14 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This semester, in my World Literature & Translation class, we’re reading twelve translations from 2017-18 and talking with almost all the translators, including Allison M. Charette, who is responsible for the publication in English of Naivo’s Beyond the Rice Fields. Over the past few weeks, we conducted this conversation through email about the book, and I thought it would be of interest to some of our readers. In terms of Allison’s background, she’s a University of Rochester MALTS graduate, founder of the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America, ALTA board member, translator from the French, and devotee of bringing Malagasy literature to American readers.

Beyond the Rice Fields by Naivo, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette (Restless Books)

Chad W. Post: As is stated in the jacket copy, Beyond the Rice Fields is the “first novel from Madagascar to every be translated into English.” I know that you started investigating Malagasy literature when you realized that nothing had been translated from there, but why did you/Restless decide on Naivo’s book specifically to be the first one translated?

Allison M. Charette: The English-speaking world got well into the twenty-first century without being able to read any novels from Madagascar, so whichever one got translated first would have to serve many purposes. First and foremost, it had to be an excellent book, great literature, of course. But it would also be most Anglophones’ first exposure to real Malagasy culture (sorry, no, the Dreamworks movie doesn’t count), so it would also necessarily serve as a primer to the Malagasy people. And Beyond the Rice Fields did one better by serving as a history lesson, too. Naivo’s book was also an excellent choice to translate because the original French novel is already very translation-like. Naivo had several audiences in mind when writing Beyond the Rice Fields, including a French readership from France, so a lot of the work of balancing the original unfamiliar culture of a book and making it accessible for an American/British/etc. audience (i.e. domestication) had already been done. We made some different choices for the English translation, including taking all the original French footnotes and putting them in a glossary at the end, but there were a lot of general translation decisions that I made by just asking Naivo what his thought process had been while writing.

Now, Beyond the Rice Fields wasn’t the only novel from Madagascar I was (or am) trying to get published in English, but on a practical level, it was helped along by several things: mainly, I received a PEN/Heim grant for it in 2015. That really kick-started the whole publishing process, and it’s how Restless found the book. It also helped that Naivo lives on this continent and speaks English very well, so he’s been very active in not only the translation process, but doing publicity for the English book, as well.

CWP: One of the things that struck me about the book is how, despite all the cultural differences in the book, that the plot and story are very recognizable. (Although the ending—NO SPOILERS—might set this apart from your average American novel.) I assume that Malagasy literature grew up alongside French literature, but are there particular authors or trends that sort of laid the basis for Malagasy writing? Or, in other words, what is the history of the country’s literature? (In brief, obviously.)

AMC: Briefly, yes: Malagasy literature was mostly oral until the colonization period, when Malagasies were exposed to French literature. Several writers at the turn of the twentieth century adopted the structures of French romantic, modernist, and surrealist poetry—Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is the greatest example of this. The Malagasy novel was born mid-century, again following the structures of French novels. Much of this writing is an attempt to make Malagasy ideas fit into and subvert French/Western structures at the same time, with subversion increasing as time goes on. Obviously, this is a very simplistic overview, and is directly the result of colonialism: students get educated in a French system, get taught that there’s a “proper” way to write, so they’ll write like that; add in the desire to get read by a wider audience and validated by other great (Western) authors, and this is what you get. However, there have been many authors who are really talented at writing a very Malagasy-feeling story in the French language and using Western novel structures, especially starting in the renaissance period of the 70s-80s. Naivo is one of them; he follows in the footsteps of authors like Michèle Rakotoson and Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato.

(Funny story about the ending of Beyond the Rice Fields: it’s such a trip that I actually forgot about one of the major players’ deaths when I was first pitching this book. I chalk it up to having read 30+ novels all in a row and trying to keep their plots straight, but . . . I did have to email one editor who had specifically asked about the ending to say “Whoops! Sorry, no, it’s the opposite of the way I told you. That changes things, doesn’t it?!?”)

CWP: That’s a great story! And I can totally envision certain editors or presses wishing they could just tweak the ending a bit . . . One specific choice that I was wondering about: Did the setting of the book (early 1800s) impact how you translated the dialogue? Was the idea that certain words “couldn’t” be used, or that characters should “sound” like they’re of the time even a concern for you?

