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Talking Translation at the London Book Fair

By Ana María Correa


Having only one day free for attending the London Book Fair, the panel discussion involving Chad Post, Mark Thwaite, Bob Stein, Lance Fensterman, and Abby Blachly had been the one I’d been looking forward to the most. “Marketing Translations and Other ‘Difficult’ Books” was aimed at the usual suspects:

It’s always been a struggle to publicize works in translation, but over the past few years, with newspaper book sections shrinking and ever increasing demands on our time and attention, the situation has gotten even more difficult. At the same time, these same new technologies offer new possibilities to reach readers. From LibraryThing’s social networking, to the Golden Notebook Project, to the Independent Foreign Fiction prize and BookExpo America, this panel will discuss innovative techniques to reach readers and to cultivate an audience for “difficult” literary works.

As an avid reader of the blogosphere since 2002, not a whole lot said was new to me (which makes sense since the primary audience was supposedly people in marketing/publishing—although most all of the questions were from translators). But as a student of literary translation, it was good to hear more about the active role that translators can take in promoting their books. This was actually the first question of the session and the individual made the point that translators already have to know about promoting their work to get publishers interested in the first place, but asked about what translators can do to promote their books to the public.

Mark talked about the importance of the blogosphere and especially online interviews. He mentioned the interview he did at ReadySteadyBook with Charlotte Mandell (who has translated Maurice Blanchot, among others), emphasizing that translators are experts on all aspects of the work they translate—the author, the book, the context—and are mines of information. He is constantly surprised by how rarely they are approached for their insight.

Chad also pointed out that while publishers only do hard sells for their own books, bloggers consistently promote a wider range of things and can generate a bigger audience for the books they discuss.

One question was rather controversial—the individual admitted that other translators would hate her for saying this—but as a translator who worries about the marginalization of literature in translation, she believed that the translator’s name should be hidden and that the book should be promoted in the same way as original texts, with no mention of the fact of its translation.

Chad gracefully posited that perhaps the real problem which was being addressed was how to confront readers’ fear of translations, not that translators should be invisible. But he stressed that the fact of translators not being listed on publishers’ sites (for example) actually prevents him from being able to find book titles.

Mark added that he tends to ignore the categorization of translations as a separate genre at his site: “good is good”. But all data is necessary because you don’t know how people will search for things since the audience is all over the place.

Another question (from a small publisher of European literature in translation) asked if putting an entire book on a website would actually increase sales. Mark replied that buzz is incredibly important. In the UK alone, 500 books are published every week. Any experiment is worth doing in order to generate conversation. You cannot ever do enough because it’s vitally important to expand the conversation. At the same time, it’s also important to situate books within a wider conversation: you must engage with other blogs.

Lance added that blogging is like exercising—you can’t give up on it. It can be tiring at times, but it’s also endlessly rewarding. He said that the industry does an amazing job of talking to each other—but with the loss of print reveiws, there are few vehicles for reaching a new generation of readers (for those who are not heavily involved with the internet). He gave a nice shout-out to The Litblog Co-op (RIP), applauding what it did, and then said that while things like book trailers are good, they’re usually done out of context. In other words, where are they housed? How can they be engaged with? They have to be connected to other things in order to be effective.

Bob made the point that having the full text with open comments online only really works if the author (or the translator or the editor) is involved in the discussion. Abby added that this is what humanizes it and makes people want to participate. She also said that any effort of promoting a work has to be in conversation with other online entities. But this is what puts both the big and the small presses on a level playing field.

Mark also brought up the recent Bolaño phenomenon and credits bloggers for laying the groundwork for the success and buzz that followed. Chad later mentioned how people doing international literature are connecting with their audience more and more.

Lance Fensterman has posted about the event and even took a group shot of us (I’m the happy little blur in the back!) and Chad Post effectively summarized the main issues discussed over at Three Percent.

At the beginning of the session, Mark Thwaite promised that the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize would be announced on 15 May. It had been thrilling to find out on 1 April that novels by both Evelio Rosero and Juan Gabriel Vásquez were nominated (both translated by Anne McLean), and I eagerly await the results and the discussions that will inevitably follow.

Published May 4, 2009   Copyright 2009 Ana María Correa

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