Reading the World | Fiction in Translation

A woman on a crowded train finds herself sitting next to a man who once scorned her. A smooth operator entertains a struggling writer friend in a seedy bar. A teenager injured by a careening car hunts down the driver, a young man angrily recalls his brother’s casually dismissed murder on a beach, and a beautiful prostitute rises from the dead. Shamed by an obstreperous uncle, a working wife and mother moves toward vengeance. Economic catastrophe swamps those suddenly unemployed while sparing the complacent rich.

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For reviews of titles mentioned in this article, see “World Fiction for Fall.

What do these widely appealing, urgently intriguing plotlines have in common? They all come from fiction that has been translated into English, and none of that fiction was published by a big commercial press. Jean-Philippe Blondel’s The 6:41 to Paris and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (the title of both book and bar) are being published this fall by New Vessel Press and Deep Vellum, respectively, two promising new names in the translation game. Through its Margellos World Republic of Letters, launched in 2007 with a several-million-dollar endowment, Yale University Press (YUP) is responsible for Patrick Modiano’s car-smash Paris Nocturne, along with other titles from the Nobel Prize winner.

Other Press, perhaps best known for Jan-Philipp Sendker’s The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, which has sold 350,000 copies, triumphed this summer with Kamel Daoud’s The ­Meursault ­Investigation, while literary giant New Directions can be thanked for Eka Kurniawan’s brutally steamy, Indonesian-set Beauty Is a Wound. The put-upon heroine in Gail Hareven’s Lies, First Person got her push last spring from Open Letter, a major force in the field partly through its Three Percent blog (three percent famously being the paltry portion of books published in America that are translated from languages other than English). And up next spring: Greek author Christos ­Ikonomou’s story collection Something Will Happen, You’ll See from Archipelago, the elegant little press that has made Karl Ove Knausgaard a phenomenon.

Notes New Directions president Barbara Epler, “There’s never been a better time…for translations, and the huge difference is how many more great small presses there are.” Founded in 1936 by James Laughlin, New Directions remains a model of literary publishing in any language. Dalkey Archive Press, whose founder and publisher, John O’Brien, calls Laughlin “the godfather,” has been issuing keenly challenging translations from multiple languages since 1984. But many small presses focusing on translation have bloomed in the last two decades and, indeed, the last two or three years, when New York–based New Vessel and Dallas-based Deep Vellum were established.

Excerpt

ljx150902webhoffert1“Ah-hah, there’s a guy looking for somewhere to sit. He comes a bit closer. He stops. He glances at the seat…. For a moment I think I’ve won, that his desire for comfort is about to collide with the invisible wall of my indifference. No such luck. He clears his throat quietly, his voice is somewhat hoarse. ‘Excuse me, is this seat taken?’…. I shake my head and sigh, just to let him know it really is a bother. I pull my bag out of the way and decide to look him in the face.”

“Oh. My. God.”—Jean-Philippe Blondel, The 6:41 to Paris

Newcomers

Exciting new presses include ten-year-old Europa Editions, which boasts New York Times best-selling author Elena Ferrante, and New York Review Books (NYRB), the publishing house of the New York Review of Books, begun as a reprint house in 1999 for works in any language. Its list is still about 70 percent classics—if “not completely canonical classics,” explains Edwin Frank, editorial director, NYRB Classics, who won’t countenance another translation of War and Peace. But Frank quickly began bringing on board “European novelists in midcareer, well established in their countries, but who haven’t made it in English yet.”

Seven Stories Press focuses on political nonfiction and world literature tending toward “the politically informed, though that’s not an absolute requirement,” says publicist Ian Dreiblatt, whose list embraces Uday Prakash’s caste-conscious The Walls of Delhi and The Undiscovered Chekhov, “beautiful stories, but partly what sealed the deal was that Chekhov was not a member of the nobility but a working doctor.”

British-based And Other Stories sprang from a reading group of translators, academics, and others interested in unexpected, “under the radar–type books,” explains publisher Stefan Tobler, citing Lina Wolff’s forthcoming Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs. It’s a Barcelona-set novel whose Swedish author sounds anything but Swedish.

Another British publisher, Oneworld, was founded in 1986 but a decade ago began looking for “thought-provoking novels that complement our nonfiction list,” says publisher Juliet ­Mabey. Currently, Mabey is promoting Russian author ­Eugene Vodolazkin’s prize-winning medieval saga, Laurus, and expects that next year her fiction list will be more than half translation.

