Thursday, 11 February 2010

Tim Parks on the Dumbing-down of International Fiction

Tim Parks' article this week in the New York Review of Books blog, 'The Dull New Global Novel' has been making the rounds on Book2Book and through the translation and publishing Twitterati. Parks makes a noteworthy observation on contemporary writers avoiding terms, expressions and even character names that might be hard for translators to work with, or for foreign readers to understand from a cultural standpoint. Such a fear of foreignization (in the translation theory sense) is of course worrying, and would, if left unchecked, create a very bland 'world lit' altogether.

The thought of writers consciously depriving their own native readers of shared cultural references is to my mind grim, as is the assumption that an international readership couldn't somehow keep up with all the reference tools we now have at our fingertips. It is, after all, the author's creative choice to hedge his bets in this way, and the publishers' choice to encourage it.

Because ultimately, this is a debate for, by and about publishing insiders, not readers. I wonder about statements like this, on the effect of near-simultaneous publication in multiple languages:

Thus a reader picking up a copy of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, or the latest Harry Potter, or indeed a work by Umberto Eco, or Haruki Murakami, or Ian McEwan, does so in the knowledge that this same work is being read now, all over the world. Buying the book, a reader becomes part of an international community. This perception adds to the book’s attraction.

I think that this is a prime example of the publishing world losing touch with the reading public. I seriously doubt that most readers of commercial or literary fiction in translation ever think about their latest purchase being read around the world. Precious few are likely to give the success of the book in its home market a passing thought, unless they have a particular connection with that country, in which case they'd likely be reading it in the original language anyway.

Besides, as Parks himself says, international success (not the success of the book in its home market) is the mark of truly having made it in publishing:
In recent months authors in Germany, France and Italy—all countries with large and well-established national readerships—have expressed to me their disappointment at not having found an English language publisher for their works; interestingly, they complain that this failure reflects back on their prestige in their home country: if people don’t want you elsewhere you can’t be that good.
Interestingly, it's not quite clear who these 'people' are; only the publishers and the authors (as informed by their publishers and agents) are mentioned here, and because selling books is their business, their disappointment is in part fuelled by a desire to improve sales.

All that said, Parks' argument regarding the inflated importance of international literary prizes struck close to home. I was recently asked by Maltese publisher Merlin Library to consider the work of local author Pierre J. Mejlak, and as I worked up a proposal for a few publishers of translation, I noted with relief that he recently won a Europe-wide short story competition. All the easier to sell you with, my dear, I thought. To be fair, Malta is not France, and its national prizes (all of which Mejlak seems to have won) are unknown beyond its borders. Equally, to successfully promote just one author from such a small country would do wonders for its literature as a whole, and help to support its publishing industry. Though the national literary world may be best positioned to judge its own authors, if we don't know that world, why should we heed its judgements? Perhaps I'm a dirty pragmatist, but as so little literature in translation is sold, I'd rather help to disseminate what published translation there is than quibble about how those rare sales are made.