Fiction in translation: how to find the year’s best


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Today, Three Percent announced its long list for the best translated novel of 2008. The 25 titles include works originally published in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Hungarian, German, Arabic, Greek, Catalan, Icelandic and Hebrew. The Times has reviewed some (the complete list, with links to our reviews, after the jump), but we haven’t reviewed all of them. I asked Three Percent’s editor, Chad Post, a few questions about the focus on works in translation.

Some of the books on your list have been reviewed by us at the L.A. Times -- but not all. Do you have anything to say to us about that? How do you think readers might find out about these books, if
they’re not being covered by major book reviews?

In terms of the L.A. Times and reviews of translations: I know that you don’t review a ton of international works, but I’ve always felt that the L.A. Times reviews more works in translation than most of the other papers in the U.S. Susan Salter Reynolds reviews a wide range of books and is one of my favorite book critics. You do raise an interesting point: Most papers in the United States don’t review literature in translation. One could argue that they don’t review a lot of literary fiction as a whole, but in terms of international books, there’s no question that these titles aren’t being covered in newspapers. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, ranging from the cynical (the major houses do so few books in translation, and not a lot of indie presses make it into the non-metropolitan books pages) to the practical (we’ve been keeping track of all the translations of fiction and poetry coming out this year, and the number is under 350).


Regardless, people interested in reading books from outside of the U.S. -- and counteracting Horace Engdahl’s recent ‘isolationist’ statements -- do have to look elsewhere to find out about these books. There are some journals that cover translations, like Two Lines, Calque, Circumference and Absinthe, that publish excerpts from forthcoming translations, or World Literature Today that has longer features and some reviews. Threepenny Review reviews a lot of international literature as well, but obviously none of these publications has the reach and impact of a major newspaper.

The fact that these books aren’t regularly covered by the print media is one reason that we started the Three Percent website. And, more relevant to this conversation, the Best Translated Book of the Year award. We obviously don’t compare in readership to a newspaper, but we are reviewing 50 to 100 works in translation every year. What’s more encouraging is that we’re just one of several important and well-edited websites interested in international literature. Words Without Borders is like the grandparent of a lot of these sites, featuring excerpts from untranslated works along with reviews and interviews, but the Literary Saloon/Complete Review does amazing coverage of international fiction, as is the Quarterly Conversation, Salonica and a host of other sites that are filling in this gap left by mainstream media. What’s particularly interesting to me is how many youngish (say under 40) reviewers, editors and booksellers are into international literature.

What do you think the role of independent presses is in publishing works in translation here in the U.S.?

In short, I think that as commercial publishers continue to consolidate, and as the expected profit margins continue to increase, and as the bookstore industry struggles, the bulk of translations will be published by smaller, sleeker presses that can survive on smaller sales levels, and are willing to try out innovative methods of reaching and cultivating readers. For 2008, the six big commercial houses and all their subsidiaries accounted for approximately 20% of the fiction and poetry published in translation. So, although the flow of other literary cultures into America is pretty small (like I mentioned about approximately 350 books a year), the smaller presses are the ones responsible for providing readers with access to international literature and viewpoints. I believe that these presses -- especially the nonprofits and university presses -- will become more and more important in terms of literary fiction and translations as time goes on. These presses are crucial to the survival of serious book culture, and although the publishing world seems to be falling apart (every day seems more dire than the last), I think indie presses will come out of this in pretty good shape.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

The long list is after the jump.

  • ‘The Book of Chameleons’ by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Simon & Schuster)
  • Tranquility’ by Attila Bartis, translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein (Archipelago)
  • ‘2666’ by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • ‘Nazi Literature in the Americas’ by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
  • ‘Voice Over’ by Céline Curiol, translated from the French by Sam Richard (Seven Stories)
  • ‘The Waitress Was New’ by Dominique Fabre, translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Archipelago) (sorry, this review is no longer online)
  • ‘The Taker and Other Stories’ by Rubem Fonseca, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford Landers (Open Letter) (sorry, this review is no longer online)
  • ‘The Darkroom of Damocles’ by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke (Overlook)
  • ‘Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique’ by Gert Jonke, translated from the German by Jean Snook (Dalkey Archive)
  • ‘Metropole’ by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Telegram)
  • ‘Detective Story’ by Imre Kertesz, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (Knopf)
  • ‘Yalo’ by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux (Archipelago)
  • ‘I’d Like’ by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich (Dalkey Archive)
  • ‘The Enormity of the Tragedy’ by Quim Monzo, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Peter Owen)
  • ‘Senselessness’ by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (New Directions)
  • ‘The Lemoine Affair’ by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Melville House)
  • Death With Interruptions’ by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • ‘Unforgiving Years’ by Victor Serge, translated from the French by Richard Greeman (New York Review Books)
  • ‘Camera’ by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Matthew Smith (Dalkey Archive)
  • ‘Khirbet Khizeh’ by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck (Ibis Editions)
  • ‘Bonsai’ by Alejandro Zambra, translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis (Melville House)
  • ‘The Post-Office Girl’ by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg (New York Review Books)