Our Time is Nigh
April 22, 2014 § 2 Comments
Back from trips to London and Los Angeles! Back in the beautiful springtime thundery (not the Kevin Durant thunder either) Dallas. Basketball and hockey playoffs are here, go Dallas, beat those dang Spurs and Ducks! And we’re at the start of baseball and soccer seasons. It’s a good time to be alive in this sports mecca…now on to books!
Deep Vellum received a warm welcome from both the weather and the British translation community in London! If you were at the panel at Society of Authors that Monday or the Literary Translation Centre panel in Earls Court on Tuesday, and if you have a picture, please send them to me! It was an honor to serve on those panels with so many of my favorite publishers and translators. I learned a lot, and made a lot of new friends, and am thankful to all the translators who introduced themselves–you guys are the reason I do this. Thank you, and I can’t wait to hear your ideas…
These days Deep Vellum is gearing up for an official “launch.” There will be an official announcement complete with a press release, cover art, and ordering information coming soon. Hope to get the website revamped this summer in time for the first books to come out this fall. Thank you for reading this blog and supporting Deep Vellum throughout the last year as I worked to get this idea off the ground. I’ll be attending Book Expo America and hope to meet some new faces there too, and I will be announcing details of BEA-week launch party soon, but I can promise you it will include lots of brisket and (veggie!) tacos at Hill Country BBQ (aka: the Texas embassy in NYC!).
In some delightful publishing news, the London Book Fair’s inaugural LBF Book Excellence Awards honored the work of our friends at Open Letter Books for their Best Translated Book Awards, now in their eighth (?) year–which won the “International Literary Translation Initiative Award.” For Chad Post, who created these awards to provide an opportunity for translated works to gain more prominence among readers (and booksellers, and other publishers, if you look at the bigger picture, trying to change the whole game!), this is a huge honor and a real signal that the BTBA is only growing in stature among publishing industry professionals worldwide. Congratulations, Chad, I’m so proud of you and thankful for all you’ve done for translation.
Speaking of the BTBA, the finalists in fiction and poetry have been announced. I wrote a “Why This Book Should Win” piece about Mircea Cărtărescu’s incredible Blinding, translated by Sean Cotter and published by Archipelago Books. You can check out the exhortation of Blinding’ brilliance here. And to show how important this award is becoming, just because it was listed on the BTBA shortlist, I picked up a copy of Mahi Binebine’s Horses of God, translated by Lulu Norman and published by Tin House, when I was at the (magnificent, amazing, mindblowing) Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Now if we could just get the BTBA shortlist announcements to translate into some significant sales bumps among readers not already knee-deep in the game…
And continuing the debate over whether you should start your own publishing house or throw your efforts into promoting works in translation or both at the same time, Sal Robinson of Melville House wrote a great blog that summarizes parts of my argument, M. Lynx Qualey’s argument, and takes up Scott Esposito’s point that we’re all in this together, man, so let’s just work on publishing more books in translation AND promoting the ones that manage to get published (which was my original point all along, I think the title of the piece is misleading, but it sure did work at grabbing the attention of people who would never click a link called “Let’s Promote More Translated Literature, Y’all!” which we’ve all read dozens of times).
Sal’s own points come at the end of the article (which I recommend reading in full). Some choice points:
There is one other issue here that hasn’t been raised, and that is that Qualey’s response may indicate something important about translated literature, something that’s often glided over: different languages and literary cultures exist in different relationships to English-language publishing, reviewing, and bookselling. If, for instance, I was publishing a French book in translation, though this would still pose numerous challenges when it came to getting it reviewed and in front of readers, there would be a basic familiarity and context that would make the whole process easier. I wouldn’t expect to have to explain the history of French literature to reviewers. I wouldn’t have to start from virtually from zero.
But this is the situation that Arabic literature faces in English-language markets. Of five recent Arabic novels in translation that Qualey mentions in her post, only one got any kind of English-language media attention: Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories, The Corpse Exhibition (and even then,David Kipen’s NYT review is astonishingly patronizing – I don’t know if any review that ends by saying that if the author wrote the stories in the order they appeared in the book, then he could be said to be developing as a writer and might eventually go “who knows who far” can really count as a win).
