), or “Undisclosed.” I know there are lots of other options that could/should be included, but for now, this seemed like the best way of giving non-binary authors and translators a different option while ensuring that the data going forward is compatible with what’s been collected over the past ten years.

Also, if you want to change your gender on your listings—or update a pub date, correct a typo, etc.—on that same form you can click “correction to the database,” which will let me know that this isn’t a new/duplicate entry, but a signal that there’s something wrong in the existing record.

Finally, for all us Excel nerds, you can now get the “tab delimited” data for any search that you make. Just enter in your criteria and click the link at the top—right next to the newly added line indicating how many titles fit your criteria. Once you have the “tab delimited” listings up, highlight and copy all the information and then choose “paste special” in Excel and select “text” and you’ll instantly have a sortable database with ALL the information for the individual records. Magic!

And please keep entering your titles! I really want to bulk up the children’s and nonfiction sections, and although I have plans on how to do this in a more systematic way, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that before the summer break.

OK, on to the February data!

Everything Still Sucks, or, When Are We Renaming the Blog 1%?

Remember last month when it seemed like all the translations had vanished? And when I postulated that it was probably just a small sample size and things would all even out? It’s one month later, the sample size is still small, and there’s still hope for the future, but man, this is disconcerting.

Just like last month, it’s possible I’m missing some titles, but I spent almost all day tracking down books, including looking into a bunch of presses that brought out translations in 2017, but nothing this year, and still, at the end of the day, there are only 28 works of fiction and poetry in the database for February 2018, compared to 51 last year. That’s an INSANE drop off.

In the first two months of 2017, 100 works of fiction and poetry in translation were published in the U.S. for the first time, compared to only 59 this year. I would still bet that by the end of the year, this will normalize—I’ll find a stash of missing poetry titles along with a few new presses that were off my radar—but if it doesn’t . . . that’s huge. Over the past decade there’s been a huge growth in the number of translated titles (367 in 2008, 620 in 2017), membership in ALTA has increased (or at least attendance at the annual conference), there are more university-based translation programs, more awards for translation . . . and yet.

There’s a dark possibility at play here . . . I don’t want to even type it up, but it is probably the simplest explanation: sales of translations aren’t good enough to sustain this level of publication. It doesn’t take that many failures to put the smaller presses out of business or convince the biggest ones that there’s no need to continue with this money-losing enterprise. Instead of being a subsection of publishing with linear growth, maybe translation publishing is more cyclical . . . After hitting a peak in 2016 (653 titles), the industry will contract, and in a handful of years, when we’re back to a handful of presses doing the vast majority of translations, we’ll crank up the grant rhetoric about how isolated American readers are and everything will start over again. Translations will be “cool,” everyone will start doing them, we’ll break the 2016 mark, etc. Or I’m 100% wrong. Hopefully that.



Abrupt Mutations by Enrique Luis Revol, translated from the Spanish by Priscilla Hunter (Dalkey Archive Press)

I would love to read this book and write about it for my weekly column, but what are the odds that this book actually comes out this month? Maybe 25%?

This probably isn’t something the average reader notices, but over the past few years, Dalkey’s catalog has come to resemble the annual Williams-Sonoma holiday catalog—a bunch of cool looking shit that you’ll never actually own.

Let me put this in perspective: I spent an hour today correcting the pub dates for their books in the database. By “correcting,” I mean changing listings for books that were supposed to come out in 2017, but are now scheduled for November of this year. Like Warning to the Crocodiles by one of my all time favorite authors, Antonio Lobo Antunes. Not even exaggerating when I say I’ve been waiting for this book to come out for two-and-a-half years. The translator, Rhett McNeil, talked to me about it back when MLA was in Austin in 2016 and, unless I’m totally mistaken, the book’s publication was imminent at that point. And although the Dalkey website lists a May 2017 pub date, Ingram lists a December 2018 release date, and Amazon comes up with “Your search ‘9781943150137’ did not match any products.” By the time this is finally published, I’ll probably have given up on reading.

Although it doesn’t explain everything, Dalkey’s delays (similar to those for Hispabooks, which is still in business, question mark?) do screw with the data quite a bit. When the Translation Database went from my computer to Publisher Weekly’s website, we had data on 37 titles that Dalkey “published” in 2017. There were even more titles announced, but those were shifted to 2018 before exporting all this data. That’s now slipped to 32, not a huge difference, but way down from the 42 titles they published in 2016. I don’t know how they manage to do so many books to begin with, but for the sake of my interest in reading so many of them, I really wish more of them came out on time.

But the bigger point: The numbers cited mid-year might be inflated due to small presses announcing books that are then delayed. And delayed. And delayed.



The Right Intention by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (Transit Books)

Going back to data for a minute: Spanish was the most translated language this month. With five titles. (In February 2017, French had 7 titles, and Spanish 6. How are there only 3 French books this month? Weird.) What’s more interesting is that there are 3 Norwegian books (including two titles in Jens Bjorneboe’s “History of Bestiality” trilogy . . . which . . . I’ll just leave that there like that) and 1 Latvian book! Go Latvia! I assume that 30 Questions People Don’t Ask by Inga Gaile, translated by Ieva Lešinska is part of the build-up to being guest of honor at the London Book Fair. Definitely.

(Kaija—worried that I was making fun of Latvia while writing this—just informed me that there are “something like forty” Latvian books coming out from UK presses across 2017 and 2018, since that’s where the government has been putting its efforts and money. So far, this poetry collection is the only one scheduled to come out in the U.S. This ties into something I want to write at some point in time about how most publishers of translations in the U.S. are buying rights from the UK and not originating the translation. Open Letter’s never done that [okay maybe once], because we’re JOB CREATORS.)

This past week, I used Such Small Hands by Barba in my World Lit & Translation class and my students had the opportunity to talk with Lisa Dillman, who is definitely one of the best Spanish translators working today. During our conversation, I told her about my probable misreading of part of this novel. For those who read it, you may remember that in the middle, Marina tells the girls at the orphanage about how she’s been to Disneyland in Paris, how she’s already seen all the movies that they watch on their weekly movie nights, etc. When I first read this, I assumed that she was lying—like my kids would, like most kids would—as a way of getting back at them for making her an outsider. Lisa said that no one had ever mentioned a reading like this before—because why would they? this is crazy talk—but that it might well tie into the earlier bit in which Marina is given the doll and claims that the doll is the “only one who doesn’t lie” . . . Sometimes I feel like I’m totally stoned while I’m reading.



Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by [Not Listed on Grove Website] (Black Cat)

The translator is Brian FitzGibbon. See, Grove, that wasn’t so bad!

Also, AmazonCrossing was the first to publish Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir. They did The Greenhouse back in 2011. It’s definitely worth checking out. Iceland rules.

I kind of want to leave things there, but this was the placeholder I was using in my mind to try and talk about how incredibly odd Memphis was during ABA Winter Institute—an annual convention for booksellers. I’ve never been in a city that felt more vacant. One night we went to Beale Street, the street for music and bar hopping. Structurally, it looks like 6th St (?) in Austin, with police cars at both ends so that no one can drive there and everyone can drink booze in the streets.

