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Sandro Ferri on the US reception to translated fiction

Publisher Sandro Ferri ruminates on the reception afforded translated fiction from Europe in the United States.


What We Can Offer American Readers

What can we offer American readers? As European publishers and cultural institutions, which books should we be recommending for translation into English and why? Isn’t the American market already saturated with titles from its own authors? Why should American publishers incur the risk and the costs of translation if the demand for foreign literature is weak?

These are important questions that beg succinct answers. And at their origin is one vital question, the mother of all questions: is there today a European literary production worthy of being translated?

We should first clarify what kinds of books we are talking about. We are NOT talking about International Bestsellers. This is a recent category that arrived on the scene together with globalization and which is mentioned with increasing frequency in cover blurbs, as if having sold enormous quantities indiscriminately the world over were a priori a good reason to sell and buy a book. Books belonging to this category were created for an INTERNATIONAL market, or more precisely for a globalized market.  Their authors tend to live in London or in New York, less frequently in a major city in some other country, but when this is the case they travel a lot and are part and parcel of the international literary system. These books have a mere flavor of an exotic place, or an unfamiliar culture, but everybody everywhere can read them without difficulty. They are inspired more by movies or TV or CNN than by real places and real people, real contradictions and real conflicts. These books frequently appear on the bestseller lists in many countries, they are discussed and their rights acquired and sold at the Frankfurt or London Book Fairs by a handful of agents and publishers. These books WILL appear in English, if they are not already written in English, and they will be translated into many other languages. We should not worry for them. Many American readers will read them and nothing in terms of their knowledge and sensibility will change. These books are like the wines made in California and Australia and Tuscany and Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes using everywhere the same technology and the same vintners. They all taste the same (which doesn’t mean they taste necessarily bad, they can be very good).

On the other hand, and sticking to our comparison with wines, the books we are talking about here are like those wines that have a stronger and stranger taste. They have personality. They come from very different grapes and terroir, they are made with different techniques, they bring with them the culture, the nature and the history of the region in which they have been produced. They bring with them the unmistakable stamp of diversity. These books are written by people who know their roots and their territories and their conflicts very well, people who may not have traveled but who can nonetheless communicate profoundly, even with people who may be geographically or culturally very distant, people with their own distinct personality and modes of expression. There is a sincerity in these books that can be appreciated all over the world.

But do we really have such books in Europe now? Haven’t the differences in lifestyle and culture between Europe and America been dissolved? Don’t we now live in a homogenized western world? Aren’t our writers desperately trying to copy the energy, the straightforwardness, the modernity of American culture? Isn’t the world narrated by American writers the ONLY world that really deserves being narrated, while the European world is a “retroguard”, peripheral area where, at best, an author can write of history, the past, folklore?

We know, and many American readers know, that things are not like this. Europe is experiencing its own modernity. The diversity within its changing borders is even greater than in the USA. The conflict between tradition and innovation is probably fiercer than in America and its representation can be dramatic and interesting. It is true that European culture in the last century has often been overwhelmed by the energy of American culture and has thus confused its own identity. Even limiting the discussion to literature, who can deny the power and influence of such American literary trends as the social realist fiction between the two world wars, or the Beat generation, or the Jewish-American writers of the post-war period or, more recently, some young individualities who have been able to explore the changes occurring in our societies in recent years with great depth and range? But Europe has not only been subject to influences, it has developed its own road to contemporary literature.

Some examples will help explain this point. I am going to mention novels published by Europa Editions, not because they are the only exemplars, or even the most important ones, but simply because I know them better.

Let’s take The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. This Neapolitan author has written a handful of novels in which the conflicts faced by women in a changing society are narrated with a rare violence, drama and profundity. American readers, particularly women, have appreciated the fact that in these novels they recognize the essence of their own experience, added to which, a sensuality and a violence of expression that originates in the harshness that Italian women (especially southern Italian women) experience in their process of liberation. We have an example here of a work of art which possesses uniqueness and personality borne out of a particular place and a specific context, that can be nevertheless communicate to people who live very far away and in what is apparently a very different way.

In Jean-Claude Izzo’s noir novels the Mediterranean mood is even more palpable. Strong feelings like passion, hatred, friendship, revenge, are at the center of his mysteries. Solidarity is considered an essential value. Politics comes straight from the guts. The city of Marseilles, with its harbor, its tradition of receiving exiles from all over the world, its location at the meeting point between South and North, its Mediterranean destiny and all the tragic overtures this brings with it, is the main character of his novels. Indeed, the very strong personality evidenced in Izzo’s noir novels is intimately bound to Marseilles and Mediterranean history. But many American readers and critics have shown enthusiasm for these books because they have been involved and moved by the strength and the sincerity of the feelings that drive Izzo’s characters and plots.

