Sunday, 29 March 2009

Cornering the Market

Here in the U.K., with the arrival of spring the London Book Fair is once again in the offing. Ever since it moved to the Barbican Centre in 1982 (which was the first year I attended it), and from there to the Olympia exhibition centre in Earls Court, this annual gathering has become a steady fixture in the diaries of publishers, agents and translators. It is really a trading opportunity for publishers and agents - translators occupy a peripheral status, but are none the less present, as the event is an international one, and rights representatives with publishing houses from many countries visit it.

It's a crowded, exhausting, at times even frantic get-together: there is usually nowhere to sit down, snack and refreshment facilities are minimal, if they exist at all, and the stands are often confusingly arranged and numbered, making it hard to find the location and/or people one is looking for. So what's in it for a translator of Nordic literature? Well, on April 20 there's a Nordic Reception at Stand W335/W335/407/W425/Y345 hosted by the Swedish Arts Council, Bok & Bilbiotek (Gothenburg Book Fair, Sweden), FILI (Finnish Literature Centre), Kunstrådet (Denmark), The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (Sweden), Bókmenntasjóður (Iceland) and NORLA (Norway). Although members of SELTA (the Swedish-English Literary Translators' Association) receive an invitation to the reception in advance, in order to attend it at all they have to register for the entire Fair, at a price of 40 UKP. However, since most or all of the organizations mentioned send one or two representatives, it's a chance for translators to meet the potential providers of funding for their various projects. They can also meet publishers, of whom there are many in attendance, if not at the reception itself, then hidden away in the clusters of booths and stands that stretch to the horizon.

Most of the serious buying and selling of Nordic books at the Fair is concentrated on the now all-pervasive field of the detective novel, which over the past few years has become the hallmark of Scandinavian literary endeavour. PanMacmillan, Vintage, Harvill Press are the names to look for here. Translators whose interests lie outside this sphere may find it slightly more difficult to find takers, or even listeners, for their proposals and will, with a few exceptions, usually end up in the hands of one or two specialist publishers, not all of whom are even fully represented at the Fair. For poetry, Bloodaxe Books is probably still the most likely home for new translations of Nordic collections, or anthologies. Since its inception in 1979, Bloodaxe has published work by Finnish, Finland-Swedish, Swedish and Danish poets as part of its embrace of poetry from around the world -- a noble aim which more recently seemed to become at least partially obscured by a growing emphasis on Anglo-American poetry of a certain narrative and personal kind that tends to replace the internationalism of the former Bloodaxe with a new, issue-centred focus that is driven at least in part by concerns that have less to do with literature as such, and are connected rather with concerns of a sociological or even left-wing political kind. Nearly all of the Nordic titles published by Bloodaxe have been funded by Nordic arts council-type agencies like the ones referred to earlier.

For prose fiction, there is Dalkey Archive Press, a U.S.-based house that relies heavily on funding from foreign cultural foundations and government-sourced grants. Given the active presence of so many Nordic publishers, rights representatives and state cultural agencies at the Fair, it's not hard to see why Dalkey keeps up its visits each year. Although so far Dalkey's impressive list includes only a few Nordic writers, there are signs that the publisher intends to expand in this direction.

And there's Norvik Press, which Eric covered in an earlier post and which remains the UK's principal publisher of translated Nordic writing, both new and classical.

In a way it's too bad that translations of remarkable, original and unusual literary texts from Scandinavia still tend to fall into the hands of the specialist houses, both here and in the United States, My hope is that one day, with the rise of English as a second language in many or most of the Nordic countries (many younger Nordic writers and poets have a good though not perfect grasp of spoken and written English), translation of these texts will become less of a traditional "author/translator" process, and more a question of Nordic writers preparing "international" English-language versions of their work in collaboration with English-speaking advisers and consultants - perhaps the very same people whom today we know as "literary translators". Then the novels and poems can join their peers in the English-speaking world, and take their chance not as "translations" but as original works in English.

With a Nordic poet I recently embarked on a project of this kind: she prepared some English translations of her own poems, and I worked with her to make them into something that reads like English poetry. When the author has a decent grasp of English, this becomes possible, and it opens up a new line of approach - instead of aiming for "recreation" (or gjendiktning!), one works at the details and fabric of the writing itself, so that eventually the poem emerges as it would have done had the poet written it in English. I see this as a way forward not only for poetry, but also for prose. And some day, when English is universally spoken all over the world, it will seem the most natural way to work. The distinction between "original" and "translation" will become blurred and even effaced, for this is what writing is really all about in the end - the erasure of barriers, with the aim of reaching readers wherever they live, on a basis of universality.

As you can probably tell from my opening paragraphs, I won't be hot-footing it to Olympia in April. But I'll be keeping my eyes and ears open for new developments, new names and new departures. Eric says that he will be attending the 3-day event, and on this blog we'll try to keep up with what's new, as usual.

See also in this blog: Books and Publishers
Detective Story


Eric Dickens said...

I have firm views on the role of the literary translator, most of which coincide with those of David McDuff. I hope these are borne in mind by those freelance translators asking for work at the London Book Fair:

1) The literary translator should be an ambassador of interesting serious literature written in the languages he or she has a good command of. By serious literature, I mean straightforward or experimental literature written to examine life, rather than make money.

2) The translator should not be the extended arm of the profits end of the publishing industry. I too will gladly accept subsidies, and even translate a crime novel when I need the money. But my real aim as a translator is to introduce interesting authors to an English-speaking readership.

3) For that reason, I feel that literary translators should cultivate tastes of their own, not merely wait for publishers to contact them and suggest assignments on a "take it or leave it" basis, with the hint that if they don't take this one, they will be regarded as belonging to the awkward squad.

4) Publishers should treat translators like normal clients or employees, not people who are called up in indecent haste to do a job, then dumped when a cheaper, or more docile, alternative comes along.

5) Translators should not be strung along. When you agree (by gentleman's agreement) to translate a book, the contract should be forthcoming within a shortish amount of time. No promises, followed by promises, and stretching over two years or more, should be made.

6) While I like conferences, receptions and workshops (not necessarily in that order, as Eric Morecambe and Lee Mack would say), the schmoozing aspect should not override the translation work itself.

7) Poetry should not eternally remain the poor relation to prose, in publishing terms. Those who naïvely think that poetry is easier to translate, just because it's shorter, will have another think coming, once they start doing some real translation work, as opposed to theorising about it.

David McDuff said...

8) Authors shouldn't expect their translators to act as literary agents for them.

(this is growing into a veritable Magna Carta)

Eric Dickens said...

The 8th point, added by David, makes me think of the push and pull of literary translation.

A translator should be a free agent who pulls in worthwhile literature from other countries and languages. There are already powerful forces that advertise and promote literature, whether these are national literary promotional organisations, or individuals.

It is legitimate for national literary promotional organisations to draw the world's attention to their latest and best. But indeed, when individual authors begin to expect literary translators to act as their regular agents, there is too much push. Literary translators should remain just that, rather than people who negotiate.

Literary translators can pull authors and works into their home language because they often know both the source and target language cultures quite well. And if the choice of what is being promoted remains with the translator, the element of compulsion is removed.

If indeed a literary translator discovers an interesting book, he can try to promote it, so that he himself will end up publishing his own translation of it. But acting as a regular go-between cuts down a translator's translation time.

One book by a particular author may be far more suitable for, say, British readers. While another book by the very same author may not be. If the author expects the translator to promote every book written by him, an element of disingenuousness could creep in.