Except that it was totally empty. Like, literally empty.

Over the course of the four days I was there, I think I saw 14 people who weren’t associated with Winter Institute out in the wild. One was a “security guy” who doubled as a PR man for downtown Memphis. He accosted me and Will Vanderhyden as we were walking down the street one day.

“Y’all got any questions about downtown?”

“Where are all the people?”

“Here in Memphis, we’ve got four Fortune 500 companies, but they’re all located about 40 minutes away the suburbs and downtown is being revitalized and during the months of April through September it’s a totally different place.”

“Cool. Makes sense. Thanks.”

“Do you know what Highway 40 doesn’t pass through here?”

“. . .”

“The state wanted it to. But Memphis folk? We stand up for ourselves. We said NO HIGHWAY THROUGH OUR PARK. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and Memphians won.”

“Where are we?”

“Downtown Memphis! Where the people are all friendly and there’s a massive Pyramid that houses the world’s largest Bass Pro Shop! You HAVE to check it out! Ain’t nothing else like it.”



Season of the Shadow by Léonora Miano, translated from the French by Gila Walker (Seagull Books)

Shit! I forgot to include my original Grove joke . . . Right before Will and I encountered Mr. Memphis, we were at a food truck square for lunch. Eight food trucks, six Memphians. Good ratio! As we were eating, Morgan Entrekin, current publisher of Grove, came wandering up and said, “Where is everyone?” I’ve never seen anyone look so befuddled and out-of-sorts.

It was so weird! A bunch of us went walking to a nearby restaurant during rush hour, and strolled across major streets without even bothering to look both ways. Memphis rush hour in February is like something from the Walking Dead. We saw maybe four cars and a homeless guy picking Other Press tote bags out of the trash. (True story! He even got a bunch of books with the tote! Which he’ll never read but which may make a good paper-quilt . . . ) Everyone who was at Winter Institute will back me up on this. It’s entirely plausible that Memphis was just a simulacrum and we were all in some hidden basement in Amazon having memories implanted into our minds.



Empty Set by Veroónica Gerber Bicecci, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Coffee House)

Two things about Winter Institute and money:

1. Winter Institute is absolutely, without question, the best event in the country for publishers to meet with booksellers and get them to get behind their books. (Handselling to the Handsellers would be a great band name for a terrible bookstore band.) Winter Institute can make a book. But to get in the door, publishers have to put up at least $6,000. That’s maybe reasonable? If you’re New Directions, NYRB, Europa, Coffee House, Graywolf, Melville House, etc., not to mention the Penguin Random Houses and Hachettes of the world.

(They pay far more than $6,000 in order to lock down their control on the bookshelves of America. I love how PRH pays lip service to independent booksellers at events like this, wining and dining them, and, taking them by bus to a remote dinner party so that the booksellers can’t leave. On the surface, this seems totally cool. Why shouldn’t PRH buy the booksellers some fancy whiskey? Because of my paranoid tendencies, insecure depression, or game theory ideas, I see a bit of a darker lining in this. PRH is like Post Cereal—they’re as concerned with limiting competition as they are with producing great product. If you can keep booksellers locked in, paying attention to you and all your books, you can make sure that 75% of all inventory is from your company. That’s super valuable simply because it decreases the odds that a customer will end up buying a book from one of your competitors. Post produces dozens of cereals a year that don’t sell for shit, but take up the space that a better cereal from some dirty hippie indie manufacturer [like this Sea Stars cereal from Love Grown that we bought at a Whole Foods once, and which looks and tastes exactly like regular sugary rice-puff cereal, but once my kids saw the words “lentils” and “beans” on the box they for real started to cry and refused to eat any] would otherwise occupy. This is why there are 49 Starbucks on every corner. And I’m sure that the higher-ups at commercial book publishers know this strategy and how much this sort of market penetration is worth.)

For presses like New Vessel, Open Letter, Transit, Deep Vellum—those indie translation presses that I’m obviously concerned with—this is a fortune to spend on a week-long event. And yet, you have to be there. Which means that we end up with another contradictory situation in the book world: booksellers advocating meritocratic ideas of really handselling what they love, where quality counts, while also inhabiting an economic space that’s very much a pay-to-play situation. Such is baseball, such is life.

If translation presses can’t keep their collective feet in this door, they’ll probably end up doing fewer and fewer translations, or just stopping all together, and instead of the 660ish translations we got in 2016, we’ll get . . . oh.

2. Patrick Walsh of Custom Publishing Partners (hi, Patrick!) got drunk with a bunch of us on the last night. Several people—Nick Buzanski, Javier Ramirez, and Will Vanderhyden—heard him bet me $1,000 that in 2018, Hunter Pence will “have a Hall of Fame season” and bat over .320 for the year. Now, I’m not supporting gambling, but I’m taking that bet ALL DAY E’ER’ DAY. Right now Pence is projected to bat .264. To move from a lifetime batting average of .282 to over .320 basically impossible. Patrick, do you go to Fangraphs at all? I’M GOING TO TAKE YOUR MONEY THIS IS LEGALLY BINDING.



Stone Building and Other Places by Aslı Erdoğan, translated from the Turkish by Sevinç Türkkan (City Lights)

I obnoxiously sent a publisher—who rejected the book I wrote—a text about how he should publish all 64 translation pieces I’m planning on writing this year (52 books and 12 monthly overviews). Taken as a whole, these should be an interesting look at world of publishing AND about a healthy swath of books published during a given year. There’s totally some cutesy title about “52 weeks” or a “year of” reading X while Y that you can build out of this idea.

This is so presumptuous!

To be honest, I only write these to work through my emotions on screen. The joy I get out of writing these posts is so outsized compared to the number of people who actually read them. And that’s fine. TRUST THE PROCESS.

Which is why it’s probably time to talk about the National Book Award for Translation, which was announced earlier this week.

I knew this was coming. And welcomed it! Who doesn’t want more awards for the thing that they’re passionate about? The more the merrier, right? And there’s nothing at all wrong with giving more money to authors and translators. Plus, the attention being paid to the winners of this award far exceeds what a single press can do on its own. Sure, Tom’s said before on the podcast that the only award that shifts significant copies is the Pulitzer, but every translator in the world would be happy to ride an NBA award for the rest of their career.

But then this New York Times story happened, sparking a ton of questions.



The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman (FSG)

I know it’s a bad idea, but I can’t resist pointing out a few of the lazy parts of that article that had people across social media platforms up in arms and trying to process what they had read.

While there are a growing number of publishing houses that specialize in publishing works in translation and international literature — including Europa Editions, Archipelago Books, AmazonCrossing and Tilted Axis, which publishes contemporary Asian literature, mainly by women — translated literature still accounts for a tiny percentage of books published in the United States.


What percentage might that be? Maybe three? Three sounds good.

Also (and no slight or insult intended toward Deborah Smith, who is doing great things), the curious inclusion of Titled Axis—a press with, what, six published books under its belt, thus making it one of the biggest players in the translation publishing world?, right up there with Dalkey Archive, New Directions, and FSG?—which is based in the UK and can’t possibly be eligible for the National Book Award. Unless everything is all upside down. Which is totally possible in 2018, I know, I KNOW.

