Do We Package Books in Translation ‘Too Earnestly’?

This month on Guernica, “Superagent” Nicole Aragi shared her insights on selling translations to an American reading public:

This isn't too earnest, is it? Because this book is FUN. ENJOYABLE. WHO-HOO!
This isn’t too earnest, is it? Because this book is FUN. ENJOYABLE. WHO-HOO!

Not enough agents who read in multiple languages, she said:

If you can’t read a book in its original language and form a view on it, then that’s the first barrier. You need to find a reader in that language who you can absolutely trust, but even then, where is the personal response you need in order to know you really love something?

And then there’s the publishers’ belief that readers see “translated” and think “oh, no, homework“:

Then there’s resistance on the part of the publishing houses. There’s a belief that readers are far less likely to buy a book that has “translated by” on the cover. The feeling is that readers will see those words and think the book is more difficult, less enjoyable, than something originally written in English. That they’ll think of it as homework rather than reading pleasure. There are exceptions, of course. The Dinner by Herman Koch, for instance, did very well recently. Sometimes situational novels in translation can succeed, I think. People could identify with The Dinner. They thought: what would I do if I realized my son was doing this dreadful thing? There’s enough in that to make people talk about the book, and once people are talking about a book half the battle is won.

As much as I hate the phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy,” I think Aragi is right-on here about packaging (for instance) Nuruddin Farah:

I represent a Somali writer called Nuruddin Farah. His very early books were published very seriously, with very serious photographs on the cover, and they looked like academic works. The turning point was when a book of his came out with a face on the cover. Something as simple as a picture of a face humanized the work. It changed Nuruddin’s readership in America. We think of books in translation too earnestly and then publish them too earnestly, and then we’re surprised when they feel earnest. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Note: Farah’s earlier novels also had some absolutely dreadful quasi-scholarly introductions.

And Aragi has tossed a suggestion to someone out there:

Someone should re-market A Thousand and One Nights for the E.L. James generation.

Thanks to novelist Randa Jarrar (@randajarrar) for linking me up with this piece.