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Herta Who?


PUBLISHED: October 9, 2009

For three of the past five years, the announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been met in this country with pretty much the same reaction: a collective grinning nod (“Elfriede Jelinek, of course!”), a spate of quickly-dashed off background articles (consisting mainly of quotes from a hapless PR person at which small academic press publishes the winner), and a whispered chorus of “who?” The steady return of this response points to one of two things: either the Swedish Academy is playing an elaborate prank on American readers, selecting obscure avant garde authors to make us feel bad about ourselves, or Americans don’t read enough fiction in translation. Although I wouldn’t put it beyond the Swedish Academy to pull a prank like that, the real answer is probably the latter.

The statistics are cited often, but they are worth citing again. According to UNESCO, fifty percent of all translations published worldwide are translated from English, while only six percent are translated into English. And a large part of that six percent can be attributed to our English-speaking friends across the pond. A 2005 piece in the New York Times held that “of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation.” Depending on who you ask, these number are “shocking,” evidence of American readers’ insularity, and a “great shame.” But they haven’t changed much in the past decade or so. After the Sepetember 11th attacks there was a brief spurt of interest in translated fiction (or at least a brief spurt of interest in talking about translated fiction). Shamed by our lack of knowledge about Iraq and Afghanistan, we wondered why there weren’t more Iraqi and Afghan novels at the bookstores. The Words without Borders website was launched, along with the PEN World Voices Festival, and the Three Percent blog. All of these are great resources and all the people involved with these organizations do great work. But this interest in translated literature has not translated into a significant uptick in sales. When people want to read about Afghanistan they pick up The Kite Runner; when they want to know more about Pakistan they buy The Reluctant Fundamentalist (both written originally in English).

So, who is to blame? One could blame publishers, who are too scared to invest in translating and marketing work that might not sell. One could blame English Literature departments, which for decades have willfully focused their attentions on American and British literature, leaving “world literature” to their poor cousins in Comparative Literature. One could even blame elementary school Spanish and French teachers for not inspiring enough children to become translators. But really, when it comes down to it, the numbers cited above are a question of market forces. If the American readers bought more fiction in translation, publishers would publish more of it. This is not to say that publishers shouldn’t take risks on translated fiction, nor that English Literature departments shouldn’t widen their scopes. All I’m saying is that the best way to bolster literature in translation is to buy some. And maybe you’ll get a jump on next year’s Nobel Prize winner.

3 Comments

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Sarang's picture
Speaking for myself, I think a major issue is that Anglophone writers write much better prose than translators. Foreign writers who find good translators – Sebald, for instance – do about as well as comparable Anglophone writers. So e.g. a German novel has to be _really really good_ for me to want to read it in translation: good enough to make up for the clunky sentences, the flat adjectives, etc. Are there 874 of these books every year? Probably not. I’m not sure if the UNESCO figure includes things like self-help books and other detritus of which the US is a leading producer. If so it isn’t much to the point. Are Europeans really reading, say, Claire Messud or Marilynne Robinson?
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Jacob Silverman's picture
Good post, Michael. But what I think some publishers ignore is that there have actually been many bestselling translated works in the U.S. in recent years: Roberto Bolano, Muriel Barbery, the Scandinavian crime writers (especially Stieg Larsson), Per Petterson, Irene Nemirovsky, and on. I think the greater problem is publishers seeing translated work – and the fine work of translators – as a liability or as something to be afraid of. Sure, it requires some initial investment, but clearly readers aren’t making much of a distinction between work written in English and translated work. Maybe publishers simply need to raise the profile of translators, making them, like Larissa Volokhonsky, Natasha Wimmer, or Margaret Jull Costa, better known figures. I hesitate to invoke the term “branding,” but maybe that’s one of way of getting through to publishers and saying, hey, this stuff does work. People buy it. As for Herta Muller, I agree that the problem is more with us and not the Nobel committee. Sure, it’s fair to say that she doesn’t have the worldwide standing of some past Nobelists, but as Michael Orthofer and Chad Post have pointed out, she’s not nearly as obscure as some journalists would like to think. She’s had five books translated into English, won the IMPAC Dublin award, and has been reviewed in the NYT several times. That hardly equals obscurity, even in this country. (And while not a boisterous public figure like Gunter Grass, she’s apparently fairly well known in Germany.) I also tend to think that journalists covering the lit. beat often grab at the most obvious meme – i.e. Herta Who? – and don’t bother to look deeper into the story. There’s this assumption that she’s “not widely known” or that the decision “constitutes a surprise to most observers” – these general statements that may be based on suppositions or comfortable cliches, rather than hard facts. On the other hand, if these same journalists read Orthofer’s blog, they would’ve known the day before the award announcement that someone leaked info. to Ladbrokes and that Muller was likely the winner. And if attention were paid to Muller’s translators – some of whom, admittedly, have been given a voice in post-Nobel coverage – they’d realize that she’s not a minor figure (though I admit never having read any of her stuff). Muller sounds like a decent candidate for the award, even though there are certainly dozens of writers out there who would be more obvious and quite deserving choices. Still, if this helps bring the work of a fine writer onto a larger stage, all the better. We should look forward to that opportunity. Finally, as others have pointed out, it’s good to see that most of her work translated into English has been done by small, independent presses, including some university presses. The mini-sales booms (several of Muller’s novels are in the top 20 on Amazon right now) can make an indie publisher’s quarter or year, and it shows, once again, that when it comes to translated fiction, indies are often ahead of the curve.
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Jacob Silverman's picture
Should’ve added Edith Grossman to that list of translators. She’s certainly one of the few translators to be considered well known here – and to earn the write to have her name on a book cover, rather than being tucked away inside.
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