The case of Jane Gardam’s novels is a little different. She is British and we know that the relationship between British literature and American readers is somewhat different from the one between America and continental Europe. Still, some critics felt that Gardam’s books were too British to be appreciated by the US public. Even here, though, the characters and the stories that are narrated, once again so thoroughly linked to British history and the culture, have managed to conquer American sympathies with their elegance, their humor, their finesse.

I could continue with many more examples: Massimo Carlotto, Carlo LucarelliAlessandro Piperno, and Stefano Benni describe very particular and specific aspects of Italian contemporary life with an authenticity and an originality that have received praise from many American critics and booksellers, librarians and readers. The same is true for Giménez-Bartlett from Spain, Wolf from Germany, Nassib from Lebanon, Kerrigan from Ireland, Hamilton-Paterson from England. And I am sure the same warm reception is in store for our next authors, who will bring to Americans the peculiarity and the universality of their experiences and their writing: Hacker and Krausser from Germany, Barbery from France, and so on.

***

Once we have responded to the question, is European fiction worthy of being translated into English, with a resounding yes, we should attempt to understand why these translations are not being done. (We all know that translated fiction represents only 3% of the works of fiction published in the USA!).

Why is it so difficult to sell European literature (and the literature of the rest of the world) to America? There has been plenty of discussion on this issue and there are several individuals, publishers, and organizations (like Words Without Borders, Reading the World, PEN America and the PEN World Voices festival, and the Cultural Institutes of several European countries, whose work organizing professional and public events, and supporting the costs of translation and publicity for translated fiction is very important in this respect) who have tried to give answers and offer solutions. But these are things that cannot be changed easily.

I believe that the main obstacle for the diffusion of translated fiction in America is not to be found in the readers, but in the publishers. As a European, I have been very surprised and impressed during these first three years as an American publisher to see the curiosity, the interest, and the enthusiasm coming from American readers, independent booksellers, and even reviewers. And these reactions have led me to conclude that the principal obstacle to having more works of translated fiction on the market lies within the industry itself. It lies within the process of selection, acquisition, communication, and the sale of European books in the USA. And it essentially results from the lack of integration and communication between the two shores of the Atlantic. It is not possible to evaluate, choose, and publish a book with conviction if you don’t have a decent understanding of the cultural context from which it comes. At the same time, it is not possible to publish successfully in America if you don’t understand the American market. These two halves of the story have to be integrated, which means that we need more people who know both sides, who can communicate between them.

Let me give an example. Sales people believe, justifiably so, that they know the market in which they operate. But we know that their knowledge is very “conservative” and “cautious”. They don’t want to risk, too much originality and novelty frightens them. So they are usually negative about translated fiction and even about cover design and everything else that doesn’t immediately conform to American tastes. But this conservative attitude is often countered by a positive reaction from readers. Nonetheless, it has an enormous effect on limiting the promotion and the sales of European literature.

As American publishers we sometimes have difficulty convincing our sales force and various accounts in the market (above all, the chains) that a European book, if it is a good book and well translated, can sell as well as an American one. It is not at all easy to overcome this bias. To do so, we also need the help of translators, who must not only ensure us quality translations, but also assist us in promoting titles and informing the market about translated fiction. We should all provide more information to the American market concerning who the author is in her/his country, what success did he achieve and why, which is the cultural context in which she wrote and published her work. One simple way of doing this, if only a partial solution, is to make the effort to translate one or two of the most insightful critical responses to a work from its place of origin. The question of foreign reviews is an interesting one. We have repeatedly been told that a blurb from a foreign source, no matter how good or what the source—whether it be Le Monde, or Die Zeit, or Corriere della Sera—is not going to be any help on the cover of a book. Indeed, as far as sales people are concerned, it is just not welcome. While this may be true, good critical coverage from a book’s country of origin, if it is included in promotional material, or online, may help everybody better understand the context in which that book was written and read, and may eventually lead to a more informed, critical and open-minded attitude to translated fiction as a whole. We also need the help of American writers as sponsors of their European colleagues. At the same time we should inform European publishers and writers on the real situation of the American market. There are too many legends circulating in Europe regarding the American market and we all need to inform writers, publishers, and agents about what is really going on. European publishers and authors often believe that America is the promised land of the big opportunities and sales. We have to explain that is not always so.

Lastly, I would like to suggest that we publishers reexamine our job description. Today, particularly in America but also in Europe, a good publisher is often seen as someone who knows how to read the market and respond to it with editorial decisions that fill a pre-existing demand. This, of course, is an important skill in an increasingly competitive market. But it is only one side of the coin. A publisher is not only in the business of selling books, but is also a cultural operator whose choices can help influence, shape and transform tastes, and through them, society itself.

In short, there is much work to be done, information to be shared, and communication to be improved, on both sides of the Atlantic.

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