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
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
Only three percent of the books published in the
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
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.