AMC: Well, of course it did, but not very strictly. I never drew up any draconian rules for what characters could or couldn’t say, and sometimes the humanness and personality of the characters took priority over making them sound perfectly Victorian. Making this novel sound really contemporary would be doing it a disservice as historical fiction, but there were times, like when Fara becomes a teenager and is trying to figure out love and sex and all that, when I slipped in a few more modern-sounding turns of phrase.

The more interesting consideration with the dialogue was making the Malagasy characters sound Malagasy, even though you’re reading a book in English. Naivo used a lot of calques in the characters’ speech: direct translations of common Malagasy phrases, especially the oft-repeated proverbs, into French, which I then would take directly into English. They definitely sound weird, but they add so much richness and authenticity. One of my favorites is a really strong curse in Malagasy: “By my father’s incest!”

CWP: How familiar did you feel like you had to become with the customs of Madagascar before translating this book, or did you just let the text guide you? I personally didn’t realize there was a glossary in the back until I was about halfway through it, so there were a few things that confused me (like the role of Ranaka in society), but most everything was made clear by the context.

AMC: It’s rather relieving to hear you say that most things became clear through context, because there was a lot of research and conversations I had to get through before finishing the translation. In fact, the reason I originally went to Madagascar in 2014 was to learn what I could about Malagasy culture and customs, because I couldn’t get through a short story translation without feeling horribly lost. Naivo’s a good writer; between his writing and the glossary, I could easily have just let the text guide me, but there were a fair amount of things in my early drafts that almost bordered on fetishization—without a full understanding of the customs, if I was translating what I saw on the page, the English text became something between an oversimplification and a parody of the customs being described. The more Naivo explained to me, the better I understood the customs, the more I was able to depict them with the proper elegance and distinction, instead of playing into the rather awful trope of assuming that any culture different from ours is “primitive” or “backward.”

CWP: Beyond the more direct explanation of customs (like the dancing competition), there’s the much larger historical context, and Madagascar’s place in the world in relation to foreign countries and allowing foreigners (and their ideas) into the country. As a result, the book sort of balances a number of different goals—a fairly epic love story, an investigation of the impact of progress on Madagascar, and a retelling of a horrible massacre—in a way that’s supposed to be both satisfying to Malagasy readers, while also looking outward towards readers in France and the rest of the world. How do you feel that Naivo accomplishes this in the book itself, and did these various goals ever impact your decisions as a translator?

AMC: It is a lot to accomplish (which is probably why the book is so long!). Naivo is very good at balancing the personal and the politics, mostly by showing how the big historical decisions affected the lives of specific individuals. Tsito occasionally gets somewhat close to some of the major players of the era (Queen Ranavalona, Prince Rakoto, Laborde), but most of the time it’s just proclamations being handed down, witch hunts being encouraged and carried out (literally), even slave traders complaining about higher regulation. It’s the historical told through the personal. The dual narration also helps—because of the fact that it’s from two characters who (spoiler alert) fall in love with each other, their narration keeps refocusing on each other every time the politics start encroaching. And while yes, Tsito does get swept up in the larger political discussion and starts to learn how the French and British are affecting the Malagasy leadership, Fara has zero idea about all of that, just living a simple life in a village for the most part. Their different perspectives help keep things balanced.

The attempt to please both Malagasy readers and the rest of the world happens on a smaller scale in the writing, with Malagasy words being dressed in a Western context. What if a Western reader sees an unfamiliar phrasing, like the oft repeated “All this occurred in the nth year of the Sovereign King’s reign”? Well, it always occurs within a familiar structure, closing out a chapter or major section. And all these proverbs about transplanted rice and setting suns? Sure, they’re unusual, but they’re all talking about love and power and other fairly universal concepts.

My perspective is necessarily that of the rest of the world, and I can only speak to how satisfying the book is for Malagasy readers based on what they tell me. I’m an outsider. Fortunately, any English translation of this book is also primarily for outsiders, so I was generally able to just do the translation from my perspective. There’s always something familiar for an American/other Western reader to grab on to, so I just had to make sure not to erase or smooth over the elements that I found very jarringly unfamiliar—they exist for a different audience. And there are plenty of Malagasies in the States who were going to read the English translation, so even if I can’t know what their perspective is, I couldn’t just breeze over the elements of the book that are for them. Besides, those unfamiliar things can teach us Americans a thing or two.

