Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jessica Papin on "Vampires, New Years Resolutions, and Works in Translation"

One of my favorite moments of the 2008 holiday season took place in a local bookstore: it was shortly before closing, and as I waited for a clerk to check to see if a title I wanted was in stock, I watched her weary looking colleague at work constructing a Stephanie Meyer ziggurat. Red and black and several feet high, built in alternating layers of Twilight titles, it was a marvel of retail engineering.

“Wow,” I said, “that’s quite a tower.”

“Yes, she said—and they’ll sell out, too.”

“Every,” She placed a book. “Single,” she aligned another at a precise right angle. “One.” She surveyed her handiwork, then turned to me.

“God bless the vampires,” she said. “They saved Christmas.”

Further to the holiday theme, and in the spirit of New Year/New You releases, gym solicitations, my inaugural entry and that other Inauguration to come, I thought I might take as my subject New Year’s resolutions. Which, for most folks, are well on their way toward being forgotten. This need not be the case. My technique for cleaving to my resolutions is two-fold: make as few as possible—ideally only one—and then be certain it is a pleasure to accomplish.

That said, my resolution is as follows: to read more fiction in translation.

Funnily, works in translation are—by virtue of being foreign—considered about as suited to the mainstream American reader as a macrobiotic diet to fans of Texas Barbeque. Yet (with apologies to macrobiotic gourmands) there is nothing especially virtuous, seaweed-like, or indigestible about reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, or Naguib Mahfouz’s Miramar.

I had always been interested in international literature, but while working as an editor in a predominantly commercial house, and then later representing overwhelmingly American clients, I’d not devoted much thought to the role of contemporary fiction in translation. This changed when I left to work for the American University in Cairo Press. For all intents and purposes, I was still agenting—albeit in a part of the world where literary agents don’t exist. Thus, whether I said I was an “agent” (what sort of agent?) or that I dealt in “International Rights” (surely international human rights?) few people seemed to have any idea what I did. Nevertheless, if the truth of my occupation was neither as clandestine nor as noble as my acquaintances imagined, selling a list of modern Arabic fiction to publishers in the U.S. and around the world was certainly fascinating. Both the nature of my work and its location, in Cairo—far from the epicenter of American publishing both in distance and outlook—were focused on the book business beyond the USA. It was an eye opening experience, not least because it became acutely obvious that the global world of letters is one in which my own country participates precious little.

Only three percent of the books published in the US are translations from other languages (and as it happened, only one percent of those were from Arabic;). To be sure, houses face no shortage of barriers to publishing translations; the expense of commissioning a translation, which is a cost above and beyond the advance, the fact that the author is probably unknown and possibly unable to promote in the US. In this, the age in which the ideal author is not only a fine writer but an articulate and persuasive promoter with a rolodex of media connections—language barriers, as well as sheer physical distance, can be especially problematic. Few trade publishers are willing or able to take on so potentially unrewarding a task. Indeed, in many cases it has fallen to small independent and university presses, whose print runs are small and expectations of profit modest (or nonexistent) to pick up the slack. They provide an invaluable service, but receive limited media coverage, and reinforce the idea that these books are somehow academic exercises, fit for the Ivory Tower and little else.

True, we are a big country, internally diverse and externally uninterested. It could be that we heeded too well the exhortations of the transcendentalists, those brilliant, bewhiskered granddaddies of American letters, who urged us to develop a literature uniquely our own. In his influential address, The American Scholar, Emerson complained that we have “listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” These days, few European muses, courtly or otherwise, get a hearing, let alone those from other continents. Some people posit that there are so many people writing in English that we need not look beyond our linguistic borders. This of all possibilities seems most absurd—indeed as pointless as deciding that “American cuisine” is sufficiently robust that we need never eat foreign foods. Indeed, reading literature in translation is perhaps as onerous as dipping into a subtly spiced curry, or a baklava sticky with syrup. Neither tastes like mac’n cheese or apple pie, but they are no less delicious.

