At Qantara.de Fakhri Saleh 'explores the effect that the loss of homeland has had on Palestinian literature and self-perception', in A Nation Crafted From Words -- a solid overview (though with a focus on past rather than present authors ...).
The headline of Dmitry Bak's Russia beyond the Headlines article -- From Chekhov to Akunin, Russian literature is being condensed -- seems to have lost something in translation, but his lament -- "The bottom line is that the majesty of Russian literature has fallen from favor, or rather it has dissipated" -- comes across loud and clear.
More defensive than usual for these variations on the familiar no-one-understands-us(-and-that's-why-they're-not-buying-our-books) article, Bak suggests:
Then there are authors who fare rather well in the country of export, namely Russia, but then flop in the import country.
There are many of these, but they flop not because they are too Russian or too provincial, but for more indistinct, more sociological reasons.
Much like a stock market index, interlinked with the subtle ups and down of the market.
The level of Russian literature is notably high, just as it always was, but it is extremely difficult or even impossible to transpose this into another context.
Ah, those mysterious sociological reasons .....
What it boils down to ?
The point there is that Russian literature is not conceited, it simply digs too deep for most ordinary people.
Oh, bless them for taking themselves (and the products of the beloved motherland) so seriously.
(That said, I agree that far too little contemporary Russian fiction makes it abroad -- and especially into English.
But there are a lot of reasons for this, and suggesting Russian literature "digs too deep for most ordinary people" is not a good starting point to fix any of these.)
I've been trying to keep the 'best books of the year lists' links to a minimum here -- I'm sure you come across your fill elsewhere -- but a few are worth pointing to.
So also now the Times Higher EducationBest books of 2013 -- 'The year's best reads for work and pleasure, chosen by scholars and senior figures in the sector', which offers a pretty interesting range.
Another blog post by me in my capacity as Best Translated Book Award judge at Three Percent, as I weigh in on The Genre Heap we deal with -- and wonder why so few genre titles (especially mysteries/thrillers) make it to the longlist stage and beyond.
Last week I discussed at some length Hugh Schofield's BBC News piece wondering Why don't French books sell abroad ?
Now Laurence Marie, head of the book department at the US French Embassy, responds by turning the question, wondering Why Do French Books Sell Abroad ?
She notes, as I did, that title-wise, translations from the French do very well in English -- relatively speaking (i.e. a lot more books are translated from French into English than from any other language -- even thought that's still a very small number of books ...).
And she also provides some actual (or at least rough) numbers which are certainly of interest.
First off, she mentions that US rights to Joël Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair went: "for about half a million dollars".
She then offers some sales numbers (they seem to be US numbers, but it's not entirely clear and may in some cases include UK totals) -- including:
Tokyo Fiancée by Amélie Nothomb; "between 3,000 and 5,000 copies"
Zone by Mathias Enard; "between 3,000 and 5,000 copies"
(Check out the others too -- interesting to see how these books have done, even if it is only a small sampling of titles.)
Some of her arguments are kind of beside the point -- "French writers are frequently invited not only by American universities, but also by popular festivals" -- and I think she's a bit too bullish on French 'noir' conquering the English-speaking world.
(Never mind that those two Didier Daeninckx novels from Melville House were reprints from yesteryear (Serpent's Tail brought them out in the early 1990s) -- but also: if you're going down that road, how can you forget the Jean-Patrick Manchette novels ? New York Review Books is bringing out another one next year .....
Meanwhile, something like Philippe Georget's Summertime, all the Cats are Bored is hardly very noir -- but if you're going to mention mysteries like that, why not the most successful of the French mystery authors, Fred Vargas ?)
Still, it makes for a decent overview of much of what's coming into English from French nowadays.
All of us Best Translated Book Award judges post prize-related entries at Three Percent, and my latest one is on the Dutch (and Flemish) titles in the running for the award -- not many titles but a pretty impressive selection.
The French are already looking ahead to the first big flood of books in 2014: the fall rentrée littéraire is usually the period when the biggest titles come out, but the winter rentrée is also pretty significant, and in Le Figaro Mohammed Aissaoui looks ahead to Rentrée littéraire 2014: le grand bond en avant.
