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Reading the World: Translation Is Rising

Image – iStockphoto: Runna
Where Politics Can’t Stop Us

A funny thing happened on the way to isolationism. Some in the business believe there’s new interest in work from other languages.

I’m hopeful that some of what’s lost in the dynamics of vulgar nationalism can be found in translation.

Threatened with the un-American idea that we shouldn’t have people from “foreign” venues among us, Americans, it seems, may be waking up to the fact that we’re all foreigners here, united in world history’s grandest handshake.

And not just in the Newer World, either. In the UK–perhaps an early warning of the Brexitian crisis–The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan and Felicity Wood were reporting a rise in revenue of 6.2 percent in translated books in the first part of 2014. At that point (about 19 weeks into that year), 112 translated books had been part of the Top 5,000 titles tracked, over 63 translated titles in the same period of the previous year.

At world trade shows this year, the “rights centers,” those big, noisy kasbahs in which books are bought and sold into new languages, have been growing fast, to the point that at the largest, Frankfurt Book Fair, we had sold out all 600 tables in its Literary Agents and Scouts Center, called the LitAg, some six months before the fair this year.

Tomorrow (Monday, November 20), we’ll have news at Publishing Perspectives [1] of Wattpad phenom Anna Todd selling the first book of a new series rapidly into international territories, and it’s not even releasing until June 1.

[2]The National Endowment for the Arts [3]‘ translation fellowships in 2018 will award 22 new grants of $12,500 or $25,000 each for a total $300,000 to help defray the costs of translation from works in 15 languages and five continents. In fact, here’s a bright spot amid the crushing distress of “your tax dollars at work” in so many wrong places these days: since 1981, the NEA has awarded 455 fellowships to 404 translators working into English from 69 languages and 82 countries. NEA literature director Amy Stolls calls this “expanding the range of ideas and viewpoints.” And that’s how you build open doors, not walls.

Meanwhile, Vermont College of Fine Arts has announced what’s thought to be the world’s first low-residency international MFA program in creative writing and literary translation. Hong Kong author Xu Xi [4], a visiting faculty member, is helping to head up the new program. In a prepared statement about the new MFA, Xu is quoted, saying, “The literary world is global and writers need to broaden their perspective beyond their own borders through immersion in other cultures and languages, and through interactions with writers from other parts of the world.”

[5]Do you know Three Percent [6]? It’s Chat Post’s site and project, based at the University of Rochester, that’s the closest thing we have in the States to an authority on translated books. Post, always struggling for adequate resources of time and money, diligently tries to track and evaluate the work going on in this country in translation. He also publishes translation from Open Letter Books [7].

And he named the site for a guess. Over many years, it’s been estimated (no one can prove this) that US citizens’ reading lists tend to include, at best, three percent literature in translation. Although still in the anecdotal stage, there are signs of rising interest, even in the American readership, in work from other cultures.

Part of the credit goes to AmazonCrossing [8], the translation imprint of Amazon Publishing (that’s trade publishing, not self-publishing). AmazonCrossing has become the new powerhouse of translation, putting out far more titles per year than its closest competitor in that regard, the Dalkey Archive. And one of the things that AmazonCrossing’s editorial director, Gabriella Page-Fort, is talking about these days is that glowing connection between the political conditions of this ridiculous year and the chance to communicate with another culture.

‘This Sense of Responsibility’
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

“I’m feeling a lot of stress about the state of the world,” Page-Fort told me [9] when I interviewed her earlier this fall. “I think we’re all paying closer attention to the bigger world right now than maybe we have in my lifetime. And I think that’s a huge opportunity for books in translation. The way that’s influencing AmazonCrossing is that we’re doubling down on the intention of what we’ve been doing all along, which is trying to find the stories that make people feel more similar than different. Things that make it so you can connect and see directly into the eyes of whatever today’s ‘other’ looks like.

[10]“That’s going to come through in more diversity in terms of language and countries of origin in the books we publish. There’s an additional focus on nonfiction. We’re finding some really exciting projects of people telling their own story in their own voice. And I really do feel this sense of responsibility. Because we have this opportunity to present books to readers, to show readers the world as it is. And to bring a little bit of awareness, just through fiction.”

One of Page-Fort’s secrets: She’s had the submission portal for AmazonCrossing translated into 14 languages. Another: she assigns translations of genre work, lots of it, not just literary work, which has been the tradition in the past. In fact, you may know some of the authors whose work in English is being translated into other markets by Crossing’s team: a two-way street. Here’s Catherine Hyde Ryan’s Ich bleibe hier [11], translated by Marion Plath.

[12]So readers who wouldn’t touch that thing by a Nobel winner from a distant land can also find Madness Treads Lightly [12] by the Russian author Polina Dashkova, in translation by Marian Schwartz. It will scare your life out. It will also tell you “something about what it feels to be a woman and a mother” in the post-Soviet realities of modern Russia.

So maybe we’re starting, in the English-speaking world, to do what we should have done long ago: read more books by people with funny names.

Want a recommendation? Try The House by the River [13] by Greece’s Lena Manta, translated by Gail Holst-Warhaft. It’s a Greece you don’t know, an era you won’t recall, a deep meditation on “refuge beside a river” of generational currents and meandering relationships.

My provocation for you today is this:

Why aren’t we better about reading from other cultures, here in the United States? Is it something along the lines of that bogus old travel dodge, “Oh, I don’t need to travel overseas when we have so much here at home”? Is it purely the fear of “the other” that seems to drive some voters to follow bigots? Is it that we just don’t care about other cultures and understandings of life?

Let me know your thoughts. By the way, please join me in the international campaign to #NameTheTranslator whenever you talk or write about translated work. Translators are our brother and sister artists in the business and their work is essential to the success that many of us would like to see for effective globalized readership in the marketplace.

About Porter Anderson [14]

@Porter_Anderson [15] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [16], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [17] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [18]