Let's Just Do Away With Words

we don’t really need them to, like, communicate intelligently or anything…

(Steve, a ballroom friend of mine, showing me his favorite newspaper for arts coverage last October, during our studio’s “field trip” to see Pasha and Anya on the SYTYCD tour)

For those who haven’t already heard, that paper, The NY Sun, folded the other day (leaving Joel Lobenthal — one of the better dance critics imo — presumably out of a job) along with two other arts-heavy alternative weeklies, The Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper (via Galley Cat).

Another unfolding drama in the literary arts world is that the Nobel prizes winners are scheduled to be announced soon, but the Swedish head of the literature committee has apparently told Americans we’re being left out of the running; we’re too insular, uninvolved in the world, we “don’t translate enough and don’t participate in the world’s great dialog of literature.” Of course this has angered many, including David Remnick, EIC of The New Yorker; here is Galley Cat’s snarling response.

I seem to buy a lot of translations so it would be nice if Mr. Engdahl was more specific on what is not being translated here, and I don’t know what he means by our failure to participate in the world’s great literary dialog, but I disagree with him that all of our writers are insular, though the ones who come to mind first who are not (Junot Diaz, Colson Whitehead, David Foster Wallace, etc.) are probably too young in their literary careers (tragically of course in Wallace’s case) to be considered for this “body of work” award. Still, this line of his resonates: “U.S. writers are ‘too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,’ dragging down the quality of their work.” I’m not sure if it’s the writers or the publishers, but I do think we’re far too concerned here with how much money the work will make, which in large part depends on how “trendy” is its topic or author. I do think we’d be hard-pressed to argue with him that a work’s artistic merit is generally more important in Europe, its dollar ‘value’ more so here. And where has this fixation on money gotten us?…


  1. It’s true that we translate very, very little in comparison to most European countries (I’ll dig up the actual numbers when I get home from work, but there’s a very big difference percentage-wise). I would argue though, that they’re concerned about their profits in Europe as well. A major difference is how books from other countries sell. Literature in translation is a very tough sell in the US and it’s not entirely for want of trying.

    Personally I don’t put a lot of stock in the Nobel for Literature as a measure of a writer’s artistic merit as opposed to their politics and worldview. I think Engdahl claim that it’s only in Europe that you can be left alone to write without being beaten to death is ludicrous. Even an example of answering jingoism and insularity with jingoism and insularity. If he wants to attack American literature, which seems to me to be his goal, that’s all well and good, but I wasn’t aware that Canadian authors, for example, were routinely getting their teeth kicked in.

    Beyond that, I tend to agree with Augenbraum that Engdahl’s claims about American authors’ insularity seem to betray an ignorance or close-mindedness when it comes to American literature. Although if a lack of insularity is one of his requirements for good literature–looking at a list of Nobel award winners it doesn’t appear to have been a requirement for the committee over the years–I’m not sure I agree with the basic premises on which he’s judging literature in the first place.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t problems with American literature (or publishing, for that matter) but I think the view of Europe as some kind of literary nirvana that Engdahl seems to be pushing is inaccurate at best.

  2. totally not related but did you see Pasha and Anya on DWTS last night? I was so very happy 🙂

  3. Katrina beat me to it. I was shocked to see them. In the past, guest/pro dancers have later returned as pros on the show. Maybe we could see Pasha and/or Anya as a pro next season or at least on the tour. Its nice to see that they have been able to capitalize on their experience from SYTYCD.

  4. Katrina beat me to it. I was shocked to see them. In the past, guest/pro dancers have later returned as pros on the show. Maybe we could see Pasha and/or Anya as a pro next season or at least on the tour. Its nice to see that they have been able to capitalize on their experience from SYTYCD.

  5. Okay, found those numbers. About 3% of books published in the US are in translation. I went to a PEN panel about publishing in translation earlier this year (wrote about it here if you’re interested) and both of the European publishers on the panel (one from Germany the other from Norway) said that over half of the books published in their countries are works in translation.

  6. Thanks for the numbers, Meg. I can understand why over half of the books published in Norway and I guess even German are in translation since comparably fewer people speak those languages (particularly Norwegian), but yeah, a whole whopping 3% for the U.S. is really pretty bad! Yeah, it did seem like he was really intent on just criticizing the U.S., and some of it is on point, but some of his reasoning is just off. I can see how this is not a great place for artists — the lack of government support and funding, the lack of arts education, the way we don’t take care of our people all that well (health care, etc.), but to say Europe is a safer haven for writers??? It’s not like we condone fatwas or look the other way in the face of physical attacks on those with unpopular ideas. He didn’t make sense in that regard. The US may not be strong on economic security, but we are on civil liberties. I still think he has some points, and we have been too directed toward the bottom monetary line, and I honestly don’t know of any American writers right now whom I’m terribly upset about not getting the award (I mean, Oates?…) but his whole press conference was a bit odd. Thanks again for another very thoughtful comment.

    Katrina and Laurel — yeah, I noticed them too! I thought I wrote about that in a comment on my DWTS post, but may be wrong… or people might not have seen it. I didn’t hear their names announced though (but had accidentally switched channels and Simpson’s music had just started up as soon as I realized my mistake), so was wondering whether they hostess ever introduced them? What a great surprise! Yeah, Laurel, I agree, I’d love to see them on this show too.

  7. Oh Meg, I just read your link to your own blog. Thanks so much for that! It is really interesting why translations don’t do so well here. I had no idea bookstores didn’t like to shelve them and reviewers were reticent to include them in book review pages. Why? I really hope it’s not that most Americans don’t care so much about the rest of the world, though I suspect that may be the case. With me, I sometimes worry the translation isn’t going to be good enough and I don’t like there being a kind of intellectual “middleman” between me and the writer (which is why I really wanted to be able to read Tchaikovsky’s diaries in the original) but then again I can’t read other languages fluently so what else am I going to do. You have to trust the translator. But like you said, the reading public doesn’t often see the books to begin with since they get little shelving space and press.

  8. I worry about the translations too. I can’t tell if a translation is accurate because I can’t read any other languages. If possible I try to do research on different translations and pick the one that read best in English, but so often you don’t have choices and just have to live with what’s available though.

    I wonder if part of the problem is the perception that because the books have been published previously (albeit in other places) they’re not new and shouldn’t be treated as new books that get reviews and such? It does seem to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy though, doesn’t it? Everyone assumes the books won’t sell so they don’t…

  9. Oh, is that the reasoning? They’re still “new” though in a sense.

  10. I have no idea if that’s the reasoning . . . just throwing out guesses. 🙂

  11. I think a lot of publishing is based off of tried and true genres and titles, and if translations haven’t sold well in the past then there’s no motivation for a publisher to spend the money buying translation subsidiary rights and going through that effort. Since the book market is already so cluttered (I heard recently that there’s something like 20,000 new titles published each year?!) and also threatened by the internet, there are probably “more important” places to spend money on American titles rather than risking a translation. Just a thought.

  12. Much more than 20,000 books published a year…closer to 200,000 if you can believe it! (I don’t know if that includes reissues but still, it’s a lot of books and an awful lot of clutter). But yes, genres, subjects, authors, I think you’re absolutely right about that Taylor. They do a profit-and-loss analysis and look at comparable titles for each book so the history either of that author or that kind of book definitely matters.

  13. Perhaps many of those works translated into European languages are from English-speaking authors? That could go a long way toward explaining the disparity noted above.

  14. Yes, I think you’re exactly right, Manuel. With all the back-and-forth over this issue in all the blogs I noticed that the numbers were published somewhere — now I’m unsure where, but I think it was Galley Cat again — but a great many of those books translated were from the English.

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