Between 2 January and 27 February 547 works of fiction are coming out -- 352 French titles, and 195 translations.
Aissaoui only introduces twenty-five of the titles, but some certainly sound of interest -- Paul Fournel offering "quinze nouvelles érotiques", a new Éric Chevillard.
And there are some crowd-pleasers in the bunch, too: new works by David Foenkinos and Katherine Pancol, for example.
A couple of months ago I reviewed Robert Spoo's interesting work, Without Copyrights, which looked at the near-free-for-all that American copyright law made for with regard to foreign (both translated and first-published-abroad-in-English) works in the US well into the 20th century.
Among the interesting developments was that of 'trade courtesy' among publishers, who often essentially deferred to whoever published first -- as if the work was copyright protected.
Publishers went along with this because they also benefited, able to expect (more or less) that no one would compete with them in turn when they published a foreign work.
The system wasn't iron-clad -- new entrants had clear incentives to cheat and bring out competing editions, for example -- but for the most part it worked surprisingly well.
Iran, one of the few countries that still operates largely outside international copyright law, is in many ways in a similar situation as the United States was over a hundred years ago regarding the copyright protection for foreign (in their case basically: translated) work.
This leads to competing translations being published -- often at nearly the same time: just last week I mentioned that two translations of Murakami Haruki's A Wild Sheep Chase were published in Iran within two weeks of one another.
An extreme case is that of Khaled Hosseiniís recent novel, And the Mountains Echoed -- the second-bestselling title at Amazon.com in 2013.
Apparently they figured it would be popular in Iran too -- and IBNA report that:
There are more that ten translations of the book in Iranian book market.
Obviously, the 'trade courtesy' model did not apply here ....
Aside from the fact that it's pretty impressive that they could get ten different translations to market so quickly -- well, this obviously isn't an ideal situation for anyone, from readers, who are presumably hard-pressed to guess which translation is the best, to the publishers who lose potential sales to competing editions.
(I fear that, at least as far as royalties go, authors tend to be losers regardless of how their books are brought to the Iranian market: I assume that Mr. Hosseini and most others aren't collecting any royalties on any of these editions (though as in the US of yesteryear the author's blessing -- in the form of agreeing to 'authorized editions' -- can set translations apart and provide the author with a bit of cash-flow).)
The book-penned-by-a-politician (or at least published under his or her name ...) is a pre-election-year standard around the world, and in The Korea Times Kim Tong-hyung offers a look at the phenomenon in Korea, in considering the Use of useless literature.
Among the reasons for publishing such a 'book':
"It would be illegal for a politician to throw an event aimed at galvanizing his supporters during a non-campaigning period.
However, with book-launching ceremonies, they can create the same effect without violating the law," said an official from the National Election Commission, who didn't want to be named.
It's not surprising that their primary purpose isn't literary:
Itís difficult to move these books, which are usually 200 to 300 pages of personal stories and essays and rarely convey intellectual arguments.
I guess it makes sense that a Polish institution would award a prize named after a famous son -- though if that's Joseph Conrad I would have figured there was an English-language connection.
Not so in the case of the biennial Nagroda literacka im. Josepha Conrada-Korzeniowskiego, awarded by the Polish Institute in Kiev -- which goes to a Ukrainian writer.
They've announced that Tanja Maljartschuk (so at least the German transliteration of her name [updated: Tania Malyarchuk seems the going English transliteration -- and she had a story in the 2013 Best European Fiction anthology published by Dalkey Archive Press]) has won this year's prize, which comes with €3000 and a six-months stay in Poland.
See also, for example, the Residenz Verlag foreign rights page of her latest book published in German -- to good notices.
Previous winners of this prize include Serhiy Zhadan (2009) -- whose Depeche Mode Glagoslav brought out in English this year; see their publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
Not nearly enough gets translated from the interesting Ukrainian literary scene, and if this prize helps as a stepping stone -- well, that's good.