Other key players include Pushkin Press, which boasts both classics and contemporary works and a formidable list of Stefan Zweig titles; Gallic Books (“The best of French in English”), which ranges from Antoine Laurain’s charming The President’s Hat to Yasmina Khadra’s forthcoming The Dictator’s Last Night, about Muammar Gaddafi; Melville House, home to Nobel Prize winners Imre Kertész and Heinrich Böll, as well as Man Asian Literary nominee Mahmoud Dowlatabadi and Latin American star Alan Pauls; and Restless Books, making its mark this fall with Uzbeki-born Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground and Hungarian-born György Spiró’s massive Aegon Literary Award winner Captivity.

Echoing Akashic’s hugely successful “Noir” series, which embraces international authors in books like Barcelona Noir and Tehran Noir, several of these presses have popular crime series, including “Europa World Noir,” “Melville International Crime,” and “Pushkin Vertigo,” launching this September. While such series are great fun in themselves and accessible gateways to fiction in translation for the uninitiated, they do raise an important issue.

Excerpt

ljx150902webhoffert2“We smoked like crazy. We identified with the jazz. We groped each other in the dark. We grabbed at the single-mamas… A sullen-faced waitress finally came. Spitefully, she placed on the table the two bottles of beer she was supposed to have served them an hour and a quarter ago. They paid the check but she stood there waiting for her tip. They made as if nothing was up. She cottoned on to the strategy, which she cunningly counterattacked by refusing to open the merchandise.”—­Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Tram 83

What’s so hard?

Much of the fiction published by the presses discussed here is literary rather than commercial in nature, and while Anglophone readers don’t need a helping hand with Scandinavian thrillers, they often see literary fiction in general as demanding and literary fiction in translation as both difficult and intimidatingly unfamiliar. Publishers mostly take accusations of abstruse challenge in stride and even push back. Says John Donatich, director of YUP, which comfortably straddles the world of scholarly and trade publishing, “A lot of our writers are not easy, but we’re not afraid of that. Literature will always have a smaller audience.”

Certainly, thrillers get read more, whatever their original language, says Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon blogger and longtime LJ reviewer. “In the American mass market, Daniel Silva and James Patterson outsell Pulitzer Prize winners, and it’s the same with translations; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo outsells Please Look After Mom,” a South Korean best seller and Man Asian Literary Award winner by Kyung-sook Shin. However, countering the fear that Shin’s study of a family in crisis might be somehow unapproachable, Hong points out, “Everybody has a mother!”

Echoing Hong, Archipelago publisher Jill Schoolman declares, “These books aren’t that difficult; look at what happened with Knausgaard,” now a New York Times best-selling author. Schoolman thinks that resistance to translated works comes not from readers but from publishers and argues for better marketing.

She has an ally in Kristen Elias Rowley, the new editor in chief at Ohio State University Press, formerly with the University of Nebraska Press. “Sometimes we make the mistake of framing translations as strange or different,” says Rowley. “Instead, we should frame them as challenging but with a payoff—and provide some guidance.” For instance, Évelyne Trouillot’s The Infamous Rosalie, about a slave ship, would read well with Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, while Kettly Mars’s 1960s Haiti–set Savage Seasons tracks the enduringly interesting issues of violence, power, and gender. Both books are in the University of Nebraska Press’s outstanding “French Voices” series.

The best-selling status of Knausgaard’s multipart My Struggle; the big-house lifting of Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, and W.G. Sebald from New Directions (for translations as for English originals, “small presses function as talent scouts,” observes New Directions’ Epler); the 50,000 copies YUP sold of Modiano’s Suspended Sentences after setting a pre-Nobel print run of 1,500—all are evidence that there’s a hardy band of readers out there interested in the larger worldview and a bit of intellectual push. NYRB’s Frank puts it down to a “new cosmopolitanism” and explains, “As reading becomes less central to the lives of even the quite educated, not the default for education or entertainment, a group remain who are really attached to and protective of these books.”

