Stop the Hand-Wringing and Bring the Cash!

February 11, 2009

Way late to the party on this one:

In an essay from June of last year, James Thomas Snyder addressed the niche status of translated literature in the publishing world. (This is a perennial topic in translation circles, but has been discussed in a number of posts on this blog over the past few days.) I don’t really know quite what Snyder meant by saying that a translation is “a sort of hearsay.” I’ve come up with some interpretations, but I’d be interested in knowing more, mostly to know if I disagree or not, and how strongly. In any event, he proposed a way to remedy this marginal position: another literary prize.

There is no better way to increase the prospects of a risky venture than the imprimatur of a major prize like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. It is clear, for example, that the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to Orhan Pamuk widened interest in him personally and made translations of his entire corpus into English viable. But the American literature awards break open a market like no other.

A high-profile American award for books in English translation would raise the quality and quantity of translations, giving translators a great goal to aim for in taking on risky projects. And it would raise respect for the hard work of cultural interpretation for those who often live and work obscurely as bridges between civilizations.

Awards like ALTA’s aren’t a big enough deal, I guess. Any translation-minded philanthropists out there want to create a sweet $10,000 prize for a translated work of literature? The Man Booker is £50,000, but we translators are used to getting by with much, much less than those coddled novelists.

I’m glad to see Snyder, citing the popularity of writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Hosseini, and Azar Nafisi, point out that Americans are not afraid of foreign subject matter. “Clearly,” he says, “there is a market for foreign-themed literature,” and adds that “publishing houses are often more skeptical than the public.” Moving past that irritating stumbling block would be a good start. As I suggested in my last post, publishers could certainly make an effort to cultivate this at the moment fairly passive interest and direct it toward translated literature, but are generally reluctant to do so. Imagine if just a fraction of the resources that went into promoting the latest Dan Brown novel — or even the latest Cormac McCarthy — went instead into works of international literature.

-ar

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