The biennial Internationaler Literaturpreis Albatros -- awarded by the Günter Grass Stiftung Bremen -- has announced its 2014 winners (yes, they'll only get to pick up the prize in April); not at the official site, last I checked, but see for example the report in Focus.
This prize for any international work of literary fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, is notable for dividing the €40,000 pay-out between author (€25,000) and translator (€15,000).
The prize goes to The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka and her translator Katja Scholtz.
(I haven't looked too hard, but I haven't learned why the prize is named after the bird -- in English, after all, an albatross isn't exactly the kind of prize any author wants hung around his neck.
My guess is that the meaning they're going after is more the albatross of Baudelaire's eponymous poem, rather than Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime .....)
This barely seems worth a mention (though it seems to have gotten a lot of them), but, as the official press release has it, Amazon Announces Best-Selling Books of 2013.
I do mention it because I am fascinated that they can get away without mentioning the actual number of books sold (data they actually have, after all, but which they're clearly unwilling to share) -- and because I can't recall ever seeing a bestseller list which includes the legal boilerplate:
This announcement contains forward-looking statements within the meaning of Section 27A of the Securities Act of 1933 and Section 21E of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
The publishing/bookselling 'business' never fails to astound me.
Steve Donoghue certainly seems to get through a lot of books, and while most end-of-the-year lists are a pretty boring lot he offers -- over a number of posts and days -- a variety of amusing variations on the theme at his Stevereads weblog.
My favorite, of course, the: Worst Books of 2013: Fiction ! (something I would love to see from many more critics and readers).
I've actually read three of these -- Woes of the True Policeman, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Night Film.
These I found more disappointing than truly bad (though I do agree that the Pessl is pretty darn bad) -- indeed, their inclusion suggests he's not trying nearly hard enough to seek out the truly dreadful.
I've reviewed a few real clunkers this year, but one book easily rates as the worst of the lot: Rimbaud the Son by Pierre Michon (which is the only title at the complete review I have ever assigned a grade of "F" to, that's how much I hate this book).
Amusingly enough, Donoghue recently reviewed it too, at the Quarterly Conversation -- favorably, too (yes, I'm afraid my opinion of that: "full flood of that Michonesque prose" is decidedly different).
So the Chinese have an award for the 21世纪年度最佳外国小说 -- amounting to: the 'Best 21st Century Foreign Novel of the Year' -- and they've just announced this year's five winners:
Anne Gesthuysen's Wir sind doch Schwestern; see the KiWi foreign rights page (yes, rights sold in China -- obviously -- as well as Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Spain; US/UK ? not so much ...)
Daniil Granin's Мой лейтенант (which also won the Russian Большая книга ('Big Book') award (which, despite its silly name, is one of the big Russian literary prizes) in 2012.
(Impressive side-note: Granin is ninety-four years old.)
Rodrigo Rey Rosa's Los sordos; see the Alfaguara publicity page (and, yes: available in Chinese translation; in English ... not so much ...)
Alessandro Piperno's Inseparabili -- which also took the 2012 Premio Strega, a leading Italian literary prize.
(And again: want to read it in Chinese -- no problem. Want to read it in English -- tough luck.)
Olivier Adam's Les lisières; see also the Flammarion publicity page (English ...? never mind ...)
At least other works by all these authors, save Gesthuysen, are available in English (see, for example reviews at the complete review of Adam's Cliffs or Rey Rosa's The African Shore)-- but interesting that the Chinese are so much more efficient in getting more recent books translated.
(The idea of a prize for just 21st-century foreign fiction is interesting too -- the Best Translated Book Award (for which I am a judge) is open to any fiction that hasn't previously been translated; I haven't counted, but I suspect easily half the titles we're considering this year were written pre-2000.)
Best-of-the-year lists just aren't as popular outside the US/UK.
One of the more notable ones (of the few ...) in France is Lire's Palmarès Lire: les 20 meilleurs livres de l'année 2013 -- which isn't strictly speaking a top twenty list -- which they announced a couple of weeks ago.
