Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Pat Holt, with a wail: Where's all the translation?

Pat Holt, long-time book critic for The San Francisco Chronicle and publisher since 1998 of the estimable book industry column Holt Uncensored, is gobsmacked that more works in translation aren’t published in America. Among the results we suffer, she observes, are a culture a-wither in the confines of literary imprisonment (my paraphrase – but you can see that she’d agree), and a publishing industry suffering by cutting themselves off from an obvious source of new talent:
Wouldn’t any publisher consider it a plus if a prospective assistant editor came to the job interview with a reading fluency in at least one foreign language? During college the candidate could have studied the classics in that language, traveled in that country and read all the promising modern authors. If hired, the new editorial assistant could comb through the foreign country’s publishing lists, acquire advance copies, investigate the U.S. market for prospective works in translation and write up Readers Reports that would be reviewed by a senior editor. This would be good training for the editorial assistant and it would sure breathe new life into an industry struggling to match the literary demands of the world.
Incisive criticism and insightful advice. An example of how this advice can succeed in application is the good idea David Godine had when he picked up Chercheur D’or at a foreign book fair, commissioned a translation, released it on the English-language market at The Prospector, and enjoyed a healthy kick in sales when Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize this year.

To acknowledge the other obvious example at the moment: Farrar, Straus and Giroux can't have any complaints as it keeps on publishing best-selling translations of what seems like Roberto Bolaño's entire ouevre, one after the other, in a feverish single-file congo line of doorstop opus epics of Latin American literary imagination. In Spain, in Germany, in Brazil, in Russia, lurk all kinds of authors, some as accomplished as any of the laurelled Anglo-American set, others as talented as Bolaño and as unknown as he was ten years ago. The oil's there, publishers, so why ain't ya drillin'? As we have learned is important in such endeavors, you better get there before someone drinks your milkshake. Not everyone's asleep: Dalkey, Godine, Open Letter, and Tameme have all got their bendy straws in place.

Holt goes on in some detail highlighting the benefits to be gained if American publishers were to engage a larger portion of international literature; her post is well worth reading in its entirety, as the first of three things she’d love to see (that is, that she’d love to see occur in American publishing). We wait, breath bated, for the third.

Among the many noteworthy points Holt relates in the making of her case:
-a Nobel Prize judge observes that American writers and publishers are too insular
-the NEA literature director describes the decline of published books in translation “a national crisis”
-the chair of PEN’s translation committee concludes that such monoglot practices “prevent authors from reaching readers anywhere outside their own country”

Many thanks to C.M. Mayo for pointing out Holt’s return to commentary on the ALTA mailing list. Mayo is the founder of Tameme, Inc., a California-based nonprofit devoted to the promotion of Spanish-English and English-Spanish translation. You can learn more about that outfit and about Mayo herself at her blog, or by checking out this recent interview in Saint Ann’s Review.

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