13 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Alex Shepard from The New Republic joins Chad and Tom to discuss the state of book journalism, the new National Book Award for Translation, Chad’s annoying whining about BookMarks, Winter Institute, and more. It’s a fun episode that goes deep into some contemporary book publishing issues—and the disparity between the haves and have nots—while remaining entertaining and a bit unhinged.

This week’s music is The Best Trick in Modern Science by Unlikely Friends. Yes, this is the second week in a row that we’re featuring this album. It’s great!

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9 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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

Although five books is most definitely a small sample size of throwaway proportions, out of the books that I’ve written about for this weekly “column,” Empty Set by Verónica Gerber Bicecci and translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney is my favorite. I don’t know where it will stack up by the end of the year—there are a number of titles coming out this summer that I’m looking forward to, and as a gesture toward impartiality, I’ll should really leave Fox, The Bottom of the Sky, The Endless Summer, and other Open Letter titles out of these evaluations—but for now I’d put it ahead of The Perfect Nanny, In Black and White, Frankenstein in Baghdad, and Theory of Shadows. (And that is how I would rank them, one to five.)

As you can probably predict, I’m not going to write a full, well thought out review for this book. If that’s what you want, I’d highly recommend checking out Lisa Fetchko’s review over at the _Los Angeles Review of Books. She breaks the book down really well, and even gets into a particular translation issue about the use of _ in place of _Yo(Y), which is also discussed in an afterword that will be of particular interest to translators or those interested in the translation—or editing of translations—process.

I’m going to use this book as an opportunity to write about something entirely different, but before I do that, I have two or three quick points.

1) I like the use of the charts in this book. I’ll come back to this in a few different ways down below, but drawings such as this one—which is preceded by, “Here’s where this story ends,” a statement that means more once you have reached the end—is what makes this book unique.

And obviously, all the Venn Diagram charts are why I initially chose to read this book. Who doesn’t like a Venn Diagram?! This is one statement about math and statistics that everyone can agree on.

2) In a way, this is The Perfect Nanny for an entirely different set of readers. Written to be a blockbuster, The Perfect Nanny includes a lot of techniques and tropes and literary moments designed to make a certain set of readers feel comfortably stimulated. The set of readers (R-1) who prefer linear plots, heavy character development, detailed settings, psychological tension.

Empty Set generates an equal amount of reading comfort in a different set of readers (R-2) who feel more at ease in a text of evocative fragments, acrostics, plots like puzzles, and characters whom you don’t feel obligated to relate to.

For both R-1 and R-2 these books are equally successful in their approaches. And R-1 probably doesn’t care for Empty Set (“too confusing!” “I couldn’t relate to anyone!”), and vice-versa (“I’d rather see the movie”).

You could, I don’t know, draw a Venn Diagram of these two subsets of readers . . .

3) Not to take anything away from this novel, but wow have January and February been slow months for international literature. There doesn’t seem to have been anything buzzing on Book Twitter or Book Marks or in the blogosphere (doesn’t anyone say that anymore?) or at Winter Institute. I’ve written about the drop in translations both of the past two months, but that was just focused on pure numbers, not quality or sales or impact or anything else. But looking back at what I have read, and forward to what’s on my docket, it feels like pretty quiet year so far.

Although I’m personally hoping this New York Times review of Madame Nielsen’s The Endless Summer changes that, this still feels a lot like the current situation in Major League Baseball—the slowest in all of history—in which no free agents are being signed and nothing at all is happening. There are so many interesting explanations for this situation in which several of the game’s best players are currently unemployed: it could be collusion, it could be that clubs have more advanced understanding of the value available in the free agent market, it could be due to the fact that 1/3 of the teams are tanking in 2018 and another 1/2 aren’t really in a position to do anything but tread water, it could be because of the new collective bargaining agreement and traditional big spenders (LA Dodgers, NY Yankees) trying to reset their competitive balance assessments by getting under the spending threshold for one year, or it could have something to do with yachts. God bless Scott Boras!1

Anyway, this combination of thinking about baseball (how to best build a team, player valuations, etc.) + reading a novel centered around set theory2 + a stray comment I made in an earlier post —> an idea to try and create some core concepts for a sabermetric approach to the book industry.



This is an obvious building block. People usually value books based on how many copies they sold. “We sold 10,000 copies!” Or, “It was a best-seller in Mexico!”

(Not to be confused with “Print Run(PR),” which is a number based in hope that signifies nothing more than the publisher’s wish to sneakily manipulate the bookseller market. Print Run(PR) is equivalent to Scott Boras’s bullshit stats packages for players like Eric Hosmer who are hoping to receive contracts that are far larger than the value they’ll generate for their team. Print Runs(PR) are generally lies.)