They crown a book of the year -- Nobel Prize-favorite Svetlana Alexievich's latest (available in English ? ha !) -- but otherwise select a top book in any number of (well, nineteen) categories, including: best foreign novel (Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates), best first foreign novel (Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers), and so on.
At least a lot of these are available in English -- because they were written in English.
(Tellingly, none of the winners that weren't written in English is available in English -- though the Pierre Lemaitre (best French novel) will be sooner rather than later).)
"If you want to publish the best fiction in India it makes no sense not to publish translations," says R Sivapriya, managing editor, Penguin Books India.
Since mid-2011, there has been a particular stress on English translations, she adds.
But, as former diplomat Pavan K Varma notes:
Translation should have been a top priority in a country of so many languages but it was ignored.
Interesting also the suggestion that:
Bengali had a head start over other languages in translations.
"That was maybe because English language publishing was dominated by Bengalis.
Now if we could just see more of this stuff outside India, too .....
In the Daily Nation Ciugu Mwagiru profiles Kenyan author Meja Mwangi, the reclusive writer with a mighty pen.
I read a couple of his books that appeared in the African Writers Series back in the day, and he's continued to write steadily -- though the books have often been difficult to find abroad.
(The observation that: "For some years now, he has been attracting the attention of American publishers" is also ... slightly misleading -- but at least the books do seem to be more readily available; get, for example, The Cockroach Dance at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.)
A solid overview of his life and career -- including the interesting quote:
"My only mistake," he told an interviewer, "was that I didnít use a pseudonym for my popular novels and use my own name for the rest.
That way, I would have avoided all this criticism."
To quantify James Bond's consumption of alcohol as detailed in the series of novels by Ian Fleming.
The conclusion ?
James Bond's level of alcohol intake puts him at high risk of multiple alcohol related diseases and an early death.
The level of functioning as displayed in the books is inconsistent with the physical, mental, and indeed sexual functioning expected from someone drinking this much alcohol.
We advise an immediate referral for further assessment and treatment, a reduction in alcohol consumption to safe levels, and suspect that the famous catchphrase "shaken, not stirred" could be because of alcohol induced tremor affecting his hands.
Hey, they seem to have taken it semi-seriously (though references to ... About.com, and to a summary-article in the Daily Telegraph (complete with incorrect URL -- they're missing the "l" at the end of the .htm) of a New Scientist piece suggests: only so far), and the graphics are pretty cool.
[Non-literary aside: another piece from this issue is an attempt:
To ascertain whether a name can influence a person's health, by assessing whether people with the surname "Brady" have an increased prevalence of bradycardia.
Which has the rather disturbing and bizarre finding:
This finding shows a potential role for nominative determinism in health.
Holy crap !
(Cum grano salis, folks --- but still.)]
that it has established a new award which will honour an outstanding Irish fiction writer, and encourage the next generation of Irish fiction writers.
It pays out €150,000 -- but that over three years, and with quite a bit of work attached:
The Laureate will have a three-year term. Over the period, he or she will teach creative writing to students at University College Dublin and New York University, will spend time developing his or her own work, and will participate in a number of major, public events and promotions.
Still: presumably good exposure, and the money isn't bad.
As I've noted in recent weeks, Chinese literature may get a decent amount of attention in the US/UK, but there's still a bit of a disconnect between that and actual success -- or even just publication.
I've noted that none of the 152-title strong IMPAC Dublin Literary Award longlist -- which includes 41 works in translation -- is a translation from the Chinese, and that the Best Translated Book Award apparently only has three works of fiction translated from the Chinese eligible for the prize covering 2013 publications (new translations of previously translated works and anthologies don't qualify, and works have to be published/distributed in the US).
At Paper Republic they have a roll call of Chinese-to-English fiction and poetry translations (UK, US, and beyond) -- and it too is pretty pitiful .....
At Asia Times Muhammad Cohen reviews two Lao She novels, in old translations re-issued by Penguin Classics (and hence hardly deserving of a place on the Paper Republic roll-call ...).
