Rushdie at the Bat

April 3, 2009

It’s always nice to have a literary heavyweight make a public statement in defense of literature in translation. Via Conversational Reading, we discover that Salman Rushdie’s speech at the PEN World Voices Festival encouraged publishers to take on more works originally written in languages other than English. And naturally, in this Age of 2666, Bolaño figures prominently in his argument (at least according to the Mexican press):

El autor anglo-indio Salman Rushdie destacó hoy el reconocimiento en EU del fallecido escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño y animó al mercado editorial estadounidense a tomar nota e impulsar más traducciones al inglés de obras de éxito.”El éxito tardío de Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) con 2666 es una muestra de lo poco que se traduce en Estados Unidos”, dijo el célebre autor. . .

It would certainly be nice if someone not named Bolaño got some attention for a change, but maybe on the whole it’s a positive development that there’s a wildly popular translated author. Still, every time 2666 doesn’t win an award, I admit I feel a little surge of joy — and I say this as someone who thinks Natasha Wimmer is a skilled and creative translator. (I am still baffled by her treatment of Laura Restrepo’s Delirium, though, and have chosen to blame the butchering of that prose on the editor, since I don’t really know what happened.) I can’t help feeling like having all the attention go to a singular literary figure means that when the “Bolaño party,” as Rushdie puts it, winds down, the field of literature in translation will be left no richer. So far the attention seems fairly superficial, focused as it is on such a narrow slice of the literary universe. I fear that the surge in interest in a writer like Bolaño merely makes the idea of translation trendy — the cause celebre of the book world for a time, to be hastily abandoned as soon as some other fad, like the “graphic novels” of the early 2000s or the expat memoirs of Provence and Tuscany of the 1990s, takes over.

But if the runaway success of Bolaño in translation can be exploited by big-name figures like Rushdie to urge publishers to bring out more literature in translation, well, I really shouldn’t complain. With any luck, they’re listening.



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