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. 


  1. There’s also that weird phenomenon whereby very serious, dramatic works (books and movies) are selected for translation. Foreign movies tend to play in art house theaters, where the audience is self selected and tends to favor very serious fare – you don’t see a lot of international comedies getting subtitled into English (especially true for the Arab world, as is familiar for any student of Arabic who’s been forced to sit through a year of the most depressing Arabic movies ever written).

    I think the same thing is true to a large degree of novels in translation, and I think the audience tends to self select because they expect books in translation to fit into a certain mold: Probably modern realist, maybe a bit (or a lot) post-modern, very serious. I mean, look at the book above – The Mehlis Report, which is what is available in translation for Rabee Jaber, and where the translator (interviewed here) said he translated it specifically because it’s one of Jaber’s less accessible works, and I can’t imagine I’d be interested in reading it in any language – sounds pomo and dull. Whereas Amerka is something I would actually recommend to people, but I’m not even sure if it is being translated. That’s also the problem of the gatekeepers of translation – they tend to translate things they themselves would be interested in, but not necessarily that a broader marker would appreciate. So I think the packaging is going to have to contend with the established trend for translated literature to be very heavy and not terribly accessible, and I think that’s a big part of the ‘homework’ mentality.

    1. Well, although all your other points are valid, I take offense on Mehlis, which is accessible & fun, and it’s being well-reviewed in the mainstream US press. It’s more Murakami than homework, if Kareem said it was “less accessible,” then he wasn’t being exact in his language.

      But it’s true, America is not on anyone’s list to translate, as far as I know. Neither is Druze of Belgrade, although of course it will be, since it won the IPAF.

      There is translated pop literature (Ayza Atgowaz) but that was packaged up by a university press as a work of curiosity, not a work of fun literature (which it is).

      The gatekeepers of translation are still largely the translators themselves — it’s what translators choose & press on publishers. Although it’s true that ND was more interested in Jaber’s non-historical works, because that’s their audience — it’s not ND’s fault that no one’s picking up the other Jaber novels.

      1. Well, there’s the problem of ad copy versus word of mouth right there – the ad copy for Mehlis reads:

        “A complex thriller, The Mehlis Report introduces English readers to a highly talented Arabic writer. When former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri is killed by a massive bomb blast, the U.N. appoints German judge Detlev Mehlisto conduct an investigation of the attack — while explosions continue to rock Beirut. Mehlis’s report is eagerly awaited by the entire Lebanese population.

        First we meet Saman Yarid, a middle-aged architect who wanders the tense streets of Beirut and, like everyone else in the city, can’t stop thinking about the pending report. Saman’s sister Josephine, who was kidnapped in 1983,narrates the second part of The Mehlis Report: Josephine is dead, yet exists in a bizarre underworld in the bowels of Beirut where the dead are busy writing their memoirs. Then the ghost of Hariri himself appears…”

        Other than “complex thriller”, it doesn’t really sound that appealing at first read, certainly not fun or accessible, and my own impression of the serious/heaviness of Arabic lit nudges it from ‘maybe’ to ‘probably not’ territory. But hearing you describe it as fun definitely nudges it back towards ‘maybe’ (there’s not much said about it on Goodreads either at this point, and the NPR review I found didn’t really give much of an evaluation, more of a summary.)

        I personally would prefer a translation of Amerka before the Druze of Belgrade – I think the former would potentially be a very good book for Arabic literature in translation, whereas the later isn’t quite as relevant or interesting a read for most American audiences I think.

        Ayza Atgawaz was also a fluke in that it was the result of a translation class, the same one that resulted in “A bit of air,” so it didn’t quite go through the usual gatekeepers. The preface and whatever was a bit unfortunate, but the cover was nice and fun looking.

        1. “A bit of air” was AWESOME to see on the US market (the fact that I’m a partisan of Walid Taher notwithstanding), although I wish it had gotten more attention.

          I still think there many “usual” and “unusual gatekeepers,” though. There are so many small publishing houses out there open to suggestions. If someone wanted to take on Rabee’s America, I think they could find a house.

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