The novels are interesting -- but the piece is mainly of interest for the Q&A with Penguin China's managing director Jo Lusby -- scroll down --, which is worth a look.
The judging panel for the 2014 Man Booker Prize -- expanded from five to six judges (an even number, always dangerous for a decision-making body ...) -- has been announced.
Three have previous Man Booker experience, three are first-timers.
Apparently they bring: "with them a wide reading experience and knowledge of international literature".
And the claim is:
The judges' mission remains the same as in previous years: to select the finest fiction of the year.
Unmentioned goes the fact that they're limited in the task by the extremely small number of titles they are allowed to consider, given the Man Booker's restrictive submission-allowances.
Good to see there wasn't even much doubt about this one: Dany Laferrière was made an immortel, elected to take fauteuil 2 in the Académie française.
He was elected handily, taking thirteen of twenty-three votes in the first round, good enough to sweep him into the seat.
(The last vote they held, for fauteuil 21, didn't go nearly as well: three rounds and no winner, meaning they gave up and will have to try again later.)
Haitian-Canadian author Laferrière well deserves the honor -- and several of his works are under review at the complete review:
In The Spectator P.D.James remembers 'the gentlemanly world of Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion' in writing about Who killed the golden age of crime ? (meaning, presumably 'the golden age of crime writing').
Not really an exploration of that question, but interesting enough as an overview.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Jean Ferry's The Conductorand Other Tales, just out from Wakefield Press.
The first full publication in English of this unusual collection -- and a lovely little (pocket-sized, hurrah !) volume.
As Mohammed Saad reports at aahram online, Syrian Writer Khaled Khalifa wins Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, as his novel, لا سكاكين في مطابخ هذه المدينة, took this year's prize.
Unfortunately, the Egyptians apparently wouldn't give him a visa, so he could not pick up the prize in person.
No word yet at the official site, but see for example also the report at Arabic Literature (in English).
Khalifa's In Praise of Hatred came out in the UK last year; a US edition is due in April, 2014; pre-order your copy from Amazon.com or get your copy from Amazon.co.uk.
A fascinating piece at Qantara.de by Stefan Weidner considers translations of classical Islamic literature (meaning actual Arabic and Persian literature, not religious-Islamic un-literature) in From the Emotional Orient to the Distortion of Islam.
The Thousand and One Nights was a kind of Ossian.
The tales owed the phenomenal success they enjoyed all over Europe to the time-bound style of the translation.
If Galland had presented a translation of The Thousand and One Nights that was as sober, as fidŤle, as the one published by Claudia Ott in 2004, we can be sure that The Thousand and One Nights would never have been noticed at all -- just as today the translation practices of Galland and the majority of his successors, about whom Jorge Luis Borges writes so vividly in his essay on 'The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights', are no longer to our taste.
However, the question of which translation is better misses the point of what, above all, a translation has to offer.
As the Ott-reference suggests, this piece was written in German and uses German-language literature/translations as the main reference point -- so too in suggesting:
Hafez is a poet who would also have been ideally suited to the Viennese avant-garde; his wordplay can best be compared in German with that of H.C.Artmann or Reinhard Priessnitz.
(I'm guessing probably only a quarter of even my well-read readership is familiar with the works of Artmann and Priessnitz .....)
As Weidner notes:
The compatibility of Oriental poetry in general and that of Hafez in particular with German literature between Sturm und Drang and late Romanticism is down to two factors, neither of which have anything to do with the original.
One is the cultural deracination of this poetry.
Because its original contexts are barely known, it is inevitably particularly open to interpretation. We
can do with it and read into it what we will: it is unable to defend itself.
A lot of interesting stuff here about translation -- much of which also applies to translation from other languages/cultures.
I hope others pick up on the piece and comment.
At Radio Bulgaria Milka Dimitorva reports that there are More than 200 exhibitors at Sofia International Book Fair, which runs through the 15th.
Among the odd/interesting titbits: the mention of Thrown into Nature-Milen Ruskov's: "Elevation which won the special Elias Canetti prize and took theatres by storm".
A novel which takes theatres by storm ?
