In the most recent Brooklyn Quarterly, Deep Vellum publisher Will Evans writes an impassioned essay that declares, “I Want You To Start Your Own Publishing House.”
The reason Evans wants you to start your own publishing house is not so that you’ll bring out more self-help or kitten porn or inspirational vampire titles, although if that’s your dream I doubt he’d stomp on it. What he really wants is for more North Americans to immerse and invest themselves in translated literature.
Oh, we Amreekans know who we are: We are the people who don’t listen to music in foreign tongues, who don’t like subtitled films, and who only read literature translated into English as an extreme minority sport. Translated literature does not form part of the backbone of our mystery, crime-writing, romance, children’s literature, and speculative fiction, as it does in other languages. Instead, “translated literature” forms a subgenre of its own, where it is required (generally) to be a particular sort of elite literary fiction.
While other nations often have major literary awards for international writing, we focus our creating awards on writers from every state and genre. (And no, you Brits are really not much better.) Structurally, across the board, we put small emphasis on bringing literature in from other languages or reading it once it’s here.
Evans suggests that this is a bit weak of us, and that there is a value to developing a greater interest in translated literature. This is a point we could debate — Tim Parks certainly might contest it, as he does in “Writing Adrift in the World.” Ultimately, though, most of us keen readers do want to keep our toe into other literary conversations: Listen in to what’s going on in Bengali, French, Urdu, Spanish, Italian, Malayalam.
Then again, most readers are not keen readers — they’re casual ones, and that’s good, too. So how do we draw the casual reader into literary conversations outside of English?
When I spoke to Stephanie Seegmuller of Pushkin Press about publishing children’s literature in translation — which we English-talking folk rarely do — she said that she wouldn’t expect children to care that a book was foreign. She expects children to care that a book is fun, breathtakingly written, thoughtful, drags them into a new world, gives them new tastes and sounds. (The point about children’s literature is important, and one I hope to expand on over at Asymptote. If we don’t translate for children– and make explicit note that we are doing so, and make the translators visible — then how can we expect our grown-people to accept translations?)
…should I do what Evans asks? Should I start my own publishing house? After all, I do have a few ideas of books that could be brought into English.
But meantime, in the world of grown-up literature, if I do want to encourage more readers to explore the joys of non-English-penned literatures, should I do what Evans asks? Should I start my own publishing house? After all, I do have a few ideas of books that could be brought into English.
I’ll admit from the outset that I have an allergy to anything that deals in the exchange of currency, so there’s a personal reason why I could never start my own publishing house — I’d have to give away all the books and pay the authors from my own pocket.
But another reason is that there are many great books circulating, even many great translated books, even many great books translated from the Arabic. Evans suggests there were only 18 Arabic-English titles published in the US in 2013, but that would be a significant undercount. It’s perhaps close to the number published in the US, but as more and more books are available in electronic formats, the distinction between “published in the US” and “published outside the US in English” means less and less.
Who reads these 30-odd books translated from Arabic and published in English each year? Yes, in 2014, many will read Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition –we have at least done something right here (thank you, Ra Page). But who will read Radwa Ashour’s The Woman from Tantoura and Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal and Jabbour Douaihy’s June Rain and Muhsin al-Ramli’s Dates on My Fingers?
Evans notes that one of the challenges that face particularly the smaller independent publishers is “how to get translations in front of readers.”
So if I were going to contribute to this ecosystem — of giving literature in translation a greater chance with English-language readers — I wouldn’t start another publishing house. I’d make this whirligig more entertaining. I would brighten the face of ArabLit; I would spark more discussions about trends in Arabic literature; I would run more zizz and contests; I would create book-club materials; I would organize events; I would run more excerpts, short stories, poems. I would also target some of this at young people who might be interested in MG and YA literature in translation.
We certainly can’t run the ecosystem without publishers, but particularly in such a content-crowded environment, we can’t run it without literary salons, either. We need trusted voices to point the way to what’s worth reading, for whom, and why.