Other literary institutions have also made efforts to highlight works in translation. The PEN America Center has given out a translation prize to highlight international works since the 1960s. In 2015, the Booker Prize Foundation recast its international prize, which was previously open to novelists writing in English, as an award dedicated to fiction in translation.

Oh, yeah, you’re totally right, other organizations have tried to do such a revolutionary thing! Awards like, oh, I don’t know, the Best Translated Book Award, which gives out TWICE as much award money to international authors and translators than the NBA? (But doesn’t really get the same level of respect from the NYT for obvious, yet disheartening, reasons.)

But wait! Before the BTBA, there was the National Translation Award, which is judged by translators and comes with a $5,000 prize as well (split equally between the prose winner and poetry winner, but still) and is probably the most rigorous of the three major prizes for translation in that it compares the original text to the translated book and is focused on the translation itself. But the NTA wasn’t mentioned in any of the original articles about the new NBA. Not to drone on, but this bums me out. Journalists should be able to do some cursory research for these sorts of articles, and people and organizations doing good work should be acknowledged for it, regardless of how hip and/or well-heeled they are.

It’s going to be really interesting to debate the rationale for whatever books win the first few iterations of the NBA for Translation. Sure, as with their other awards, they’ll be honoring the “book,” but which book? The original book? The English version? The version of Out by Natsuo Kirino in which the ending was rewritten to be more appealing to American readers. That book?

This might seem facetious, but these are questions everyone on a translation prize jury struggles with. Are you looking for the best translation, or the book that will appeal to the most people, thus helping translation transcend its trappings? How does that reflect on the art of translation? But do you really want to get mired in nitpicking particular words in given texts? Probably not. There is a balance, and every jury comes to terms with what they’re valuing and figures this out. My utopic vision is that the four major translation prizes: PEN, BTBA, NBA, and NTA each get at one of the myriad reasons that reading translations is enjoyable and beneficial. The awards could complement each other and create a larger set of reasons for why readers should pay attention to books from outside our borders.

Part of this will obviously depend on the construction of the NBA jury. Most of the other NBA awards are judged by five people—a mixture of authors and booksellers. That could be cool for this as well, although I suspect there will also be a translator or two in the mix. (Although a translation award with a jury comprised of people who aren’t translators sounds really intriguing to me right now. In the end, books should be judged by smart readers.) There are some authors who are definitely more well versed in international literature, so this could end up being an opportunity for those in the know to share their expertise. Or for those who usually stay in their reading lane to branch out and learn about what else is out there. All very exciting to think about as we build up to March 7th and the release of the information about how to apply.

I know that in this day and age, trying to have a nuanced take on something is a one-way ticket to Pariahville, but I do want to mention the one single aspect of this that troubles me. It’s a selfish thing, based in my distrust of late-capitalist structures and the obsession with celebrity, but I think it does end up raising a point that will end up distinguishing this award from the (likely) more populist BTBA.

Here are the publishing houses of the past ten NBA winners for fiction, counting backward from 2017: Doubleday, Random House, Penguin Press, Riverhead, Harper, Bloomsbury (Jesmyn Ward, now published by Scribner), McPherson (go small presses! Vintage reissued Jaimy Gordon’s more experimental books, which is a fantastic result of winning this prize), Random House, Modern Library/Random House, and FSG. Naturally.

And here’s a quote from the Associated Press about why the National Book Awards added a longlist:

Entrekin said that some of the recent National Book Award fiction lists, which usually get the most attention, had been “very eccentric” and that allowing critics and booksellers as judges could open up the process. The results, he thinks, will be a “little more mainstream,” and less likely to include “a collection of stories by a university press.”

Oh boy. I remember my heart sinking the first time I read that. This is partially why people outside of the Big Five Presses might be a bit reserved when talking about this new award and its benefits for presses doing translations. Although there are dozens of amazing authors who have won NBAs or at least been finalist, the awards aren’t without their share of controversy over style and experimentation. Remember this?

It’s probably the years of being a bridesmaid and never a bride (or more like an usher and never an attendee?) that dampens my belief that the indie presses—who produce 85%+ of the fiction and poetry translations coming out each year—will be adequately represented on the long and short lists. I’m not sure the world needs another award in which the biggest of the big presses get to pat themselves on the back about a job well done. Not that there aren’t good books from these presses, but it would be super cool if this award ended up elevating some lesser known books, authors, translators, and presses.

The National Book Critics Circle (NBCC)—which has awarded translations, although it doesn’t have a specific translation category—tries to be this. All published books are eligible, and if a NBCC jury member loves a given book (from the largest or tiniest of presses), it has a shot to win. There is no entry fee, so even though the small presses rarely win anything except maybe poetry and criticism, at least you feel like it’s possible.

For better or worse, the NBA is a bit different. From their website:

There is a $135 entry fee for each title submitted.

All publishers submitting books for the National Book Awards must agree to:

Contribute $3,000 toward a promotional campaign if a submitted book becomes a Finalist ($750 for presses with income of under $10 million).

Inform authors of submitted books that, if selected as Finalists, they must be present at the National Book Awards Ceremony and at related events in New York City.

Inform authors that the Finalists Reading will be held at The New School on Tuesday, November 13, 2018.

Inform authors that the National Book Awards Ceremony will be held at Cipriani Wall Street on Wednesday, November 14, 2018.

Cover all travel and accommodation costs for Finalists and provide them with a seat at the Awards Ceremony.

Purchase from the National Book Foundation, when appropriate, medallions to be affixed to the covers of Longlist, Finalist, and Winning books. The Foundation also will license the medallion image artwork for reproduction on the covers of Finalist and Winning books.

Yikes! So, when Open Letter submits The Invented Part, which (in my mind) has a legit shot at being a finalist, we’ll pay $135 + $750 + $2000 (travel costs for both the author and the translator, since both are technically finalists) + $1,000 (?—I don’t know what the cost of buying a seat at the NBA ceremony is, but probably not free?) and still have an 80% chance of walking away empty handed? Will being a finalist generate enough sales to offset just these expenses? Not a chance. I totally get why the NBAs have these requirements—both from a money and a publicity perspective—and the translation finalists should be required to be at the ceremony as well. It’s a great honor! But I can also see a situation in which just the possibility of facing these costs would dissuade smaller indie presses from even entering their books. Books that might deserve to win. Books that, by winning, would alter that press’s trajectory by increasing their visibility significantly.

(Can you imagine me at an NBA finalists dinner? Who would ever speak to me? There’s a short unhappy story buried in this vision. I wouldn’t even be able to dress right. My belt would be backward or something.)

Is this NBA for Translation going to be good for the small presses who actually do (read: exist solely because of/for) translations? It’s possible, although unlikely. But maybe! This is all aspirational, and I’m going to aspire The Invented Part right to that stage.

(I would love for AmazonCrossing to pay to submit every single one of their books every single year until they make a shortlist. By sheer numbers it’s bound to happen.)

But to get back to the point, it’s great that the NBA for Translation has finally arrived, but it would’ve been nice if the media acknowledged the other existent prizes that have been doing the work for decades, increasing readership for international literature and generating more respect for the art of translation. A narrative including these precursors that run in parallel would’ve been a better narrative, rather than the implied idea that the NBA created the very idea of awarding such a quirky thing as translation.