Anyway, Ruskov's new novel sounds interesting -- Възвишение in the Bulgarian original; see the Жанет45 publicity page -- and I'm pleased to hear about this Elias Canetti Prize, with which I was unfamiliar.
It's administered by the city of Ruse -- Canetti's birthplace -- and while it's nice they honor a hometown success in this way .... guys, he wrote in German.
Anyway, see also the official site with the list of previous winners.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Antonio Hill's (except in his native Spain where he goes under the name 'Toni Hill') The Summer of Dead Toys.
This is a serviceable thriller, but everything about it feels manufactured -- down to its international success.
This apparently easily sold foreign rights far and wide in short order before or around publication.
You can see how the specs -- plot outline, main characters -- and the author's translation background (the Wikipedia page even suggests his: "work as a translator was a great help in writing his first novel, as it exposed him to many books and diverse writing techniques") made this an easy sell, and yet all that is at the heart of the flaws of the book whose artificial construction creaks at every turn (even though Hill isn't half-bad as a writer).
(Yes, all works of fiction are entirely artificial constructions, but the art is in not letting that show (or in showing it in a specific way): The Summer of Dead Toys reads like a padded blueprint .....)
The international success (in terms of foreign rights sales) of this is Exhibit A (or Z -- there are so many) of what's wrong with publishing today -- specifically the publishing of international fiction.
Sure, it's not terrible, and maybe even deserves to be available in English (thriller/mystery readers are an astonishingly forgiving lot, and will put up with a lot), but, even with its (very forced) series-potential, it's not worth paying very much for -- and I'm sure the foreign publishers paid through the nose for this. -- based not on actually reading the novel in its entirety but in swallowing the sales-pitch and maybe reading an excerpt (and, like I said, he certainly writes well enough, so any excerpt would look fine).
(Astonishingly and embarrassingly, the German publisher of this is Suhrkamp, who clearly have entirely lost their way if they're betting on this sort of thing; yes, we've always pretended not to notice they publish Isabel Allende (mainly because they manage to make a mint off of her books, their literary reputation be damned), but this really is beneath and beyond them.)
At 75 titles, World Literature Today's Notable Translations 2013-list is certainly ... generous.
(Recall that the Three Percent Translation Database finds a total of only 419 works of fiction and poetry translated into English and published in the US this year, a number that will probably increase as a few stragglers are added, but still .....)
Overall, it's a pretty solid list, and not a bad place to start if you're looking for books in translation to read.
That said, I do note that two titles on the list are, in fact, pretty damn old translations (re-issued this year -- but not new translations (unlike, for example, Sonallah Ibrahim's That Smell, which is at least a new translation of a previously translated work)): Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D.O.Fagunwa in Wole Soyinka's 1968 translation, and The Woman of Porto Pim by Antonio Tabucchi in Tim Parks' 1991 translation.
There are also some notable omissions, including:
Antonio Muñoz Molina's In The Night of Time -- I haven't started this one yet, but come on: it's Edith Grossman, translating one of the leading contemporary Spanish authors; it's hard to imagine that doesn't make a top-75 cut ...
Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès' Where Tigers are at Home -- what is it about this book that absolutely everyone seems to continually overlook it ?
Mizumura Minae's A True Novel -- another big book from Other Press, which also strikes me as a very significant translation
In addition, I think there's also a strong case to be made for at least an honorable mention of Chantal Wright's 'experimental translation' of Yoko Tawada's Portrait of a Tongue -- one of the more interesting examples of presenting translation to an audience.
But, of course, the real disappointment is that they list 75 books and yet manage to fail to mention what is obviously the most notable translation-publication of the year, Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone.
If you're talking 'notable' there's no way around this one, whether you're listing five or seventy-five titles.
As noted at The Millions, the English translation of Murakami Haruki's 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel) now has a US publication date: the Alfred A. Knopf publicity page says 12 August 2014 -- still a long wait, but you can already pre-order at Amazon.com.