Are sales really all that useful of a statistic though?

First off, the latter statement up there—repeated way too frequently in meetings with foreign agents—is crap. It’s descriptive, not objective, and lacks any and all context. How many books did this title beat out to become a best-seller? For how long was it a best-seller? How predictive is the Mexican best-seller list for a book entering other markets? Are the coefficients mapping it onto the French and U.S. markets radically different?

Another criticism: Sales in a vacuum takes into account none of the expenses involved with generating those sales. A book with a million dollar marketing budget that sells 100,000 copies is vastly different from a book that sells 100,000 based on a viral video that cost $.49 to make.

It also doesn’t take into account the list price of the book itself. It’s obviously way easier to sell 10,000 ebooks at $.99 than 10,000 hardcovers of a scholarly investigation into the sexual life of mollusks that lists for $149.

Sales is like batting average. A nice metric the average citizen can understand, but really not all that valuable.

Actually, that’s kind of a lie. Batting Average has values that most people can recognize as “good,” (.280) “amazing,” (.320) and “hall of fame.” (.340+). What are the equivalents for books? If I tell the people sitting next to me at the bar that we sold 3,000 copies of a book, will they think that’s great? Or pathetic? Without a commonly accepted baseline—among the larger audience, not just book nerds—this doesn’t mean a whole lot.

And it doesn’t take into account the idea that a book is more than its purchases. Thought experiment: Which is better? A book that sells 10,000 copies, 2,000 of which are read, with 10 readers capable of recalling the book one year later, or a book that sells 1,500 copies, 1,000 of which are read, with 200 readers taking this to the grave? (A: If you’re Big Five it’s the former, if you’re nonprofit the latter. There is no unified theory of sales.)

     (Sales(S) x List Price(P)) x Readership® – Fixed Operating Expenses(FOE) – Printing(PR) – Author Payment(AP) – Translator Payment(TP) – Marketing Costs(MC) = True Profit(RP)

OK, so this is two steps in one: I’ve added in all the variables mentioned above (costs, list price), but then thrown in the idea of “Readership®” to try and point at the fact that overall impact of a single printed book isn’t a one-to-one ratio with copies sold. On the most basic level, there are used copies. How many students a year buy used copies of The Great Gatsby for class? Or check it out from a library? A book’s true value, or “Profit” (capitalist term, I know), is always and forever greater than the number of printed copies.

We’re still missing a few things though: What about people who know about a book, yet don’t buy it? And what about the longevity of readership? It’s one thing to read Gone Girl and then keep on living, another to read Ulysses and have your life perspective changed. That Cultural Value(CV) isn’t captured here, and I’m not sure it ever can be quantified in this way. So let’s change tactics a bit.

     ((Expected Sales(ES) x List Price (P)) – ((Publishing Interest(PI) + Agent Status(AS)) – Total Expenses(TE))) ) = Cash Profit(CP) + Cultural Capital(CC)

If we really want to create a sabermetric approach to books, we have to look for exploitable inefficiencies in the marketplace. And my first inclination is that these inefficiencies come in two flavors: leveraging reputations against author advances and finding a way to decrease artist payments.

That’s not quite right though. Let me back up a bit and math this out.

In the early 2000s, there were no translations3 and there was a major gap between the best /most expensive translators (Margaret Jull Costa, Edith Grossman, Richard Howard, Gregory Rabassa) and everyone else. Without a middle class—and without competition—certain publishers saw an exploitable inefficiency. How much can you make when you pay $1,000 as an author advance, $1,000 to a grad student translator (“Hey, yo, we’re gonna like, launch your career!”), and can get $3,000+ from foreign agencies desperate for American publishers to acknowledge that their literature even existed? In that situation, you can flip 2,500 sales into a decent amount of money. That is the dirty truth of translation publishing in the early part of this century.

Then things changed! International lit got more popular. Translators got organized. Now, the idea of going overseas to find the best books that no one knows or cares about is complicated by the two dozen new presses trying to beat you there, and the combination of ethical obligations in relation to translator payments and agent involvement in raising author advances (good in the short term, maybe, and probably not in the long term, but that’s its own metric), raised Total Expenses(TE) in an astronomical fashion. As well as altering the Agent Status(AS) (“I have the next Ferrante on my list . . . “) and the Publishing Interest(PI) (“We’re starting a new press and want in on the hot trends, so which book is the one that’s going to get us critical attention AND be most readable by the (R1) readers of The Perfect Nanny?”). Increase the second half of the equation above while not changing the overall sales, and you’re going to kill your margins.