If translations seem challenging, sometimes it’s because of what has been translated. Says Frank, “European fiction is more distinctively literary than in America, with fewer paragraph breaks and more intrepid, all-one-sentence writing.” Yet it’s often the more literary authors who find their way into English as somehow glamorous or exotic. “We want to read what is distinctly familiar or completely different,” explains Frank, “so the novel of everyday Bulgarian family life gets neglected.” In fact, those novels of everyday life are the kind of books that New Vessel Press wants to publish.

New Vessel was started by Ross Ufberg, who speaks Russian and Polish, and Michael Wise, who speaks French and German, with both volunteering some knowledge of Hebrew and Wise also working on his Italian. Their formidable language skills mean that instead of depending on translations, they can read prospective projects either in the original or in a translation into one of the languages they speak. Ufberg nicely sums up the New Vessel ethos with an anecdote about a relative at a wedding, a woman with a doctoral degree, who said she feared the books he published would be over her head.

Absolutely not, declares Ufberg, and indeed it’s hard to imagine the suspenseful she-thinks, he-thinks construction of Blondel’s The 6:41 to Paris giving anyone pause. “The common element tying our books together is that they offer really good stories that speak to people,” explains Ufberg. “They’re not experimental, they’re not metaliterature, they’re not flash fiction, they’re not long, superdepressing Russian novels.”

Excerpt

ljx150902webhoffert3“He’d celebrated his fortieth birthday alone. Ghazala had disappeared into her story, Muna had left to search for her future in Canada, and Karim was alone at home in Beirut. Bernadette had called a couple of days earlier and asked him to come back on the fourth of January, so he could celebrate the start of his fifth decade with the family. He’d told her he hadn’t been able to find a seat on the plane until the morning of the following day. His French wife had cleared her throat, pretended to believe him, and hung up.”—Elias Khoury, Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol

A sense of place

One of the best novels forthcoming from New Vessel is in fact Sergei Lebedev’s Oblivion, a brief, affecting study of one young man’s struggle with the consequences of Soviet rule. Anyone can relate to the characters in New Vessel books, though place does matter. “Our books are not about what an American thinks of Paris but what a Frenchman or Turk or Russian thinks,” concludes Ufberg.

Other Press publisher Judith Gurewich also wants to meet American readers halfway, saying that she looks for “the hook and the book.” Certainly, Gurewich wants to publish good books that grab her, in translation or originally written in English. (She does despair that in this country “the writing workshop has killed the imagination.”) Yet she’s also regretfully rejected some stellar works that she feels scrape against American sensibility or understanding.

“Americans,” she argues, “are extremely insecure about their knowledge and education, and one must overcome that timidity.” That’s where the hook comes in; Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, for instance, appeals not just for its bracing storytelling but for its insights into the Middle East and its reworking of Albert Camus’s classic The Stranger. In the end, giving readers such hooks affords them “a bridge to foreign culture,” says Gurewich.

While both Gurewich and the New Vessel team reckon with their readers, Epler asserts, “We rarely ask, ‘What do readers want?’ We ask, ‘Is it great? Why do we love it?’ ” (More established presses might have that luxury, of course.) Dalkey Archive’s O’Brien ambitiously looks for “artistically daring works that open up the possibilities of fiction, deemphasizing plot and appealing to play.” At Archipelago, Schoolman hopes for “original voices, with excellent literary translations and something to say about humanity and human rights—in a lyrical way, where philosophy and poetry meet.”

Like Schoolman, YUP’s Donatich cites novelist Tim Parks’s fear of a single-standard world literature, which he says would be “terrible, because literature should be regional, reflecting where it was born.” Yet while Archipelago associate editor and publicist Kendall Storey praises her authors’ particularity, she adds, “They have created their own world, their own sense of place, their own vision.”

At long-established Graywolf, home of Per Petterson and Andreï Makine, associate publisher Katie Dublinski says, “We’re more interested in books that seem to be telling us something, giving readers experiences they would not get from English-language books. That’s the real reason for translation.” Whatever the approach, there now seems to be a critical mass of small presses pushing to publish world literature.

One reason, it must be said, is economic. As And Other Stories’ Tobler notes, “When the credit crunch came in 2008, the larger publishers became more risk averse, which created even more of a need for people who don’t have shareholders to report to or the same kind of focus on the bottom line.” Of course, leading trade houses like Knopf, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Farrar Straus & Giroux continue to publish translated works, though they tend to stick with the stars and the prize winners. Houghton, for instance, just swept up ­Modiano’s latest title, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood.