The book is, of course already widely available elsewhere -- including in Spanish (Los años de peregrinación del chico sin color; see the Tusquets publicity page) and Polish (Bezbarwny Tsukuru Tazaki i lata jego pielgrzymstwa; see the Muza publicity page).
(For the boy-is-it-a-small-and-bizarre-world files: the Polish translation is by Anna Zielińska-Elliott -- who teaches Japanese at Boston University (see her faculty page.)
James M. Cain's The Butterfly certainly isn't his best, and probably remains best-known now for that notorious film version (the Pia Zadora vehicle ... enough said), but BBC4 have been having a James M. Cain series, and they re-worked this one too.
Their radio play-version is freely accessible at the site for a few more days (and less than an hour long).
At BBC News Hugh Schofield has an interesting piece with lots of quotes from prominent French authors wondering Why don't French books sell abroad ? -- specifically, in the English-speaking world.
The first point to make here is that, rights/title-wise, they do sell well.
Translations-from-the-French routinely outnumber those from any other language into English by a large margin, and long have; the Three Percent Translation Database (covering all translated-for-the-first-time works of fiction and poetry published/distributed in the US) currently (the numbers aren't final) has 75 out of the total of 419 titles listed as being from the French, way ahead of the number two languages (a tie between German and Spanish, with 49 titles each).
(Consider also: I am a judge for the Best Translated Book Award fiction prize, and while we're considering well over 50 French titles (the database counts both fiction and poetry ...), as best I can tell only three (!) works translated from the Chinese are eligible this year .....)
Nevertheless, authors whinge:
"I am suffering, really suffering, because Anglo-Saxon agents are just ignoring the French book market," Christophe Ono-dit-Biot tells me.
With all due sympathy -- hey, I'd love to see some of his books available in English -- I repeat: all of three works of fiction translated from the Chinese have been published in the US this year.
So there's being ignored, and there's being ignored .....
The article is filled with priceless quotes by French authors -- a favorite being (I cruelly take it slightly out of context):
"Personally I am fed up with all the stereotypes," says Darieussecq. "We're not intellectual.
Whatever she says .....
It's not that they're entirely clueless; indeed, they have a semi-valid point.
But even as the French fare relatively poorly, I remind you how much worse everyone else fares in translation.
(Again: China -- three previously untranslated works of fiction published in the US this year .....)
Indeed, Marie Darieussecq, for example, has done quite well -- and four of her works, all available in English (as is one more), are even under review at the complete review.
Still, I can understand her frustration: her best-known work, Pig Tales, was published by André Schiffrin's The New Press -- and yet among the saddest purchases I ever made of a used book (it still breaks my heart every time I open it) is one with this title page:
If you've been a best-seller in France, it's a sure-fire recipe for not getting a deal in the UK.
(Levy is a fascinating case study for trying to break into the English-language market, as he's recently tried to do through the publishing venture Versilio; scroll down for various of his titles in English (mostly just in ebook form ...).)
I recently joked/complained about US publisher Simon & Schuster touting the arguably under-translated Philippe Djian as "France's #1 Bestselling Author" (without any supporting evidence -- and there's none I can find), but even some of his books continue to dribble into English.
(Admittedly relatively few, but still .....)
As far as real bestselling authors go: the list of top-selling French authors doesn't change too much from year to year, and Le Figaro's for 2011 will serve as good enough an example (it's available in English, so ...).
Levy is on it (number two), and most of the other authors on it have also had at least one or two titles translated; aside from mystery writer Fred Vargas, and, arguably, Amélie Nothomb, most have not fared that well in the US/UK market.
But I have to say, other than Nothomb -- who, as longtime readers know, I have a very soft spot for -- I have not been particularly impressed by any of the works by these authors appearing in translation (quite a few of which I've reviewed at the complete review): French bestselling crap-fiction isn't worse than American bestselling crap-fiction (which also leaves me cold), but you can see how it can be a harder sell here.
Meanwhile, Tatiana de Rosnay has taken to writing some of her fiction directly in English (Sarah's Key ...) -- while longtime New York resident (she lived here for a decade) Katherine Pancol -- third bestselling French author in France in 2011 -- is finally appearing in English with The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles.