5 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back when I kicked off my 2018 Translations series I chose to include Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi as the fourth book from January I would read and review. And why not? It won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction1 and came with pretty high praise.

“A haunting allegory of man’s savagery against man and one of the most essential books to come out of the Iraq War, or any war.”—Elliot Ackerman, National Book Award finalist for Dark at the Crossing


I actually don’t know Eliot Ackerman’s work, but his brother is a wrestler, although the real kind, not the fun WWE kind. Regardless, this book is “one of the most essential” and I’d like to think that I read some essential books.

“An extraordinary piece of work. With uncompromising focus, Ahmed Saadawi takes you right to the wounded heart of war’s absurd and tragic wreckage. It is a devastating but essential read, one that I am sure I will return to again and again.”—Kevin Powers, bestselling author and National Book Award finalist for The Yellow Birds


I do know Kevin Powers though and . . . wait. There’s a trend developing here. Two National Book Award finalists who both think the book is “essential”? What are the odds? That’s weird.

“Brilliant and horrifying, Frankenstein in Baghdad is essential reading.”—Rachel Cordasco, World Literature Today


Trifecta! This book is essential. All I can glean from this is that one day Rachel2 will be a finalist for the National Book Award. (Get writing, Rachel!)

One more:

“Gripping, darkly humorous . . . profound.”—Phil Klay, bestselling author and National Book Award winner for Redeployment


Lesson #2: If you win a National Book Award, you don’t have to say a book is essential.

(Bonus points to The National for using a thesaurus: “Tells a vital story.”)

But what makes a book “essential”? Can a book even be “essential”? What does that mean? It’s just not possible for a book—any book—to be urgent, necessary, or luminous. I just listed the three jacket copy/blurb words that drive Coffee House’s Caroline Casey insane. There’s a podcast from some years back where she loses her shit about this. “Books do not give off light!”

And she’s right. The usage of these words in blurb speak is fairly lazy and basically a non-signifier. Show me a book that’s essential to living and I’ll show you 100 million people who don’t read. It’s especially odd that Penguin used two blurbs postulating this same imaginary world on the back cover.

The other blurbs—not necessarily worth repeating here—also have a lot in common: “A haunting allegory,” “horrifically funny and allegorically resonant,” “a haunting allegory,” “this haunting novel,” “a haunting and startling mix of horror,” “darkly humorous,” “funny and horrifying,” “stay for the dark humor,” and “touches of black comedy.”

I’m glad I read this essential allegory of darkly comic horror!

*


I have to be honest: I had the hardest time paying attention to this book. Because of my insane number of reading obligations (reading for my World Literature & Translation class, for the PEN Center Translation Prize, for the Irish Trip I’m leading for the University of Rochester, for Open Letter’s fall catalog, for this 2018 translation project), I ended up finishing fifteen books in January. Or, depending on what kind of stickler you are, “finished” fifteen books. Two of those—In the Woods by Tana French and Frankenstein in Baghdad I actually listened to on audiobook.

I’ve been an audiobook devotee for years now. Ever since I admitted to myself that I am never going to make enough time to read all the random books that sound interesting, but which aren’t essential to my career or life. Books like The Luminaries or A Brief History of Seven Killings, two audiobooks I totally loved.

Sometimes audiobooks are just flat out entertaining—like Seven Killings, which is as much an audio performance as anything else—and other times, they’re just totally function. A sort of life hack to getting things finished and off the “to read” shelf. If I only listened to these on my bike rides to and from work, I would finish a 250-page book every week. That’s not bad!

To be honest, I usually listen to these at the gym . . . with the Kindle version in front of me. That’s totally overkill, but for some of these books, it’s essential that I have both to really be able to get into the text. Besides, running on a treadmill is boring as fuck. Having someone read in my ear while glancing at words on a page, or touch-flipping a page, is literally 400% more engaging than running.

So I listened to Frankenstein in Baghdad. But since I try not to give my money to corporations like Penguin Random House (which makes such a difference), this time I didn’t get the Kindle version. For whatever reason, this totally wrecked my ability to really comprehend this book. Not that I couldn’t follow the plot—which isn’t all that complicated, really, given that most of it is in the title and those essential blurbs—but that I kept drifting off due to all the descriptive bits that, to me as a reader, seemed unnecessary.

Even before he spoke I had made up my mind to buy the recorder, not because I needed it but as a kind of charity. I was even more resolved when I heard he had large debts and needed to pay them off before going back to his family in Maysan Province. But I didn’t expect to buy a story or pay four hundred dollars. I couldn’t pay such an amount on short notice.


Perfectly normal paragraph. One that you can more or less skim when you’re reading. “Made up mind to buy the recorder . . . more resolved, large debt . . . can’t pay on short notice.” Got it. Good.

Is there anything else in there that truly adds to the style or story? Not really. some details, but nothing that’s written in such a striking manner as to hold your attention. Nothing essential anyway.

The thing about listening to audiobooks though is that they’re so slow. Whatever you can read in a minute takes about two-and-a-half when read out loud. That can really strain your attention if most of what’s being read is superfluous information related in a fairly flat style. And for this book, I just couldn’t.

By contrast, I’m not listening to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and am locked into it 100%. And in December, Dhalgren kept me captivated for all 38 hours (or so). For me, style is an absolute key to being able to pay attention. Books that ride on accurately relating extraneous information are ones that I should read with my eyes, skimming the meh parts.

*


Last week, the National Book Foundation announced their relaunch of the National Book Award for Translations. I have a lot of thoughts about this—all of which I’ll save for tomorrow’s February Translation Preview. (Stay tuned! That post is FIRE.) And because there’s not a cultural event out there that sites like LitHub can’t jam a listicle into, they posted this listicle: The Year’s 10 Best Reviewed Books in Translation.

Where to start! There’s so much here that’s right down the middle of the “What Makes Chad Mad” plate. I would bat .400 against this article. I’m the Mike Trout of making fun of shit like this!

Easy digs first: The tenth most reviewed book of 2017? Frankenstein of Baghdad, which was released on January 23, 2018. Good work!

But that’s a nitpick. I mean, once upon a time Tilted Axis posted a list of four books in translation by women to read for Women in Translation month, but had to delete one when they realized the author was a man. Mistakes happen. Hell, look at every one of these posts. (Although these aren’t clickbait and clickbait is FAIR GAME for being called into question seeing as sites like LitHub and Buzzfeed and Flavorwire—for all the good they do do—namely profit by strip mining culture and aggregating the work of others for their own benefit. This used to be called exploitation, but now it’s called “strategic content reformulation.”)

What’s more astonishing though is what made Frankenstein in Baghdad 2017’s tenth most reviewed book in translation.