Yet these houses are disinclined to act unless they can expect decent returns, and they must dump anyone who doesn’t perform. Says Open Letter publisher Chad Post, “There’s still a perception among presses with the money to make a translation successful that it won’t sell unless it’s already a best seller or thriller type. They wait until they can sell a lot of copies, while selling 2,000 copies is fine for small houses.” The upshot? Small presses are getting a crack at many fine authors and publishing them successfully. Says Graywolf’s Dublinski, “It’s a way we can take on writers that are big on the world stage, where we might not be able to compete with the big presses.”

Excerpt

ljx150902webhoffert4“ ‘I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. What a picture! What a moral! The man who thought he could ride the clouds is trapped in an old drainpipe…. You’ve gone back to your roots, Brotherly Guide. You were born out of camel dung and you’re going to die in your own shit….Amr!,’ he yells at one of his companions, ‘get your mobile out and film this exceptional curtain call for me.’ ”—Yasmina Khadra, The Dictator’s Last Night

Cultural impact

With this much energized publishing, the number of translations appearing in this country has risen, right? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Post, whose Three Percent blog includes a translation database that’s updated monthly, says, “If the numbers have changed at all, they’re down slightly.” These figures might suggest that interest in translated works is just a publisher- or critic-manufactured fantasy. But as NYBR’s Frank notes, “It’s more an issue of different readerships. That’s why it is difficult [for such works] to break out of various academic gulags and certain markets and cities, like Minneapolis, New York, and San Francisco, and go into the larger bloodstream.”

What has changed is the place of world literature in our collective lives. Affirms YUP’s Donatich, “The numbers have not improved”—at least not yet—“but resistance to translated works is breaking up in that they have more cultural impact and buzz.” There are plenty of reasons for this cultural shift. Certainly, the Internet has shrunk the world. “There’s a greater awareness that all the global village talk is not just talk,” says Smithsonian BookDragon’s Hong. “You can’t get on media outlets without exposure.” Seven Stories’ Dreiblatt points to the success of books like Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing as evidence that technology breeds familiarity. “Yes, it was the right writer and the right publisher, but it would have been much harder for that book to reach an audience 25 years ago. Now, China is not that far away.”

Hunger to understand a world that’s up close and personal is motivating many readers. It even motivated YUP’s founding of the Margellos series. Explains Donatich, “On the eve of the first invasion in Iraq, a Turkish friend who teaches in French in Paris called and said, ‘You are a man of the world. Name me five Iraqi writers. Now, name ten Arabic writers.’ ” As he came up short, Donatich realized, “Here we were fighting a culture we don’t even understand!” Significantly, the first author ­Donatich signed up for Margellos was Syrian poet Adonis, who has blockbuster status in Europe and the Middle East.

The high quality of today’s translation obviously helps the cause, with both the University of Rochester (Open Letter’s home) and the University of Houston–Victoria (where Dalkey Archive Press has just moved), boasting degree programs in translation. Thankfully, as Dalkey Archive’s O’Brien reports, conditions for translators are now better. As he says, “The wordplay and the problems translators must solve get very close to writing.”

Scandinavian thrillers haven’t necessarily pushed readers toward more literary fare like Danish author Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, just out from Open Letter, but their booming success seems to be creating a greater comfort level with translated works generally. “Some of those blockbusters have helped,” asserts Ohio State’s Rowley. “For mainstream readers, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo makes the concept of translation not so strange.” Occasionally, upmarket readers worry that high-profile authors like Bolaño and Haruki Murakami are stealing all the oxygen, but most publishers agree that they help drive fans to their less prominent brethren. Concludes Oneworld’s Mabey, “The critical and commercial success of the big literary stars…and the success of some huge genre novels…[have given] booksellers the confidence that translated fiction can sell and sell well.”

Excerpt

ljx150902webhoffert5“One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. A shepherd boy, awakened from his nap under a frangipani tree, peed in his shorts and screamed, and his four sheep ran off haphazardly in between stones and wooden grave markers as if a tiger had been thrown into their midst. It all started with a noise coming from an old grave site with an unmarked tombstone covered in knee-high grass, but everybody knew it was Dewi Ayu’s grave.”—Eka Kurniawan, Beauty Is a Wound

Young readers

Finally, translated works are developing cultural clout because their most dedicated readers now include young people who are hungry for meaning, conversation, and a dynamic cultural scene and shrug their shoulders if a translator appears on a book jacket. (Jackets from larger houses often exclude the translator for fear of driving away readers and reviewers.) As NYRB’s Frank explains, “Kids work incredibly hard now in college, and after that they hold onto this interest and want to read what they didn’t read [during] those four years.”

