Diagnosing Literature in Translation
Alane Salierno Mason, founder of Words Without Borders, talks about literature in translation.
Question: What factors contribute to the paucity of literature in translation?
Alane Salierno Mason: Well, one is that it’s harder to publish fiction of any kind. So,
it’d be interesting to compare those figures with the figures for first novels, for instance,
or first collections of short stories. It may be that just as many are being published, but
fewer are being published by major publishers.
So in general, there’s a contraction of literary publishing that’s been going on since the
contraction of independent bookstores, the mergers of many small publishers into larger
corporations. So there are now really, far fewer major players in the publishing world
than there were even when I started 20 years ago.
I think the fundamental change of attitude is when publishers started to look at each book
as needing to carry its own weight financially.
So whereas in the Golden Age of American publishing, publishers -- many of them were
well off and were not looking to make any money to begin with, but for those who were
in the business of profit-making, they knew that only a few titles are really going to turn a
profit and they expected that those few bestsellers would carry the more noble part of
publishing, the serious literature that might not make any money.
But presumably, as more MBA started to come into the workings of publishers and
publishers became more corporate, we now believe that every book needs to carry its
own weight and needs to carry an equivalent share of the overhead cost as a big
So per copy, that book needs to contribute as much to salaries and health insurance and
lights as a big bestseller, which really makes it much harder to publish books that might
only sell a few thousand copies.
And almost all translation falls into that category and has the additional impediments of
the additional cost for the translation and the fact that it is much harder to promote
authors. So in this period as well, it’s become essential that authors promote themselves.
It’s very hard for a foreign language author coming in to this market with no experience
with American entrepreneurship and self-marketing to be able to do that even if they
speak English. And of course most of them are writing in their foreign language because
that is the language they are comfortable in; they’re not comfortable writing or speaking
in English. Some can speak in English, but in such a way that -- with enough of an
accent that radio programs might not want to interview them. You might not want to
interview them. So, the foreignness becomes a handicap in the promotion more than in
the actual work.
Question: How does a foreign language manuscript arrive on the American market?
Alane Salierno Mason: The wonderful thing about publishing is that there is so much
serendipity, so there is no one path to publication.
In some cases, authors are living in the States because they have a teaching job at a
university or they are journalists based in the United States for a period and they formed
connections that make it easier for them to get published in English.
In other cases, they win a Nobel Prize and then suddenly publishers are scrambling for
the rights to works they have previously completely ignored.
What "Words Without Borders" has tried to do is provide the kind of roots publication
that small magazines have served for English language authors; or even big magazines.
So for instance, if an English-language fiction writer has a story published in the “New
Yorker” and nobody has ever heard of that writer before, suddenly there’s a rush to
publish works by that author. Other English language writers have gotten known through
the “Paris Review” or “Granta” or any number of well-regarded quarterlies.
There has been really no such thing for writers in translation because the small journalists
usually didn’t have people who could read foreign languages or didn’t have a large
enough net of connections among translators. Some journalists have done some
translation, but “Words Without Borders” is really the only one to my knowledge that
focuses exclusively on literature and translation and has really put all of its energy in
seeking new work and into building a network of translators, foreign publishers and other
reliable allies to recommend work for translation and publication.
Question: How are translators different in the U.S. than in Europe?
Alane Salierno Mason: The best translations are done by people who are also writers.
And it is much more common in Europe, for example, for literary writers to also try their
hand at translation, in some cases, actually to make a living at translation to support their
own artistic work.
Now, in this country, there is just no opportunity to make a living doing translations, so
writers are just much less likely to study foreign languages and to really have a foot in
another language. It’s not to say there aren’t any, but it’s just much less common; so it is
hard to find good translators.
There’s a lot of academic translation which I think is not as strong where an academic is
coming to something from a particular ideological point of view or a sense of the
nonfiction interest of the work, but perhaps a less strong sense of the texture of the
language as a poetic or a literary endeavor.
So that said, we have a fantastic network of translators and it’s been built up now over 10
years. And the editorial director of “Words Without Borders,” Susan Harris, has also
been one of the lead players in the American Literary Translators Association and I think
we have the best network out there.
Question: Are literary agents friendly to foreign authors?
Alane Salierno Mason: It’s much harder for a foreign language author to get an
American agent. Again, American editors -- and American agents like American editors,
are less likely to read foreign languages.
The exceptions, like George Broussard, have been hugely important to American literary
culture. George Broussard arrived in this country fluent in French and was the agent for
Beckett and UNESCO and Jean Genet.
There was also a whole generation of people who -- really, refugees from Nazi-Germany
and from Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War who ended up here Helen
and Kurt Wolff are another example and they were hugely important to bringing
European literature into English.
Diagnosing Literature in Translation
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