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BookExpo in Brief: Reading Lit in Translation is “Groovy Again”

By Bud Parr

The mood at the BookExpo America conference this year was decidedly upbeat and busy. The shortened, mid-week schedule seemed to work better than anticipated by exhibitors*, reports of good sales numbers weren't hard to find, and conference rooms were packed to the point of being fire hazards. At least, that is, conference rooms where the topic was e-books.

One could easily saunter in to one of the conference rooms devoted to discussions of Spanish language literature (this year's Global Market focus was on Spain) and find a seat. Still these discussion were upbeat too. Valerie Miles, from Granta en Español, said in the "Translations from Spanish into English" panel, that there is an "awakening" of Spanish language literature. She should know: she's editing Granta's "Best of Young Spanish Novelists" to be released in October. Though she declined to give us any names, she said that they received many more submissions than expected and are happy with what they've seen.

The publishing house New Directions put Latin American literature on the map for the U.S. by publishing Borges in English for the first time, and may very well be responsible for a revival here by being an early champion of Roberto Bolaño. New Directions' publisher, Barbara Epler, said that "It's now groovy to read translations" and that now kids don't care if it's translated or not. Esther Allen, a prominent translator, added that a recent event in Brooklyn had a lot of young people competing over trivia about an obscure Swiss author, and everyone seemed to know the answers!  These are good signs if translated literature is to break out of its well known "3%" of books published in the U.S., though with the escalating number of total books published this year, any percentage measure will be difficult to keep up with.

In a later panel introducing "New Spanish Translations," the point was brought home, implicitly, that for an author to make it into the U.S. she has to make it through the gauntlet of her home market first. The authors introduced here  - Elvira Lindo and Juan Gómez-Jurado, both from Spain, and Alejandro Zambra, from Chile - are all well known in their home market, if not international bestsellers. For instance, Elvira Lindo's series of kids books "Manolito Four-Eyes" only came to the States in 2008, after being so successful in Spain that it was turned into a film and television series. Lindo, who was at the BEA author stage to talk about the latest in her series, volume three, made the point that despite the fact that she was there to talk about the books today, it had been ten years since she wrote them and she was on to other projects.

The cross-currents of globalization create an environment where it's difficult to say, as Ms. Miles pointed out, where the Spanish ends and English begins because the influence of American authors is strong on the rest of the world, and some Spanish language authors are becoming influential in their own right. Is this a good thing? Well, it probably is as far as bringing more translations into the U.S. Market, and globalization is at its most successful, many would argue, when cultures are allowed to freely mingle with one another.

The rest of the equation is up the readers. The salubrious affects of the internet - where books that might not get attention from mainstream media do get covered and discussed online - is something that few publishers have learned to harness, but everyone has tried. The internet is particularly important for literature in translation - coverage is difficult when authors don't make easy interview candidates because of language barriers - as the collective voices of blogs and social media are proving to lead the mainstream. Ed Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives points out that the once obscure novel "Tinkers" was overlooked by the New York Times and most everyone else except for booksellers and blogs, until it won the Pulitzer Prize.


* Though reports are that the show will be back to three days next year.

Published May 31, 2010   Copyright 2010 Bud Parr

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