In case you’re not a long-time reader or Three Percent Podcast listener, I should take a second to explain that this entire “ranking” on LitHub is based on LitHub’s Book Marks project. A literary Rotten Tomatoes, this launched a couple years ago with the intent of pooling reviews, assigning them a grade (used to be a letter grade but now they just put them into very broad buckets), averaging them, and listing which books are the “most reviewed,” “best reviewed,” etc. It’s a poor man’s attempt at applying math to literature and pretending this has objective results.3

I wrote a very long chapter of a never-to-be-published book about poor Book Marks and all its problems, and Tom and I ripped it a few times on the podcast. But rather than start from a theoretical perspective of why this is an overall bad idea that rewards popularity over diversity (which, not surprising, given recent LitHub controversies, especially concerning Arabic literature) and is just an attempt to create more clicks for a clickbait website and more sales for The Big Five, let’s get all empirical and look at the data.

According to Book Marks (still one of the worst puns in the book world . . . see, the books are given “marks” and “bookmarks” are a thing you put in books and denial aside MY GOD do we live in an industry of lose-lose puns [redundant?]), Frankenstein in Baghdad has received seven reviews. Seven?! That’s interesting . . . Here’s the list: NY Times (rave), Booklist (rave), Chicago Tribune (mixed)4, Seattle Times (rave), World Literature Today (rave), Kirkus (positive)5, and Publishers Weekly (positive)6. That’s it. Seven reviews makes your book the tenth most reviewed translation of 2017. (Even though it came out in 2018, yes, I’ll stop now.) The number one, most review book in translation received fourteen.

By contrast, fucking Maze Runner: Death Cure has 132 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. One hundred and thirty-two. Compared to fourteen.

What does that mean? Two things: That fourteen is a small sample size for judging anything, and that Book Marks is pretty constricted in where it’s drawing its reviews from. There is a listing at the bottom of their “How It Works” page of where LitHub pulls from to construct Book Marks, but the list does smack of exclusivity. But there are plenty of legitimate (“indie”?) review sites not included (SPOILER: Quarterly Conversation, The Complete Review, Music & Literature, Drunken Boat, Three Percent, and many many more, all of which review 20 times more translations a year than O: The Oprah Magazine, but maybe we’re…not professional enough? Or experts about translation7?) all of which is just another sad-but-true indicator that, much like Trump’s America, this industry also thrives on the rich getting richer and shaking each other’s hands as they do.

Example: The New York Times reviews a lot of Penguin books. They just do. And these books are highlighted on the Book Marks website as the most reviewed (and best reviewed). Coupled with LitHub’s spiderweb strategy of gobbling up all lit blog traffic for their own content, readers might actually be fooled into thinking this is some kind of democracy and buy into the narrative that the best new books are always from the biggest presses, and why bother with anything else? Point being: as “fun” as listicles can be in a world more and more dependent on instant gratification, they’re never really eligible for face-value or all-inclusive accuracy. Like all those cover blurbs at the beginning, the information in question is being curated in a way that, while some may see it as essential, is in fact detrimental to the entire process. A monoculture thus does make.

This idea is put in stark relief when you list the publishers of the most reviewed translations of 20—: New Directions (the go-to press for translations among 99% of reviewers8), FSG, Riverhead, FSG, New Press (sort of surprised, but mostly because I found Black Moses to be a really tedious book compared to Mabanckou’s other works), New Directions, Knausgaard or I mean Penguin, Counterpoint, New Directions, Penguin. How many of these presses really do translations? One. New Directions. The rest are dilettantes that leverage money and power for cultural goodwill. I’m so glad LitHub can give them a pat on the back for their utter devotion to bringing international voices to America!

Another thing! If seven reviews over all of 2018 2017 is enough to be the tenth most reviewed translation then translated literature has a serious problem. Or not? Most indie press buzz is from booksellers. Actual readers. The typical promotional structure is so removed from the presses who invest the most intellectual capital into diversifying book culture. And LitHub is 100% reinforcing that structure with . . . well, their entire website. That’s their actual M.O., which is clear as day if you pay attention or just look at this post in question.

Wait. WAIT. Why isn’t Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli NOT on this list? It was reviewed in the New Yorker, New York Times, Kirkus, NPR, Publishers Weekly, LITERARY HUB, Rolling Stone (!!), New York Times Sunday Book Review, GQ, Chicago Tribune, The Guardian, Harper’s, The Nation, Minnesota Public Radio (I’m sure the NY-centric LitHub is . . . nevermind), Financial Times, Vulture, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Miami Rail, Brooklyn Magazine, Latin American Literature Today, In These Times, Times Literary Supplement, The Intercept, World Literature Today, Remezcla, The Millions, Paste, The Riveter, Shondaland, The Rumpus, more LITERARY HUB, Dissent, Writer’s Bone, Bookwitty, Proximity Magazine, Texas Observer, Houston Chronicle, In Order of Importance, Ploughshares, Signature, THE Magazine, and Drunken Boat. That’s 1 . . . 2. . . . 7 . . . 14 . . . 41?! More than 14! So, why, again, isn’t this book on the list? Even restricting it to LitHub Friendly sites, it’s more than enough. Maybe there’s a problem with the whole Book Marks system? SHOCKER.

I’m not done railing. Come back tomorrow for a February Translation Preview filled with fiery opinions, critical analysis of publishing economic structures, and jokes. Tell your friends. Don’t let listicles get all the hits. Read different and think.9


1 One of the weirdest lines in the reviews for this book comes from Dwight Garner’s piece in the New York Times, “It is no surprise to learn that he won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a kind of Booker Prize for the region, for Frankenstein in Baghdad.” Let’s not get into the question as to whether this is surprising or not—which presuppossed a knowledge of “the region’s” books and what the award rewards and all of that—but just look at that “kind of Booker Prize” bit. From Wikipedia: “The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) (Arabic: الجائزة العالمية للرواية العربية‎) is a literary prize managed in association with the Booker Prize Foundation in London, and supported by the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi.” Yeah, kind of like a Booker Prize for the region. Or, simply, “A Booker Prize for Arabic writing.”

2 Full disclosure: Rachel is a friend and former guest on the Two Month Review who blurbed Fresán’s The Bottom of the Sky.

3 Another disclosure: If there was a way of calculating wRC+ for books based on advance, marketing budget, sales, and cultural impact, I would probably love it.

4 This is what makes a review mixed: “Given these characters’ remove from the Whatsitsname, it’s difficult for them to captivate. Perhaps the reason for this owes something to the author’s rather obvious pursuit of allegory.” In other words, having a nuanced read is “mixed.” This is the ONLY mixed review. All the others are “raves” or “positive.” If you don’t see a problem here, email me so that we can argue.

5 I can’t distinguish between a “rave” and a “positive review” and I don’t want to put more effort into this.

6 What does it mean that both “positive” reviews are from the trade magazine (less influenced by buzz and advertising, the ones reviewing the book well in advance of publication), whereas the “raves” are from the handful of remaining newspapers that review books?

7 If you don’t see a problem with this either, just DM me so that we can argue.

8 I love New Directions, but the world is sheep and they are easily the most established publisher of hip intellectual books just sitting out there ready to be reviewed.

