A year in translation

Hilary Plum
March 29, 2012
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I’m late to point this out, but throughout March the always rich international-lit blog Three Percent has been running its “25 Days of the BTBA” series, in which it highlights the works of fiction that are long-listed for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. The BTBA has been around since 2007, and each year aims to “bring attention to the best works of original works of international fiction and poetry published in the US.”

Each year’s list is a great place to turn for recommendations of new translations, and to that end, I’ll post the long-list in full below (the poetry list has not been announced yet: stay tuned).

Leeches by David Albahari
Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson
(Open Letter)

Demolishing Nisard by Eric Chevillard
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Private Property by Paule Constant
Translated from the French by Margot Miller and France Grenaudier-Klijn
(University of Nebraska Press)

Lightning by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
(New Press)

Zone by Mathias Énard
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
(Open Letter)

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin
(Seven Stories)

Upstaged by Jacques Jouet
Translated from the French by Leland de la Durantaye
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Fiasco by Imre Kertész
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
(Melville House)

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri
Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles
(Knopf)

Kornél Esti by Dezső Kosztolányi
Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams
(New Directions)

I Am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière
Translated from the French by David Homel
(Douglas & MacIntyre)

Suicide by Edouard Levé
Translated from the French by Jan Steyn
(Dalkey Archive Press)

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
Translated from the Italian by Judith Landry
(Dedalus)

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez
Translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne
(Bloomsbury)

Stone Upon Stone by Wiesław Myśliwski
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Shadow-Boxing Woman by Inka Parei
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire
(Seagull Books)

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
(W.W. Norton)

Scars by Juan José Saer
Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph
(Open Letter)

Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar
Translated from the Portuguese by Thomas O. Beebee
(Texas Tech University Pres)

Seven Years by Peter Stamm
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann
(Other Press)

The Truth about Marie by Jean-Philippe Toussaint
Translated from the French by Matthew B. Smith
(Dalkey Archive Press)

In Red by Magdalena Tulli
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
(Archipelago Books)

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
(New Directions)

Others have rightly pointed out the dearth of non-European languages on the long-list (though it’s worth noting that not all those writing in these languages are themselves from Europe)—Hebrew is the only one, it seems. Also quite striking is the fact that of the 25 works only 3 are by women. I work as an editor of literature in translation, and often wonder at this imbalance in translated works—why and what to do about it? Rough tallies—using Three Percent’s wonderfully handy translation database—reveal that in the last few years only 20 to 25% of the works in translation published in the US were by women. (I have not yet tackled the 2011 database, apologies.) One can also have a look at such internationally oriented presses as the fantastic Dalkey Archive and note that of the 25 authors and 27 books on their summer 2012, only 6 are (by) women—and previous seasons I’ve tallied fewer. At Interlink Publishing (and its imprint Clockroot Books), where I work, at the risk of immodesty I’ll say that we usually do rather better than this in terms of gender balance (Clockroot’s list includes more books by women than men, in fact—although it is a small list, to be fair). Our publisher has championed a number of women writers from early on, and also—but is this relevant? I feel it shouldn’t be—the editorial team has been at least half women.

Can it be as simple as this, that an acquisitions process that includes more women publishes more women? There are any number of factors in causing this gender imbalance in publishing literature in translation—international literature comes to US publishers largely through foreign publishers, agents, cultural ministries, recommendations by academics and critics, and other processes that will inevitably have their own limits and difficulties. I’d like to see a bit more discussion about this within the international lit field—where are the women writers? How do we discover them, why have we been failing to? It seems of note, too, that so many wonderful translators are women, even though the work they translate seems often disproportionately by men… Notes for a future discussion.

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