By Bill Marx
Fiction in translation deserves all the notice it can get, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to patronize writers and readers by duplicating the happy talk that is turning people off of blurb-ridden book reviews in the mainstream media.
My friend Chad Post, formerly at Dalkey Archive Press, has begun a new publishing house called Open Letter at the University of Rochester. The press will publish twelve works of international literature each year. Given the bricked-up provincialism of American culture, any effort to publish first-rate fiction in translation should be encouraged. Open Letter also features an online magazine and weblog component named Three Percent, which includes original reviews, links to articles on fiction in translation, and samples of works from around the world.
In some ways, the magazine is just as important as the press. The problem with international fiction in this country is that (some) money is available for translations, but once the books are published they have to struggle upstream in the marketplace without any fins. After a publisher goes to the expense of translating, editing, printing, and distributing the volumes, the book is on its own, struggling for attention among thousands of other titles. Advertising budgets are tiny for the small and university presses that champion books in translation. The column inches reserved for reviews of books in translation are negligible, aside from the big names.
Post knows this well: he is one of the masterminds of the advertising project Reading the World, now marking its third year. The set-up has publishers and independent booksellers spotlighting fiction and poetry in translation during the month of June. For 30 days, participating bookstores via special window displays and promotional material push works of literature outside of the United States, ranging from Lithuania to Chile, from Norway to Germany. The Reading the World website lists the 40 books that have been picked for special exposure this year.
Unlike Reading the World, Three Percent appears to be a place dedicated to news and views about international fiction. At least the presence of reviews suggests that Post wants to do more than publicize books. He wants us to think about them. But the five critiques on the site are raves, to the point that they read like admiring flap copy. I am all for getting fiction in translation noticed, but it doesn’t do anyone any good to patronize writers and readers by duplicating the happy talk that is turning people off of blurb-ridden book reviews in the mainstream media. Book criticism should be about lively discrimination and evaluation, taking the art of writing seriously enough to explore creative successes, failures, and everything in-between.
Not every volume translated into English is terrific. When Three Percent embraces that fact it will establish the intellectual credibility it needs to generate compelling discussions on books and ideas that will help spread the good word about international fiction by exciting readers who are inundated with sales tips.