9 I got so invested in banging out an old school Three Percent rant-icism that I forgot to make one very important point: this book was translated by Jonathan Wright. You wouldn’t know by looking at the book’s cover or it’s Amazon page but I’m so very sure that’s not because Penguin doesn’t give two fucks about translators, but because . . . I’m out of bad jokes. Jonathan Wright once wrote a post for us that I use in my class every year, and which, thank the gods above, always makes my students rail against Andrew Wylie, Alaa Al Aswany, commercial publishing, bad ideas of what makes a good translation, and “My wife understood my need for the solitude.” So good to see you again, Jonathan. I hope you’re well.

2 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After a bit of a break for the holidays and whatnot, we’re BACK! Or about to be. Starting on February 15th, there will be all new episodes of the Two Month Review, this time focuses on The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov.



Probably the Open Letter title that Tom Roberge likes the best, The Physics of Sorrow came out in 2015 and has continuously moved up our list of best-selling titles. It was a finalist for the 2015 PEN Literary Award for Translation and won the 2016 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature. It walso was a finalists for both the Strega Europeo and Gregor von Rezzori awards. And won multiple honors in Bulgaria. It’s in it third (?) printing now, and is available from better bookstores everywhere, or from us directly. If you use 2MONTH at checkout, you’ll even get 20% off!

Here’s a brief description:

Using the myth of the Minotaur as its organizing image, the narrator of Gospodinov’s long-awaited novel constructs a labyrinth of stories about his family, jumping from era to era and viewpoint to viewpoint, exploring the mindset and trappings of Eastern Europeans. Incredibly moving—such as with the story of his grandfather accidentally being left behind at a mill—and extraordinarily funny—see the section on the awfulness of the question “how are you?”—Physics is a book that you can inhabit, tracing connections, following the narrator down various “side passages,” getting pleasantly lost in the various stories and empathizing with the sorrowful, misunderstood Minotaur at the center of it all.

Like the work of Dave Eggers, Tom McCarthy, and Dubravka Ugresic, The Physics of Sorrow draws you in with its unique structure, humanitarian concerns, and stunning storytelling.

Angela Rodel—who, almost single-handedly has brought Bulgarian literature to English readers—translated this and will definitely be a guest this season. Along with Georgi himself, who is currently in New York City as a Cullman Center fellow.

And . . . some surprises. Actually, I have a few new wrinkles in mind that may well make this the greatest Two Month Review season ever. Stay tuned for details.

How can you do that? By following Open Letter, me, and Brian Wood on Twitter. Or by joining the Goodreads Group.

And here’s the official schedule of what will be covered in each of the episodes:

February 15: Introduction to Gospodinov
February 22: Epigraphy, Prologue, Part I (1-58)
March 1: Part II (59-72)
March 8: Part III (73-118)
March 15: Part IV (119-150)
March 22: Part V (151-178)
March 29: Part VI (179-200)
April 5: Part VII (201-236)
April 12: Part VIII (237-283)

Order your book now! We’ll rush these out so that you have plenty of time to read the first 58 pages before the 22nd . . .

1 February 18 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Talia Franks on I remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio, published by Ugly Duckling Presse.

Talia is an M.A. Comparative Humanities student at Brandeis. She can also be found at her blog, Words-for-Sense.

Here’s the beginning of her review:

I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio (trans. From the Spanish by Jeannine Marie Pitas) is a bilingual poetry volume in four parts, consisting of the poems “The History of Violets,” “Magnolia,” “The War of the Orchards,” and “The Native Garden is in Flames.” Each of these prose poems is divided into numbered sections, and given its own page. While each poem has its own story and flavor, they all revolve around the relationship that gardens have with family, desire, memory, and war. Complex and possibly triggering themes exist in the text regarding love, family, and isolation. Visceral descriptions of violence, including murder, cannibalism, abuse, rape, and molestation are also prevalent.

Both the original Spanish and the accompanying English translation are beautifully written, and although the themes within the text are at times highly disturbing, they are written in an enchanting style that pulls the reader into the fantastic world that di Giorgio created. Pitas’s translation brings the pain and beauty of the original into the English quite masterfully, and I spent many hours poring over both versions of the poems presented within the book.


For the rest of the review, go here.

1 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from Mark Haber of Brazos Bookstore, an upstanding young citizen whose novel will be published by Coffee House next year.



The Kites by Romain Gary, translated from the French by Miranda Richmond Mouillot (New Directions)

Romain Gary’s final book (and my first experience reading him) is a story about a young French boy falling in irredeemable love with a Polish girl at the onset of World War II. On its surface it seems like a traditional, exhausted trope: young love, lost innocence and the tribulations of war. I can tell you The Kites is anything but. To begin with, the writing (and stunning translation by Miranda Richmond Mouillot) bursts with energy and lovely turns of phrase. The novel, published in 1980 and in English for the first time, feels highly contemporary. The language certainly, but the humor and irony of the book, even the tone, feels highly now. Toward the beginning I found myself laughing at the descriptions as well as the richly developed minor characters, knowing full well war was on the horizon and things would darken. Things indeed darken, but not at the expense of the book, which doesn’t spare the reader the terrible effects of losing friends and family and even one’s own country, but tells a fabulous story in the most fabulous way. I would recommend The Kites to just about any type of reader, it’s that good. The Kites is also a reminder of what great fiction can do even in genres that feel well-trodden.

29 January 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

On some old episode of NPR’s All Songs Considered, Robin Hilton and Bob Boilen talked about their unique irresistible song elements. Those bits in songs that aren’t the main hook, or even an integral part of the song itself, but, when they appear, automatically make you like a particular song. Like, for me, if there’s clapping hands and screaming in unison, I’m totally in. (See, for example, the ending part of Jeff Rosenstock’s USA. The “Et Tu, USA, Et tu, et tu, USA” bit.)

Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, is a well-informed guide to explaining how our brains process music, anticipating patterns, giving you a chemical rush when you’re right about the next note or phrase, how these patterns replicate and slowly adapt while also crafting and dictating your taste in music.

There’s nothing quite that parallel when it comes to talking about fiction and what tickles your pleasure centers, but there are definitely plot patterns, certain stylistic elements that individuals—and larger groups of readers taken in aggregate—respond to more positively than others. The straightforward, personal-essay nature of “Cat Person,” for instance. But for every style that can be taught, repeated, refined, and praised, there are a bunch of literary elements that do the opposite and totally derail a book.

I don’t think I could possibly create a complete taxonomy of the literary beats that get me excited or turn me off, although I’m sure I could come up with a half-dozen various bits that run throughout the books that I consider to be my favorite. But that’s not very fun! Instead, let’s focus on the negatives. There are two things that—for years—have particularly bugged me about certain narratives: The Ballroom Dancing Problem and the Too Many Coincidences Problem. Both of which are found in Paolo Maurensig’s Theory of Shadows, released earlier this month by FSG and translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel.



Theory of Shadows by Paolo Maurensig, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel (FSG)

Before totally crapping on this book, which I’m mostly going to do, although I fully admit the crap I am about to dump is as much about my personal reading habits and likes/dislikes as anything else, I want to say that Anne Milano Appel is a legend and nothing I’m about to write should reflect on the quality of her translation. A quick search of the Translation Database brings up fifteen (fifteen!) translations by Anne to come out in the past decade. That’s an incredible rate, especially when you figure in The Art of Joy (which is something around 7,000 pages long) and three books by Claudio Magris (which are stylistically challenging and long).