That doesn’t mean that publishers will stop pursuing books that are unlikely to earn back expenses. Look at Penguin paying a million dollars for a Knausgaard novel. There’s basically no way that he’ll earn that back in straight sales. Same with Knopf and Javier Marías. PRH can definitely expand the audiences for these authors, but there’s a ceiling. Even knowing that, they’re willing to go ahead because there’s a value just to having these names on your list. Reputation, cultural capital, whatever you want to call it, it’s part of this equation as well.

     Expected Sales(ES) = Author Fans(AF) x Purchasing Coefficient(PC)

If someone were able to come up with an algorithm that was even 90% accurate in predicting sales, they would be in a position to basically print money. Long time readers—or anyone involved in the book word—know that publishers don’t really do any market research. Unlike movies, there is no pre-release tracking figures for blockbuster titles. Sure, you can “have a pretty good sense” about how well a book is or isn’t going to sell, but outside of Harry Potter, James Patterson, and a handful of other brands, the error bars on predicted sales are really wide.

Past performance by the author and publisher are major indicators of how a particular title will sell, so maybe this is something that could be calculated . . . Throw in a few sensible metrics about the author—Twitter Followers(TF), Reviewing Connections(RC), etc.—along with some sort of figures about the publisher—Sales Reps(REP), Average Reach(REA), Influencer Access(IA), etc.—and maybe you can come up with some sort of prediction.

     (Pace of Reading(PAC) x Length(LEN)) x (Character Connections(CC) x Plot Points(PP)) x Buzz(BUZZ) = Reading Desirability(DES)

Amazon’s metrics about how fast people read various books, where they tend to stop, which titles are most/least likely to be read in their entirety, etc., totally freak literary people out. There are a ton of Silicon Valley people who would love to create a program that would use some complex algorithm to churn out best-selling book after best-selling book without any author’s involvement whatsoever. They would flood the market with exactly what most people want, all more or less for free, and utilizing some sort of textual analysis that combines all the typical plot elements of popular books (hero’s quest, typical plot structure of rising action, climax, denouement) with other quantifiable elements (language level, sentence and chapter length, number of chapters) that have been found to keep readers engaged and flipping pages.

Take all that, mix in some BUZZ (readers want to feel like they have to read a book so as to not be left out) and you can figure out how likely a book is to appeal to a wide audience.

     Turnover(TO) x Cash Profit(CP) x Hipster Quotient(HQ) = Indie Stock(IND)

Bookstores actually have the ability to come up with a ton of different measurements, depending on what they want to track or evaluate. Sales per linear foot in given sections. How fast different subjects turn over. Average amount spent by a customer. Frequency of returning customers. There’s tons of data sitting right there that could be analyzed in a totally straightforward fashion.

But indie stores aren’t necessarily about efficiency in the way Barnes & Noble or Amazon would like to be. Part of their reason for being is tied to having the books that you don’t always find at the big box stores, at pushing a sort of aesthetic agenda that sets them apart. If, as a store owner, you could always know which books will both increase your coolness factor with your clientele and sell with the necessary velocity to keep you paying your rent, you’d be in the best spot possible. This might seem intuitive, but I think it can be a bit more complicated depending on how you value your reputation. For example, you may not want to carry Fifty Shades of Gray because you have standards, but that means you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. And carrying too many different titles that sell one time a year, yet make you seem like the smartest bookstore around, is a recipe for closure. Figuring out that balance—and which books maximize Cash Profit(CP) and Reputation(REP)—would be ideal.


There are tons and tons of different types of equations one could come up with in hopes of finding exploitable inefficiencies. And that could be kind of fun! But so is ignoring data completely and publishing/reading/stocking a book just because it feels right.

Besides, a lot of this calculus is already done on a daily basis by most everyone. Even though it’s not quantified in a sortable, sharable way, people are constantly making these sorts of decisions. They may not think about them quite as honestly as they should though, and maybe something like a set of publishing sabermetric ideas could help publishers and stores be all that they could be. It’s fun to come up with various calculations, mostly because it makes you think about what you’re actually trying to measure, and why the measurements you might already have fall short. It can help define your mission, and by working in various intangible benefits, you can better justify various investments or decisions.