I recently got my (English) copy of that -- Penguin Books is bringing it out, 31 December -- and Pancol's Acknowledgements cruelly note that it is already available in twenty-nine other languages .....
But what really kills me is the little note on the copyright page:
This edition is an abridgement of the original French-language work.
Edits in translation are, sadly, the norm, but when publishers own up and actually acknowledge them you know they've fucked the text over pretty bad -- as the much lower page-total here also suggests.
I know nothing about how the publishing business 'works', as I often remind you -- but this certainly does not seem the route to any sort of success (and seems among the possible answers to 'Why don't French books sell abroad ?').
(A 31 December publication date also looks a hell of a lot like an attempt to bury the poor book.)
The BBC piece also notes some 'Exceptions to the rule', books that have sold well -- Atomised (US title: The Elementary Particles), HHhH, and Suite Française -- though of course the latter is contemporary only in terms of publication date.
(Interestingly, HHhH was apparently also subject to significant editorial interference in translation -- but then I remain baffled by its success in any case.)
Certainly, French literature isn't enjoying glory days abroad, or at least in the US/UK -- but then few literatures are.
It's a bit odd that there are few stand-out authors, but a hell of a lot get translated and they fill a variety of niches, from Oulipo to titillating self-absorbed autofictions to the playful intellectual novels of, say Jean Echenoz, Emmanuel Carrère, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Lydie Salvayre (all well-translated into English) to mystery/thriller authors including Tonino Benacquista and Jean-Claude Izzo (also all widely translated into English).
On the other hand, I do continue to be baffled why some books and authors don't do better -- such as, recently, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès' Where Tigers are at Home.
Again, I don't understand how publishing 'works', but US/UK publishers certainly play the game strangely -- so now with a rare recent French-language success story, as Penguin Books recently acquired US rights to Joël Dicker's prize-winning bestseller The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair; see, for example, the Publishers Weeklyreport -- for, so the publicity claim, the biggest amount they've ever spent.
Tellingly, however, they bought the rights from UK publisher MacLehose, who cleverly tied up world English rights; the book has appeared in numerous translations, and yet again English-speaking readers are left until relatively late in the game to get their chance to see it.
Of course, this French-language success is small comfort to the French themselves: Dicker is Swiss.
A stunning list of authors on board with this: some 560 authors from 83 nations, in a petition published in 32 newspapers across the world: see it at, for example, The Guardian: International bill of digital rights.
Admirable -- spread the word.
A nice little study with some (though too few ...) hard numbers, as BookNet Canada and Nielsen Book analyzed Canadian and international sales data for Alice Munro's titles before and after her Nobel win, in Alice Munro, At Home and Abroad: How the Nobel Prize in Literature Affects Book Sales (warning ! dreaded pdf format !).
(For those satisfied with press release-summary, see theirs.)
Mostly they just deal with percentage changes -- which look impressive, but then you remember how low average sales are without Nobel-prodding .....
So, for example, comparing the pre-announcement-period to the announcement week:
During that week, sales increased from 94 units to a height of 6,345 units for all of Munro's titles, a 6650% increase
Great that the Nobel helped shift so many copies ... but 94 units of this prolific author's books in the entire week (when she was already getting more coverage -- there was a lot of Munro-Nobel buzz in the Canadian press leading up to the announcement) ... ?
To my embarrassment, I was completely unfamiliar with the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award --:
an annual award given by the Tulsa Library Trust.
Its purpose is to give formal recognition, on behalf of the Tulsa County community, to internationally acclaimed authors who have written a distinguished body of work and made a major contribution to the field of literature and letters.
The most recent addition to the complete review is my review of Markus Werner's 1984 novel, Zündel's Exit, now available in English from Dalkey Archive Press, in a translation by Michael Hofmann.
(I guess Werner is slowly catching on in the US/UK: NYRB Lit -- Haus recently brought out his On the Edge (see their publicity page) in the UK, while in the US New York Review Books has published it in their electronic imprint, NYRB Lit (see their publicity page).)