In terms of Theory of Shadows, I think the translation is good. It all fit together, the tone and register were consistent, and the use of including some untranslated phrases from Portuguese was a bold and largely successful choice. Translation, good; plot of the book? Not so much.

The Ballroom Dancing Problem. There are a bunch of different names I could choose to try and describe this very particular plotting issue that drives me insane. The Everyone’s a Photographer Issue. The Who Doesn’t Love Journalism? Conundrum. Or, more to the point, We All Know Everything About the History of Chess, Right?

Without even naming a single example, I’m sure that you already have a decent idea of what I’m referring to. Think back to the movies of the 1980s. Movies in which the main protagonist is really into a particular hobby that, in real life, is enjoyed by a pretty limited audience. Ballroom dancing, for example. Not to say that there’s anything wrong with ballroom dancing, but out of the thirty people in the restaurant where I’m writing this, I’ll bet fewer than three have any lasting interest in ballroom dancing. Which is a problem if you’re trying to build a plot around a ballroom dancing competition. What would your character even talk to people about? The only thing that matters is winning the General Pickins Trophy given out every other year to the best ballroom dancing team in this microscopic small town in central Ohio.

So what ends up happening—almost every time—is that the book or movie ends up positing a world in which every damn character is as obsessed with ballroom dancing as the protagonist. No matter who the female lead encounters—the local librarian who is also the unofficial keeper of the town’s history, a fast-food clerk, a drunk on the street, a random high-school student—they all know all about her ballroom dancing ambitions and how hard it’s going to be to overthrow Tiffy and Mark, the arrogant couple who totally crush on the dance floor. (And probably bully ugly kids and are wealthy Young Republicans who think Reagan is “totally rad!” but really just care about winning that General Pickins Trophy because, secretly, almost unwittingly, they know that this is the high point of their lives and that trophy would just be so beautiful on Tiffy’s dresser.)

No one cares about ballroom dancing! Or not enough people for this sort of movie to even sniff believability. If you’re a writer and you’re working on something like this—just quit. Your plot is thin, your book forgettable.

And yet, that’s what happens throughout Theory of Shadows. Granted, it is about real-life, world-champion chess player, Alexander Alekhine, which was what initially drew me to pick this up. Based on Nabokov’s The Defense, I assume that all books about chess are intelligent puzzles filled with intrigue and characters living on the edge of sanity because chess.

That is sort of what we get here. Just to give you a brief synopsis: Theory of Shadows is about the shadowy circumstances surrounding Alekhine’s death. It focuses on the last little bit of his life, when he was living in Estoril, Portugal, preparing for a championship match against Mikhail Botvinnik. A Russian exile, Alekhine collaborated with the Nazis to protect his wife at the time and played as a German representative. He always claimed that his life choices were “all about the chess!” but others weren’t so keen on that, especially given that Alekhine wrote about chess for a German publication and included a bunch of anti-semitic shit. (Or the Nazis added it.) People weren’t so happy with this general situation, so there’s been speculation that Russia wanted to reclaim the World Title (god I wish chess had massive belts for their champions like WWE or boxing) from this dissident collaborationist.

This narrative exists within a frame-tale of the author going to Portugal to write a novel about Alekhine and finally figure out what really happened when Alekhine died. Was it a heart attack? Did he choke on meat? Was he murdered?

All this sounds intriguing enough, right? A shadowy conspiracy in which world politics are played out through the chess world. Unfortunately, and going back to my original critique, the book’s plotting is so tedious and is basically one recap of Alekhine’s Wikipedia page after another.

I could pull out some quotes, but this post is already long and I have about fifteen more things I want to stuff in here, so instead, let me just run down a series of plot points that land this book 100% within the realm of Ballroom Dancing movies that I dislike:

1) Alekhine walks into a bar in Portugal, trying to scam a drink. There’s a chess table set up. He goes over, a mysterious guy wants to play him, and, as it turns out, this guy is responsible for arranging his next big world-championship match and sets Alekhine up with some cash and a hotel room. (This is such weak plotting and could be part of my coincidence complaint below.)

2) At the hotel, Alekhine meets multiple people. Every single one, without exception, knows who he is immediately, and constantly recites back to him his entire chess career. This is insane.

3) Early in the book, a random Portuguese reporter—who happens to be really well-versed in the history of chess and Alekhine’s career—interviews him for a women’s magazine, which is really just a way for Maurensig to dump all the information possible about Alekhine’s personal life. And it still basically all relates to chess.

4) Not exactly a different example, but just read this bit of the interview:

“Oh yes, I remember clearly one day when, together with Chess, I managed to cross the Polish border without a passport.” [. . .]

“And who was Chess?”

“He was my beloved Siamese cat. I always took him with me, even to the tournaments. The regulations did not prohibit it, maybe because no one had ever thought it possible that a chess player might bring along his cat. But Chess was a quiet little creature; he strolled among the tables and didn’t bother anyone. When he sensed that I was in trouble, he would leap on my knees and encourage me by purring.”


EYE ROLL.

5) Once Alekhine’s love life has been dropped on the reader, we get Correira, a rich guest at the hotel who recites—again, like a Wikipedia article come to life—Alekhine’s dicey history with the Germans. Because obviously Correira is a huge chess fanatic and knows all the ins-and-outs of Alekhine’s career. Especially about the anti-semitic articles he wrote. This section could be a lot worse than it is, but still, it’s clear that Maurensig needs to convey this bit of information to his readers, so he uses this chess-lover married to a Jewish woman to throw that information out there long paragraph after long paragraph.

These may not seem as egregious as they could, but let me assure you that that’s because I’m kind of holding back. Every character in this book exists in relation to chess and chess history. And because they can’t talk about anything other than that, they’re less than one-dimensional. There just aren’t that many people in the world—even in 1946, or especially in 1946 when there were some rather serious ramifications of the recent World War occupying most everyone’s thoughts—who know that much about chess and who only ever want to talk about chess. Chess is great, but it’s only life-consuming for chess champions—not for the random people they encounter.

Too Many Coincidences. It’s hard to think of a work of fiction that doesn’t have some sort of coincidence driving its primary plot. Something unplanned has to happen to the main character to set everything into motion. I accept that. But there are essential coincidences and deus ex machina sorts of coincidences that are just ridiculous. Purge by Sofi Oksanen is a great example of a book that runs on the most improbable coincidences. Most people are willing to just overlook these—“fiction is where you suspend your disbelief, asshole!”—but when it gets to be too much . . .

Not only does the primary plot of Theory of Shadows function thanks to a string of random coincidences that are improbable to the point of crazy-making, but the frame story . . . oh man, the frame story.

As already mentioned, this opens with “the author” in Estoril, Portugal, in 2012, super disappointed that he was unable to solve the mystery of Alekhine’s death.

But wait! Before we get to the random shit that closes this book, here’s the opening of the second paragraph of this most-singular novel:

It all started with my inveterate passion for chess. I have never played in a qualifying tournament, or achieved standing in the official ranking; indeed, I consider myself an enthusiastic amateur.