- – - – - – - – - – - – -

1 For anyone not willing to click through (and good on you!), here’s the amazing quote from super-agent Scott Boras:

The off-season is like the America’s Cup. We have 30 boats in the water. They take off and eventually they get to the free-agent docks. Normally, there are trade winds, and there are economic investments in the capacity of the boat, which allow those boats to get to the appropriate free-agent docks.

This year, there was a detour to Japan, where there was a $250 million asset available for $3 million (Ohtani). All boats went to Japan. Then they sailed back a good distance. They came to Florida and found a sinking ship and all of its cargo was in the water (Dee Gordon, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich). All teams tried to load it on their boats.

That took additional time. Then, as they moved forward to the free-agent docks, they found other ships dumping cargo—Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay and a few others—which then slowed their arrivals to the free-agent docks. So, trade winds, Japan, shipwreck in Florida, more cargo-spewing, all those things artificially delayed the arrivals to the free-agent docks.

Sorry, I have no idea—but I love it! More literary agents need to go off the rails when making random comments about the books they’re trying to auction. That would liven up book journalism!

2 Representative bit from Bicecci and MacSweeney’s Empty Set:

There isn’t much documented evidence of this, but during the military dictatorship in Argentina, teaching basic set theory was prohibited in schools. We know, for example, that a tomato belongs to the tomato(TO) set and not to onion(ON) or chilies(CH) or coriander(CO). Where’s the threat in reasoning like that? In set theory, tomatoes, onions, and chilies might realize they are different foodstuffs, but also that they have things in common, like the fact that they can all belong to the fresh hot salsa(FHS) set and, at the same time, to the Universe(U) of cultivated plants(CP), and might perhaps unite against some other set or Universe(U); for example, that of canned hot salsa(CAHS). In short, a community of vegetables. Venn diagrams are tools of the logic of sets. And from the perspective of sets, dictatorship makes no sense, because its aim is, for the most part, dispersal: separation, scattering, disunity, disappearance.

3 My sabermetric principles apply to BOOKS in general, not just translations, but I want to focus on exploiting this market since it might explain what’s going on in 2018 with the weird decrease in translation publications.

Although! Let me promise the four of you reading this that next month I’ll run some three- and five-year rolling average stats to avoid comparing 2018 to the Best Year Ever. I’ve been statistically irresponsible and I know it. Sorry.

8 February 18 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s BTBA post is from Jeremy Kang, an avid reader, writer, artist, and photographer and freelance reviewer. He is interested in film, languages, culture, and history.

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal, Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson (Seagull Books)

“The Ballad of Denmark Square”

A car crashes into another car and two lovers die,
everything you want to die, is there on Denmark Square.

There is a grave site on the slope above Fjosanger Street.
There is a petrol station on Michael Krohns Road.

There is an empty apartment on Ibsens Road. Here lived a
Charlotte once.

On Denmark Square. Without Denmark. Without Charlotte, without Josefine,
without Olga, without Stine, without Suzanne, without
Pia, without Mette, without Amalie, without Maja, without Janne;
what do you actually do here on these streets without names?

Without the city. Just a place where cars meet as the cars
speed by. Just streets, no city. No forest.

No trees, No field or marsh. No animals. No
river. Just this endless stream of traffic that

flows that trickles that rumbles that meanders past.
That flows in –fast-flowing streams past the nothing square.

Tomas Espedal has created such a unique genre in Norwegian literature. Part of his work is all about confessions from his inner self and the daily occurrences in his life. The other part is about the poetic nature of each phrase. He tries to find his own truth through looking at himself. Nothing is definable in his writing.

In Bergeners (an allusion to James Joyce and his Dubliners) Tomas Espedal takes the reader to New York, where he is with his girlfriend. He travels to different major European cities as if he is on a journey. In a book that seems dedicated to place, Espedal often shows how difficult it is for him to be settled hence why he is constantly traveling.

He also meets with Dag Solstad in Madrid and gets advice on how to really look and see Goya’s black paintings. I am dying to go to Madrid now and look at them this way.

We must describe the city we live in, the times we live in, our discussions, our politics, our loneliness. We mustn’t lose ourselves in a made-up, hypothetical universe, a false literature, what we write must be truth, and we must describe what’s real with all we possess of earnestness and strength, I said.

