"Translation Is Foreign to U.S. Publishers"
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From the New York Times, by MOTOKO RICH, Published: October 17, 2008
Mr. Godine — who emerged prescient and lucky this month when one of the authors he publishes in translation, the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, won the Nobel Prize in Literature — is one of a handful of American publishers who regularly seek out books to translate during the fair every year.
It is a commonly held assumption that Americans don’t like to read authors who write in languages they don’t understand. That belief persists here in Frankfurt, where publishers from 100 countries show off a smorgasbord of their best — or at least best-selling — books.
By and large, the American publishers spend most of the week in Hall 8, the enormous exhibit space where English-language publishers hold court.
Although there are exceptions among the big publishing houses, the editors from the United States are generally more likely to bid on other hyped American or British titles than to look for new literature in the international halls.
According to Chad W. Post, the director of Open Letter, a new press based at the University of Rochester that focuses exclusively on books in translation, 330 works of foreign literature — or a little more than 2 percent of the estimated total of 15,000 titles released — have been published in the United States so far this year.
That apparent dearth of literature in translation in the United States was the subject of controversial remarks by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, the organization that awards the Nobel Prize, a week before the prize did not go to an American.
“When you look at how much is paid for a mediocre midlist author” in the United States, he said, “and how much you have to pay to get a world-class author who has been translated into 18 languages, it is ridiculous that more people don’t invest in buying great literature.” Mr. Godine said he had purchased the rights to a foreign book for as little as $2,000.
Fiona McCrae, director and publisher of Graywolf Press, a nonprofit publisher based in St. Paul that has had a breakout best seller with “Out Stealing Horses,” a novel by Per Petterson of Norway, said that small publishers could not afford to buy books by the best authors in the United States but that they often could acquire works from top authors if they looked abroad.
There is also the oft-repeated American maxim that books in translation don’t sell.
Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign-rights director at Gallimard in France, said American publishers did not support translated books with marketing budgets and then complained when sales failed to dazzle.
Ms. Noble said she was amused — but also appeared irritated — when she recounted running into an American publisher who, on the first night of the fair, described Mr. Le Clézio as “an unknown writer.”
“American publishers are depriving the American readership of the cultural diversity through translation to which they are entitled,” Ms. Noble said. “It is what I call the poverty of the rich.”
Ms. Noble said she was not commenting on the quality of American writers, many of whom — Philip Roth and Claire Messud among them — are published by Gallimard in French and whose photos were prominently displayed in the booth.
For his part, Mr. Godine said Frankfurt helped him discover, among many others, the Nobel-winning Mr. Le Clézio. “Even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut,” he said.
Even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut.
I think that sums up perfectly how I feel about being, usually, a monolingual reader and collector.
A typical response to the Nobel choice, written by David L. Ulin, the book editor of The Times.
Le Clezio -- who's he?
This year's Nobel laureate for literature is little-known in the States. Perhaps this is evidence of our bias. Or maybe it's a product of the Swedish Academy's willful dismissal of U.S. writers.
October 10, 2008
...It's hard to say where Le Clezio fits into all this; I've never read his books. In fact, until Thursday morning, I'd never heard of him -- and I'm not alone. Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards, said the same thing, as did David Kipen, literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
On the one hand, that might seem to support Engdahl's claims of American isolationism and insularity, but I'd suggest this unfamiliarity cuts both ways. How do we make the case for Le Clezio as representative of the best that literature has to offer when so many are unacquainted with his work?...
...The real question about Le Clezio's Nobel Prize is whether anyone will care.
>1 I meant to thank you for posting this, it's an interesting article, but there are a lot more small presses out there (in the US) publishing translations than indicated:
The University of Nebraska press
Dalkey Archive Press
To name a few. And I might add, though, that if one wants to read translated literature by women, one must look a lot harder:-)
Actually, I think there are a number of reasons why Americans have not been drawn to translated work, besides an obvious ethnocentrism (which I think the internet is changing, btw) or, perhaps as contributing factors to that ethnocentrism.
1. Geography (and probably history also).
2. The kind of literature often translated is sometimes inaccessible.
3. Lack of education (in several areas)
4. Association. Translated lit is associated with intellectuals and there is a deep mistrust of intellectuals within the American psyche that dates back a long time...
5. yes, sometimes the translations themselves.
Ok, that's just four off the top of my head.
I do think that, generally, most Americans recoil when they see "translated by" on a book; however, I think, inroads are being made thanks to technology (i.e. the web, the internet, sites like this one) and, sadly, wars. I also think that popular translated books like The Shadow of the Wind and the various Swedish crime novels, and novels from faraway countries which are not translated like The Kite Runner and Half of a Yellow Sun help to 'normalize' translations and open readers up to reading books like Out Stealing Horses or This Blinding Absence of Light or The Elegance of the Hedgehog (whether they have read the aforementioned popular books or not).
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