GOD DAMN IT. Stop with all the chess! The only thing I think this book is succeeding at is making me hate chess. I read it looking for some sort of politically-driven espionage novel of murder and secrecy, and instead I got chess chess chess chess. And never the actual game! References to it. Talk about it, but nothing specific enough to convince me that Maurensig knows anything at all about the actual game of chess. This is a book about talking about the chess. It’s the worst sort of sports novel, in which none of the characters are fleshed out—not even to the point that you can believe in them as players of the sport/game in question.

I want to move on, so forget about my second point. Basically, at the end of the novel, once Alekhine is dead, once we’ve learned all of his life in the most shoehorned of manners, once all of that, which, who cares, whatever, it’s done, the author reappears, still bummed out, and randomly meets someone who randomly fills in all the necessary details. I’m not kidding about this next quote—these are legitimate bits of this novel:

I was about to leave Portugal at this point, though my search had not produced the desired result. Without a satisfactory conclusion, my novel was doomed to be rewritten from the ground up, or might even end up in the trash. But fortune came to my aid: [. . .] I was approached by a woman who said she was an employee at the Hotel do Parque.


Wait. WAIT. “Approached by a woman” while on a walk along the coast? This is the most transparent deus ex machina moment I’ve ever encountered.

“My name is Violeta da Silva,” she began without preamble. “I heard from a friend who works at a hotel where you are staying that you are interested in talking to someone who knew Dr. Alexandre Alekhine personally.”


NO ONE DOES THIS.

My eyes widened.


Who cares. We’re done here. You all know what happens next: Her father fills in the details and this is a garbage way of moving your plot along. I’m done with this. Let’s have a minute of fun.

*


Clearly I didn’t like this book. Many other people will, and good for them! There are more than enough books out there and to each his own. What this book did do though was get me thinking about sports books.

As I was reading this, I came up with a half-assed theory about sports books (or books about sporting figures) and how their style was dictated by the sport itself. There’s not a chess book out there that isn’t a cerebral puzzle. Baseball books are about America. Upward mobility dominates basketball books. I haven’t read Stephen Florida, but it’s strong. Tennis books are long like Infinite Jest. Books about sports are reflections of those sporting qualities in the sportsmen themselves.

But to check my theory, I asked everyone on Twitter to give me the name of their favorite sports-related book. And man, they totally did! Few surprises, a lot of books that I’ve read, too small a sample to make any definitive statements about. (Probably because I’m blocked/muted by all but like seven people on Twitter.)

Despite all these wonderful suggestions, I just want to point out the greatest sports book of all time: Toss by former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, Boomer Esiason.



Look at that cover! It’s a football because Boomer (definitely his real name) played football! So he wrote about football! Ok, ok. “Wrote.” “About football.”

New York Stars, the rookie quarterback figures the world is his oyster. Reality sets in after meeting his football “family“—the all-too benevolent owner, Papa Goldman; his daughter, the Stars’ Director of Communications, Dominique, who has a certain fondness for quarterbacks; a frustrated head coach; a team full of malcontents and racial tensions; and a very shady Director of Player Personnel.

But all of his concerns become secondary when an ex-Stars quarterback is murdered, and Brody finds himself hustling just to stay alive, while confronting the scars of his own past. With a little luck, smarts, and help from a beautiful aspiring actress, this is one time he can’t drop the ball. Someone seems intent on sabotaging the Stars, and perhaps the future of the entire football league is at stake.


Fuck. And. Yes.

But really, what’s up with that opening sentence? “New York Stars, the rookie quarterback figures the world is his oyster.” I might be a moron, but I don’t think that makes sense? Who cares! SPORTS.

How much do you want to bet that every single person in this book is in love with football and marks time by football match games and victories and Super Bowls and player careers? Any one of you reading this would hate the people in that book—and that book itself—and yet a certain percentage would totally forgive the allegedly horrible plot (I’m never reading this crap, although I sold it at Schuler Books & Music and man, it’s still out there, on the B&N.com) if it was about chess. (Final nail. Sorry, Theory of Shadows, but I did not like you.)

Although, to be fair, Big Booming Boomer has a strong competitor in Derek Jeter. This is a goldmine of jacket copy jokes:



An average kid with an above average talent for predicting baseball pitches tries to help his favorite player out of a slump in this entertaining novel from bestselling authors Tim Green and Derek Jeter.

Jalen DeLuca loves baseball. Unfortunately his dad can’t afford to keep him on the travel team. His dad runs a diner and makes enough to cover the bills, but there isn’t enough to cover any extras. So Jalen decides to take matters into his own hands and he sneaks into the home of the New York Yankee’s star second baseman, James Yager, and steals a couple of balls from his personal batting cage. He knows that if he can sell them, he’ll be able to keep himself on the team.

But like the best-laid plans—or in this case the worst!—Jalen’s scheme goes wrong when Yager catches him. But Jalen has a secret: his baseball genius. He can analyze and predict almost exactly what a pitcher is going to do with his next pitch. He can’t quite explain how he knows, he just knows. And after proving to Yager that he really can do this, using a televised game and predicting pitch after pitch with perfect accuracy, the two agree to a deal. Jalen will help Yager out of his batting slump and Yager won’t press charges.

However, when he begins to suspect that the team’s general manager has his own agenda, Jalen’s going to need his friends and his unusual baseball talent to save not only Yager’s career, but his own good name.

Man, Simon & Schuster is into some shit! “Like the best-laid plans—or in this case the worst!” should be on the back of every damn book. Forget Jeter. He’s just Baseball Tom Brady.

Sports!

26 January 18 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Brendan Riley on Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona, published by Anagrama.

Brendan Riley is a translator from the Spanish, and also is a regular contributor of reports/reviews on Spanish-language titles for New Spanish Books. The following review is another one of those “not yet in English but should be!” book reviews—which are just as valuable as the reviews highlighting those books about to hit the shelves of your favorite better bookstores.

Here’s the beginning of the review:

Anna Ballbona’s recent, highly praised, debut novel Joyce y las gallinas follows the misad-ventures of Dora, a young, disillusioned Catalan journalist who commutes to Barcelona by day from the rather hermetic and lifeless suburbs around the small industrial city of Granollers. Do-ra’s uninspiring assignments, anodyne reporting on inconsequential city hall press conferences and––for the fourth consecutive year––Epiphany parades for children, leave her hungry for more vital literary and artistic experiences. A weekend holiday to Ireland and an unexpected invitation to a Finnegans Wake reading introduce her to Murphy, a Dubliner whose two passions in life are studying James Joyce and raising chickens—not for eggs or meat, but as pets––hence the novel’s title Joyce y las gallinas [Joyce and the Hens]. Sensing in Murphy’s obsession some-thing stranger and more authentic than her workaday life of commuting, reporting on non-news, and playing half-heartedly at the singles game, Dora finds a catalyst (or is it a siren song?) in the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Under the conceptual spells of mimesis, rep-lication, and transgression, determined to make her own original statement, Dora’s double dose of aesthetic override drives her to adopt an alter ego (Banx) and pursue a new, double life of ar-tistic vandalism—or is it “Banxism”?


For the rest of the review, go here.

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