The front and back cover of this book is also unique. The front photograph is from New York and it contains a half body of perhaps a writer or a student and the head is tilted a tad and to the front are some blurred windows. The back photograph is from a Berlin train station. Natural light is used. It is almost like you are observing, entering, and exiting all at the same time in different places when you look at them together.

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo, translated from the Spanish by Douglas J. Weatherford (Deep Vellum Publishing)

Juan Rulfo was born in San Gabriel, Mexico and grew up during the Cristero rebellion in western Mexico. Rulfo is best known for Pedro Paramo. It is the novel that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. In his writing, Rulfo is fascinated with death and the meaning of death to those living.

The first story presented here is “El gallo de oro” (“The Golden Cockerel”). It tells the story of Dionisio Pinzon, who is unable to work because of his mutilated arm. He calls cockfights to make money. One day someone gives Dionisio a half-dead rooster. He buries the rooster in a hole and in a few days the rooster comes around, but then his mother dies. He leaves the town accompanied by his Golden Cockerel. He travels around putting his Golden Cockerel in fights around Mexico. He soon meets a singer nicknamed La Caponera. The Golden Cockerel dies in a fight shortly after and La Caponera comforts him and the two travel around together betting their lives away. La Caponera becomes Dionisio’s good luck charm and the gambling continues. Only when Dionisio loses his luck does he realize what is going on around him and once he realizes it, he can’t bear what has happened.

I really enjoyed discovering these lesser-known works in this book. One of my favorite short stories was called “A Piece of the Night.” It is about a prostitute who gets picked up by a gravedigger who is carrying a baby (not his baby though). The two of them walk through the night talking and just enjoying their time together and falling in love. When they find a hotel, the woman refuses payment and goes to bed alone. The way Rulfo writes this story is so relaxed and the shift into sleep and memory is fascinating. There is also a letter Rulfo wrote to his wife Clara in February 1947. I highly recommend this book to anyone especially if you are interested in Latin American literature.

Thank you Deep Vellum!

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 . . .

I Remember Nightfall
I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio
Reviewed by Talia Franks

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. . .

Read More >

Joyce y las gallinas
Joyce y las gallinas by Anna Ballbona
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les. . .

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Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World
Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
Reviewed by Kaija Straumanis

Hello and greetings in the 2017 holiday season!

For those of you still looking for something to gift a friend or family member this winter season, or if you’re on the lookout for something to gift in the. . .

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The Size of the World
The Size of the World by Branko Anđić
Reviewed by Jaimie Lau

Three generations of men—a storyteller, his father and his son—encompass this book’s world. . . . it is a world of historical confusion, illusion, and hope of three generations of Belgraders.

The first and last sentences of the first. . .

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Island of Point Nemo
Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès
Reviewed by Katherine Rucker

The Island of Point Nemo is a novel tour by plane, train, automobile, blimp, horse, and submarine through a world that I can only hope is what Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s psyche looks like, giant squids and all.

What. . .

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The Truce
The Truce by Mario Benedetti
Reviewed by Adrianne Aron

Mario Benedetti (1920-2009), Uruguay’s most beloved writer, was a man who loved to bend the rules. He gave his haikus as many syllables as fit his mood, and wrote a play divided into sections instead of acts. In his country,. . .

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I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World
I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World by Kim Kyung Ju
Reviewed by Jacob Rogers

Kim Kyung Ju’s I Am a Season That Does Not Exist in the World, translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, is a wonderful absurdist poetry collection. It’s a mix of verse and prose poems, or even poems in the. . .

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Kingdom Cons
Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera
Reviewed by Sarah Booker

Yuri Herrera is overwhelming in the way that he sucks readers into his worlds, transporting them to a borderland that is at once mythical in its construction and powerfully recognizable as a reflection of its modern-day counterpart. Kingdom Cons, originally. . .

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The Invented Part
The Invented Part by Rodrigo Fresán
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Imagine reading a work that suddenly and very accurately calls out you, the reader, for not providing your full attention to the act of reading. Imagine how embarrassing it is when you, the reader, believe that you are engrossed in. . .

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A Simple Story: The Last Malambo
A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero
Reviewed by Emilee Brecht

Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo chronicles the unique ferocity of a national dance competition in Argentina. The dance, called the malambo, pushes the physical and mental limits of male competitors striving to become champions of not only. . .

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