Which is to say that my less-than-ambitious but happily anticipated resolution to up my intake of fiction in translation is as easily honored as my plan to return to the Persian restaurant whose albaloo pollo convinced me that cherries and chicken is a match made in heaven. As to what books are on my to-read list, I already have some ideas: Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is this season’s undisputed choice for Serious Readers of Serious Books, and I am curious to read his work. But I’m also interested in the books that have not been so anointed—and for that, I’ll have a look at Words without Borders and Three Percent, two wonderful on-line publications devoted to works in translation.

I’m also happy to hear reader recommendations.

And who knows: Perhaps next year, some weary bookseller will bless translators as the saviors of Christmas.


  1. I've just started reading Orhan Pamuk's 'My Name is Red'. I'm ashamed to admit that I probably wouldn't have picked it up if I weren't in a Turkish-speaking country. Mukoda Kuniko is a writer I like; I think at least one of her short story collections has made it into English, but I've never seen it in a book store.

    I always feel sorry for the translators of foreign books. It is such an incredibly difficult job to get the language just right, keeping the tone and voice the same while managing to juggle the cultural peculiarities that might distract or confuse the reader. And yet they get so little credit -- or money.

  2. "God Bless The Vampires... they saved Christmas!" is hysterical! Thanks for sharing that.

    I like the simplicity and pleasure-to-do aspect of your resolution. I'll have to work on mine...

    Though, given the late date, perhaps I'll have to make it a Chinese New Year's Resolution?


  3. I always feel sorry for the translators of foreign books..I already have some ideas: Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is this season’s undisputed choice for Serious Readers of Serious Books, and I am curious to read his work.

  4. What a fabulous post, Jessica! I grew up in Australia and Irish writers seem to get a good following in Oz. As for translations, I am a big fan of Indian and Latin American writers. There is something about the story telling that is vastly different to writers from other countries. You've inspired me to hunt out some translations now. Thank you!
    PS I do admire the translators. Such a tough job (for the reasons other posters have mentioned). They don't get the glory they deserve.

  5. Once again the resolution was not to be as quick to lose my temper. And I'm getting there.

  6. I think Pub Houses would jump all over an autobiography written by Paris Hilton in Bantu... (if there were a lot "pictures")! Speaking of a rolodex of media connections - WOWZA!

    Haste yee back ;-)

  7. Have you read The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon? You've probably heard of it already, but in the beginning, the father takes his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and he says:

    "This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens... In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book you see here has been somebody's best friend."

    How can we not love that?! The prequel just sold to the US market. I think it's coming out late 2010, not sure.

  8. Spyscribbler - thank you so much for your post. You made me all warm and fuzzy!

  9. I just finished SUITE FRANCAISE and loved it - I understand there are other novels by Irene Nemirovsky, but not sure if they are translated into English. Am also making my way through War and Peace for a second time - I really love that book! As well, Pabo Neruda's CANTO GENERAL and Anna Akhmatova's collected poetry.

    All oldies but goodies, what can I say.

    I like what "a little fool" has to say about 2666 on Amazon - "...the feeling that you're being taken on a crazy journey across multiple continents throughout the twentieth century."

  10. Long ago, I'd read about Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem and thought he sounded interesting. I picked up a collection of short stories, one of which was his, in translation, and was singularly unimpressed. Dull, dull, dull.

    Still, continuing to read raves for his work, I got a book of his short stories ("The Cyberiad") out of the library, started reading--and loved it. In the middle of one of the stories, I suddenly realized it was the same story I had read in the other volume, but in a different translation. This version, translated by Michael Kandel, absolutely sparkled with wordplay absent from the other translation.

    So, let us honor the art of the translator! It is hard work, indeed.

  11. Great topic and great post.
    My Name Is Red, has to be one of the books that has most influenced me.
    I'd recommend Saadat Hasan Manto's short stories; especially his "Letter to Uncle Sam." It's been translated by Khalid Hasan into English. And while Saadat wrote it in the 50's it is relevant today.
    I am sure you can find it by doing a google search.

  12. Michael Kandel & Stanislaw Lem - I've never seen any translation but MK's of the Cyberiad - unbelievable that even a translator could make Lem dull.

    On the other hand, Cyberiad is full of language games - at one point a computer composes a love poem where every word begins with the letter M (iirc). I can't imagine translating that!

    MK was a genius.

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