Thursday, January 23, 2014

Small Presses and Translated Fiction

Lately there have been a few articles floating around on the difficulty and importance of promoting and reading translated fiction. Jhumpa Lahiri made some well-publicized comments about this and the over-hyping of American ficiton, and the Guardian ran an article about what small presses are doing to promote their offerings of translated fiction.

Both articles discuss the overcrowding of the marketplace and the stiff competition for readers, but I like the solution that's offered by Pereine and the other presses mentioned in the second Guardian article, the pro-active things that small presses are doing to promote themselves. We already know that authors have to work harder than ever on self-promotion; there are books written nowadays just for authors on how to promote books and how to do a successful launch; writers have to be fluent in social media and project a personality to match. They have to do readings, often traveling at their own expense if they're not A-listers who get ever-rarer sponsored tours. They have to cozy up to bloggers, booksellers, book clubs, and libraries. Winning an award or too doesn't hurt either. It's not just about writing the book anymore.

Now let's say you're a writer who doesn't live in the UK or the US and you don't write in or speak English. You don't have many connections in the literary world, but because you wrote a particularly arresting book you are very lucky and you get translated. But then what? How do you reach that readership of English-speaking readers if you're unable to do any self-promotion? Well, that's where your publisher comes in if they are able and willing to do some innovative work like subscription services, pop-up stores and other things mentioned in the Guardian article.

Now go back to being a reader. Do you read small presses? Do you seek them out? Have you ever subscribed? I have been tempted to subscribe to the Persephone and Pereine services, and I have wished Europa Editions would offer such a service. It hasn't really been in my budget and I'm a little nervous about accepting books sight unseen; I have so many TBRs already. So I love the idea of it, but loving the idea doesn't do them any good if I don't subscribe.  I think my ideal subscription service would allow me to choose a year's worth of books from a catalog of upcoming releases. I like the idea of getting a book every month, but I'm not big on surprises!

Which is not to say I don't read, and review, and promote, small press books, all the time. I do. I love them. I love traveling the world through reading and the best way to do that is with books that come from all over the world, written by people from all over the world. Those books don't always appeal; over the years I've found out there are certain styles of writing I enjoy more than others, certain places I like to read about and other places in which I'm less interested.

What about you? Do you treat translated books like any others- you'll read if you're interested, or not if you're not? Do you avoid them? Do you have positive, or negative, associations with them? Why? When you read comments like Lahiri's how do you respond? What are your thoughts on the changing marketplace demands on writers and publishers? As bloggers and people who work in the book industry, we are both audience and producer in different ways. We're readers, and we actively promote books to other readers. We buy books and sell them. So I'm wondering how we're impacted, and what impact we can have too.


Raquel Stecher said...

This is a wonderful article. I'm glad that small presses are publishing more translated fiction and giving it more accessibility to English speaking audiences. I would love to have more access to fiction in the original Spanish or Portuguese since I'm fluent in both and would love to read the original text too!

RE: subscription services. I like the idea of the NYBR one but I'm not big on surprises either. Persephone Books has a 6 month and 12 month subscription service and they allow you to chose your books. I'm very tempted to sign up for that one!

Biblibio said...

Well, when I read comments like Lahiri's, I respond with a post! (

As a not-strictly-American reader myself, I try to place a greater emphasis on international literature just because I know how many wonderful books can slip through the cracks. I try to encourage people to read my favorite books (whatever language they might have originated from) and I do make an effort to check out books published by the smaller publishing houses...

contemplatrix said...

as much as I would like to subscribe to such a service, I am not fond of surprises either. yet, to build confidence with someone who could curate w/ an appreciable aesthetic... If Europa did this, I could get on board. otherwise, I do like your idea to peruse a catalog, have access to a site like NetGalley that trades only in translations.

I need to return to a fluency in another language (used to be fair in German) to read in original language, because translations can be difficult, sometimes diminishing the work of the original--which depends upon the reputation of the presses.

~L (omphaloskepsis)

Vasilly said...

I don't often read translated work anymore though I should. One thing I've noticed in the past few months is how my library is cataloging books in translation. You're more likely to find a translated work by its original title and not the translated version. :-( I don't know if it has to do with new cataloging rules but it is one more obstacle for small presses.

sylvie said...

I realize how lucky I am to have had parents who insisted my brothers and I learn the language of whatever country we happened to live in as children. As an adult it allows me to extend my reading experience. What I noticed, the translations often do not match well the emotion the foreign language is expressing ( especially French and Italian which are expressive, emotion filled languages ) in other words I found stories in those 2 languages which where wonderful, but translated felt flat, one dimensional.
My personal advice would be, research how the book is received in English, not in it's original language version. Good reviews will save money and frustration. I like Europa editions, their translations are superior, perhaps they choose books wich can be translated and keep the writer's story intact.

I haven't been blogging in a couple of years and am thinking of starting again :) My blog used to be "Madeleine's Book and Photo

Happy Sunday and reading to everyone!

Amar T. Sheikh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
moazzam sheikh said...

The desire to read a translated work, European or otherwise, results from a cultural tradition, which creates an audience that grows up valuing things which are foreign. It is a complicated problem, made worse by our business model which suggests easier and efficient ways to make maximized profit - thus the nudge and encouragement to the writer to write what is marketable. Market will manipulate the reader who has grown up without a tradition that values cultures of the many Others.

toomasnipernaadi said...

I grew up reading books translated from English and eventually I started mostly reading them in original language.

Unfortunately this means I have mostly stopped reading in my native language.

The English language is winning and soon for writers of my nation the problem would be irrelevant, as they will write their books in English anyway.