What Does the Future Hold for Books in Translation?

By Arnon Grunberg

A friend invited me to go a panel with the title “What Does the Future Hold for Books in Translation?” at Melville House in Brooklyn.

I had never been to Melville House. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the existence of a publishing house called Melville House, which says much about my ignorance of the publishing industry. Perhaps this is a lame excuse, but let there be distance between authors and translators on the one hand, and between publishers, agents and publicists on the other hand.

I took a car service to Dumbo in Brooklyn. A bit of decadence never hurts before listening to a discussion about the future of books.

First I walked into something that resembled a daycare center for dogs. “Is this Melville House?” I asked. But all I could hear was the sound of barking.

Melville House turned out to be next to the daycare center for dogs.

The event was supposed to start at seven. At that time, there were only three people in the audience. The entrance fee was five dollars but it included wine and chips—a reasonable price to hear predictions about the future.

Around twenty past seven, we started. About 20 people had shown up.

Two men were scribbling notes.

The chairman was the Melville House publisher, Dennis Loy Johnson, and the publishers of New Directions, Seven Stories and NYRB Classics were on the panel.

The beginning of the discussion was a bit technical. Do you get a contract for life or only for seven years?

One of the publishers was raving about a not too benign review in the New York Times for a Korean novel of 600 pages, which he had published in English translation.

I don’t want to be nasty, but the publisher himself could not remember the title of this novel, which he described as a masterpiece. An editor in the audience had to help him out.

Near the end of the discussion, the publishers mentioned how difficult it was to ship foreign authors to the U.S. and get publicity for them. More and more I felt ashamed of being there. I am, after all, an author in translation. I live in the U.S., but I write in Dutch; some of my work has been published in translation, and more will hopefully follow.

I felt like a lamb from New Zealand: considered a good piece of meat among foodies, but hard to transport all the way to the U.S.

When the foodies speak, the meat should be silent.

The discussion ended with a sober note on the death of criticism.

 After the event, my friend and I went to an African restaurant on Grand Avenue. There, the predictions were quite different. We will have good food, but the future will be loud. 



I was there too. It was an interesting event—for one thing, because it underlined the tiny amounts of money at stake in this field. It appeared that a translator might get $4,000 to translate a novel and end up being the only one who actually makes a profit.

Just for the record, the Korean novel was “The Old Garden” by Hwang Sok-yong. Here’s the review in the Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/books/review/Myers-t.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=old garden korean novel&st=cse

It was written by a Melville House author, which appeared to embarrass Dennis Johnson a bit:


You should not be too concerned with translations. The opening of your 2nd paragraph shows you could as well try to write in English. Greetings from Amsterdam.


What does the title of this article have to do with it’s content? No offense to the author, but this is rather uninformative and self-indulgent exercise, even for a blog posting. Anything beyond the merely anecdotal to share?

(for example: “The discussion ended with a sober note on the death of criticism.”—perhaps this would be an interesting point to expand upon?)

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