What’s more, these youngsters are taking a refreshingly different approach to the subject. “Reading world literature was once seen as a good way to be cultured, but there was a sort of choredness to it,” muses Dreiblatt. “Now, it’s like a cool band you haven’t heard. The elitism has dissipated.”

As old attitudes fade, more readers will likely get excited about literature translated from the French or Korean or Arabic, but what they will be reading remains wide open. No clear global literary trends are emerging, though Donatich points out that in the past we’ve had periods of discovery that tend to work regionally. The Middle East is inspiring readers now, but what’s next? Perhaps Africa, with its mix of European and native languages.

Rowley cites the “incredible diversity in form and theme and structure” as the most telling aspect of today’s world literature, and Frank concurs. “There’s nothing big like magical realism, though we haven’t seen Knausgaard’s confessionalism before,” he says. “What’s interesting is people like Knausgaard and César Aira pushing things. There are a bunch of individualists out there, looking for something.” And today’s small publishers are ready and waiting.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

Comments

  1. Simon Bruni says:

    Thank you for writing this excellent and informative article, but may I ask why you choose to mention dozens of books and their original authors without once naming the highly skilled and creative people who carefully chose all of the words contained in them?
    #namethetranslator

  2. Antonia Lloyd-Jones says:

    This is a wonderful and very welcome article, thank you for championing these excellent publishers and great books that deserve to be better known. But I must add my voice to Simon Bruni’s, and ask you to include the names of the translators of these books. Translators may aim to be invisible within the text, but they should always be credited alongside the author. This is clearly an oversight, but please would you remedy it as soon as you can? Many thanks. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (co-chair of the UK Translators Association)

  3. Echoing Simon and Antonia’s comments, many thanks for this insightful, informative article. Can I also echo their request for the translators of the many terrific books you mention to be named? Especially at the bottom of the boxes featuring stand-out short extracts, which are a great way to showcase their work and talent. I appreciate that each translator (Alison Anderson, Roland Glasser et al.) is credited on
    the cover of the works pictured (though this isn’t always the case), but it would be nice to give them some more readable prominence in the boxes too. Thanks in advance! (Check the Twitter campaign #namethetranslator)

  4. Christine Shuttleworth says:

    I read this lengthy article with mounting amazement that not a single translator’s name was mentioned in a piece which purported to promote the translation of fiction. The article even includes several excerpts from translated works without any credit given to the translators. It ‘s as if these works sprang into being without any human intervention. At the very least there could have been a bibliography at the end where the translators’ names could have been found – but no. I hope this glaring omission can be corrected!

  5. Trista Selous says:

    I quote, from your article above, “young people who are hungry for meaning, conversation, and a dynamic cultural scene and shrug their shoulders if a translator appears on a book jacket. (Jackets from larger houses often exclude the translator for fear of driving away readers and reviewers.) ”

    Perhaps it’s not a fear of driving anyone away, but simply a failure to recognise the importance of the translator’s creativity and individual sensibility. To quote your article again, “The wordplay and the problems translators must solve get very close to writing.” And what translator’s do IS a form of writing. The text does not exist in their language until they write it. But as long as they go uncredited the importance of what they will do will continue to go unrecognised. On behalf of translators, but also of authors, who need good translators, and readers, who have a right to understand what they are reading, please counter this invisibility by crediting translators next time you write about translation.

  6. Shelley Frisch says:

    You quote directly from translators’ renderings without telling us readers who wrote those words. More’s the pity in a piece that aims to highlight “the high quality of today’s translation.” It’s not too late to insert the names of the translators you are praising in this online version! Thanks in advance for doing so.

  7. Donald Nicholson-Smith says:

    Certainly quite a helpful and accurate survey, a little rose tinted perhaps.But I must join my voice to those of my translator colleagues and others who point up the scandalous absence of any credit at all to the translators. A truly stunning oversight!