This is an acute critical drought, and the kind of seeding of the conversation Qualey proposes seems absolutely necessary here. It’s not accurate, in short, to assume that all books in translation have it equally hard: some have it much harder than others, at every stage of the game. The idea that a Great Translated Book will just emerge and find its readers, no matter what, has rarely been borne out by literary history, and it has a nasty flipside: if a Great Translated Book hasn’t emerged from your language or country yet, the suspicion grows in the metropole that maybe there’s nothing there worth reading in the first place. And this becomes an excuse for further inattention. As mild, as inappropriately literary-fray-like, as this conclusion will sound, different literatures may, in the end, just be in need of different types of advocacy.
Sal is spot-on in taking the idea of publishing vs. promotion (or the combination) into the next realm, which involves actual readers, reviewers, and critics, and the level of “education” that needs to take place to bring foreign literatures into a new culture, and a wholly new context. That is an important point to consider, and one that is often glossed over completely in reviews and among the would-be Bonos in the translation world “building bridges between cultural divides” (a phrase I’ll admit I use, especially among those not in the translation world, but an idea that is dangerous in its implied paternalism and hollow utopianism!).
The academic in me loves this debate, because it touches on issues that are rarely discussed in our field, but which underly everything we do. At the same time, the reader in me is like, “Dude, whatever, what’s good is good as long as I can find it!” and the publisher in me is like, “For fuck’s sake, film distributors and record labels don’t have to worry about this shit!” The more we place “books” (or “texts” or “the written word” or “author-driven written creative content” or whatever) on sacred pedestals, the more we are lining ourselves up for arguments that can extend into eternity about what does and doesn’t “deserve” to be translated, even as we attempt to reach readers who’d be interested in our books.
And on that point, I am of the opinion that everything deserves to be translated and that we should absolutely promote the hell out of everything that is published. Those unfamiliar with the original context can learn it through reading these unfamiliar texts (the same way I’ve been building up my understanding of world literature outside of the Russian literary heritage the last two years). The added element of the “foreign” is scary at first–and the more we exoticize translations, the more we continue to put them in their own ghetto of literature, as if “translated” meant “different”–though “world literature” as a concept can and should include English-language original texts next to French- and Arabic-language original texts. The idea is for Pitol to wind up next to Pynchon someday in the bookstores; Shishkin next to Salinger; Garréta next to Gordimer. The ideas is that even if they’re translations, they’re works of literature first and foremost.
No two novels are the same (though these days I sometimes doubt this is true), so what does it matter that one is more unfamiliar and comes from a completely different context? I didn’t understand what weird world I was stepping into the first time I read Solaris or Ender’s Game, but they both managed to create new universes in my imagination–and they’re both sci-fi, and come from completely different political and social contexts, and you can argue that the translation of Solaris I read was bad because it had been translated from French via its original Polish, but none of that really mattered when I was reading and loving the story, and being completely blown away by the originality of thought that lied therein. And the more I learn about sci-fi, and especially Soviet sci-fi, the more I can appreciate the book on new levels (and on the flip side, my original 13-year old love of Ender’s Game suffered a major blow when the author’s political inclinations didn’t line up with mine as a grownup…).
We don’t need to look down on readers all the time, they can figure out a lot along the way, but we do need to work to make sure the context is presented to them enough to figure it out. Because like Sal mentions, and we all see way too often in discussions of translations, the preexisting conditions of the reader’s mind can cloud the way the texts are read. It’s up to us to try to do something about that, but we can only do so much. So it’s up to us to find the books in their original languages, hire a damn good translator to bring each into English, publish them in all format of book that the contemporary reader may use to imbibe literature, then promote the hell out of it through a combination of reviews, literary salons, book tours, and whatever else could work to draw attention to the books, and then sit back and count the money as it rolls in…or rather, sit back and watch the cultural tide shift to being more open…or rather, there’s no way of knowing what will happen, but this is the good fight, and I’m glad to be a part of it with so many amazing people with so much diverse knowledge, I’m learning so much so fast.
We’re approaching a Borgesian (dys/u)topia in which all written texts of the world are universally accessible for the rest of time and all that remains is for the reader to find exactly what kind of book they are looking for at any time (terrifying/amazing concept). So whose side are you on, the future’s or the past’s? I’m throwing my lot in with the future and publishing all the books at the same time as I promote all the books–because it’s really the same thing, and as a publisher I am in need of Melville House to exist and thrive as much as I need M. Lynx Qualey’s literary salon to thrive, because we’re all part of the same process, and we are all equally important to each other, and play crucial roles in ensuring each other’s successes.