In a recent editorial in Publishing Perspectives, Chad Post bemoaned the fact that so little contemporary translated literature is published and read in America. He claimed that too much time, money, and effort is spent in securing grants for costly translations -- time, money, and effort which should be spent building a readership for translated literature instead. His language in this piece was unusually pungent. At one point he wrote:
“I’m willing to bet everyone subscribing to Publishing Perspectives knows full well that the situation regarding literature in translation in the United States is a little bit fucked.”
A few sentences later, he wrote of his two underlying premises (“translations cost too much and don’t sell very well”):
“Believing in those two premises — and these premises may well be bullshit, but let’s let that slide for another day’s editorial — has led to a large focus on correcting the supply side of the situation...”
Chad is a friend, a good man who has devoted himself to the cause of bringing literary works from around the world to the attention of the American reading public. His unflagging energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm are exemplary. The book business needs his kind of informed engagement. That said, I don’t think this editorial -- clearly born of frustration -- is especially helpful or insightful.
Especially at a time when the number one, two, and three books on the fiction bestseller list are translated from the Swedish, all written, of course, by Steig Larsson. Chad mentions this toward the end of his piece in the context of taking a swipe at publishers who are now scouring the Scandanavian countries for crime novels to publish here, hoping to replicate the Millenium Trilogy success. Even though they know that the Larsson books are outliers -- black swans, as the talented Mr. Taleb would have it -- whose success cannot be duplicated. (Remember all the DaVinci Code wannabes that eventually wound up in pulping machines after getting returned?)
But what about Scandanavian detective fiction? Is it really a recent fad? How about the Sjöwall-Wahlöö policiers that came out in the 1970s and 1980s? What about Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser, Arnaldur Indridason, Janwillem van de Wetering? What about Smilla’s Sense of Snow, a big bestseller in its day? No, not as big as Larsson, but a book that definitely found an American audience of significant size. Unless my memory is playing tricks with me, Scandanavian mysteries have been around -- and in some cases popular -- in the U. S. for a while. Why shouldn’t they be? Good crime fiction makes its appeal no matter what language it is written in. So much of it is tripe, the good work stands out and attracts readers.
Translated literature is just like homegrown literature: only a small percentage of it is wonderful. I think the truly wonderful authors get published here and their work finds its way in our marketplace: García Márquez, Gombrowicz, Murakami, Bolaño, Eco, Camus, Vargas Llosa, Levi, Kundera, Hua, Grass, Oz, Mahfouz, Calvino, Rahimi, Pettersen, Nemirovsky, Sebald and so on. Fill in your own names. Even lighter fare -- translated entertainments like Scandanavian mysteries -- often find a wide audience here. Look at The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Perfume, Sophie’s World, the novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Arturo Pérez-Reverte. I never heard anyone talking about the prohibitive cost of those translations. The list goes on and on -- the mysteries of Simenon, the science fiction of Lem, and brilliant new translations of the classics, from Homer to Cervantes, from Dostoevsky to Flaubert. Wasn’t the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace on the bestseller list a couple of years ago?
Again, translated literature is just like our own: the vast majority is perishable, unmemorable, and destined for rightful obscurity. A 500-page novel consisting of one sentence may be an interesting Gallic curiosity, worthy of perusing -- I too am entranced by freak shows -- but how often is willful difficulty taken for genius or profundity, when it is simply an adolescent showing off? I read foreign fiction looking for worthwhile works to publish. Most of what I see is second-rate or pretentious, often both. Same as American fiction.
Yes, great literature transcends the limitations of place and language -- when I was in Poland, friends would tell me how deeply they appreciated Faulkner, whose portrayal of the rural South somehow jibed with their own feudal history -- but it speaks most clearly to natives, those for whom its place and its language can be called home. Why shouldn’t I mostly read books set here, where I live? This is the place that confuses and confounds me, the place that impresses itself on my consciousness daily. I want to read what the best and most sensitive literary minds of my generation have to say about it: my culture, my society, my home. This is not to say that I don’t find Bulgaria, let’s say, fascinating, or that I wouldn’t read a book by a Bulgarian writer. It’s just that Bulgaria comes in a distant second to America when it comes to what I want as a reader. Philip Roth, Wendell Berry, the late great David Markson, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates -- for me, these are worth any number of Bulgarian writers. I hope Bulgarians feel the opposite with equal passion.
The initial audience for serious literature of any stripe, written in any language, is exceedingly small. Check out the Bookscan numbers -- it is shocking to see how many books sell no more than one or two thousand copies, here in a nation of more than 300 million people. Everyone in publishing sees this first-hand. You love a book and know in your heart of hearts it is worthy. You publish it with intelligence and energy -- you send out review copies, you tour the author, you advertise, you give retailers co-op dollars, you grab every literary blogger by the lapels and enjoin them to mention it, you do a book trailer, you contact reading group leaders and send them freebies, you make follow-up calls to all the media, you record author podcasts, you send letters to academicians, you don’t stop. The result: next to nothing, puny sales, nada. It happens all the time. Which means you better be in business for some other reason than to make money.
You take heart in the fact that Henry David Thoreau’s first book sold less than 300 copies in four years, that Moby Dick was a flop when it first came out, and that the first printing of Ulysses was a thousand copies. You come to understand that posterity will have the last word on which books succeed or fail. So you publish to your enthusiasms as best you can and live in the hope that some will stick. The one thing you mustn’t do is berate your potential audience for its shallowness or inattention. It is hard enough for them to live from day to day while maintaining their sanity in this exceedingly noisy world of ours, let alone pay attention to translated literature.
Literature in translation is not inherently “good for you.” It is not medicine, it won’t help you get ahead, it won’t necessarily make you a more tolerant or better person, and -- unless it is very great literature indeed -- it won’t tell you much that you don’t already know. Its value doesn’t lie in the fact that it has been translated. Its value is the same as it is for all literature -- it shows the marvelous ability of talented human beings to try to make narrative sense of the lives they lead and, in so doing, bring a little order, happiness, and meaning to their readers.
All of this is my long-winded way of asking Chad to ease up a little. I, for one, do not think “the situation regarding literature in translation in the United States is a little bit fucked.” That’s because I don’t think it’s exceptional. There are many situations in our culture and society that are wickedly out of whack -- the food distribution situation, the transportation situation, the entertainment and news situation, the gaming of the politics situation, the superstitious belief in Nobodaddy situation, the banking industry situation, and on and on and on. All human situations are ultimately flawed, risible, and doomed. On the other hand, they are glorious constructs, heroic stabs in the dark toward the light, worthy of profound respect and attention, even as we try to make them incrementally better, thereby easing the burden on succeeding generations of imperfect humans. I say to Chad, have a good time publishing works in translation. Do it with all the skill and good humor and passion you can muster (I know you can muster a lot). Be their advocate -- you’re great at it. But understand that it’s nobody’s fault if some of them are read and some of them die. Only time will tell if you published wisely.