The Complete Review's M.A. Orthofer on Translations and the University of Rochester's Best Translated Book Award

Jeff VanderMeer on March 10, 2010

M.A. Orthofer serves as the managing editor for the truly omnivorous and wonderful book review website The Complete Review. Orthofer also recently helped judge the University of Rochester's Best Translated Book Award, the winners of which in fiction and poetry will be announced tonight (check here for the results).

Here are the ten finalists in the fiction category:

César Aira, Ghosts. Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews. (Argentina, New Directions)

Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin. Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. (Netherlands, Archipelago)

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Anonymous Celebrity. Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira. (Brazil, Dalkey Archive)

Hugo Claus, Wonder. Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. (Belgium, Archipelago)

Wolf Haas, The Weather Fifteen Years Ago. Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen. (Austria, Ariadne Press)

Gail Hareven, The Confessions of Noa Weber. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)

Jan Kjærstad, The Discoverer. Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland. (Norway, Open Letter)

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future. Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull. (Russia, New York Review Books)

José Manuel Prieto, Rex. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove)

Robert Walser, The Tanners. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky. (Switzerland, New Directions)

Translated books

I thought it would be a good time to talk to Orthofer via email about translated fiction, the award, and The Complete Review's role in highlighting translated fiction... How did you become a judge for the University of Rochester’s Best Translated Book Award?

M.A. Orthofer: I've known organizer Chad Post for ages, from his time first at Dalkey Archive Press and now at Open Letter, and was an enthusiastic supporter of his invaluable translation database project--tracking all the new translations of works of fiction that appear in the US every year--from the start. As the prize evolved out of that I guess I sort of got pulled into it as well. What was the experience like for you? How many books did you read, for one thing, and from how many countries?

M.A. Orthofer: Fortunately, the prize didn't really require me to do much additional reading--for the overwhelming most part these were books I wanted to read, and had planned on reading (and, more often than not, reviewing at the Complete Review), in any case. So for me it wasn't too different--at least until the final stages--from just doing what I would be doing anyway.

Of the eligible books (around three hundred) I would guess I read and reviewed about a hundred, and at least took a closer look (ranging from reading the whole thing to giving up after thirty pages) at close to another hundred. (There were enough judges so that we tried to have at least one person take a look at each eligible book, allowing us to weed out the least promising titles so that not everyone had to waste their time considering books that obviously had no chance of being in the running for the longlist. And, yes, there were quite a few of those.)

I'm not sure how many countries were represented in my reading, but the ten titles on the shortlist are by authors from ten different countries, and I think the twenty-five shortlisted authors came from twenty-four different countries (with only Argentina represented twice). Much of the world is covered, though there are still some very under-represented areas, especially in Asia. I don't think there was a single title for us to consider that was translated from either Urdu or Hindi, for example, (which I found shocking and disappointing) and only a small handful from all the South-East Asian languages. To what extent can you forgive a bad translation of a good book? And can you see the quality peeking through?

M.A. Orthofer: A bit of forgiveness is always necessary: the process of translation always seems to entail some (and often a lot of) loss, and there are many days and books where I think it's only a matter of...degrees of badness. My personal preference is for a more literal translation, where you can 'hear' the original (language) through the translation, as it were, even if that can sound awkward in English. Most publishers and editors (and, I guess, translators) prefer to English (or Americanize) the texts, which I suppose makes them more readable--though when the approach goes wrong the results can be pretty disastrous. (What I find more problematic, however, is when there is more extensive editorial interference at the translation stage, and books are 'reshaped' (generally by trimming away a lot) for the English-language market--Wang Gang's English is one example from last year's crop of books.)

The bulk of the translations we considered were of a relatively high quality, certainly once we got down to the 25-title-strong longlist; I think they all read well in English. Along the way there were some truly terrible translations, but those weren't really in the running. I don't think any really good books lost out just because of the translation (though certainly poor translations didn't help their causes)--but I also think some of the more accomplished translations didn't make the shortlist because our decision-making wasn't solely based on the quality-of-translation. As to quality peeking through bad translations: I like to think that I can sense some shimmer when it's there, but I think in those cases there has to be a lot more to the text--historical curiosity value, for example -- to make it worth my while to bother with it. Life is too short. How long has translated fiction been part of your reading patterns?

M.A. Orthofer: I've always read in different languages (English and German, and then French, comfortably, a few others rather less comfortably), but even that has never been enough. There are so many books, so many worlds, so many cultures of interest that I find it necessary to rely heavily on translation. The Complete Review features lots of material on translated fiction. Is that its primary mission at this point, and how has the site evolved since you founded it?

M.A. Orthofer: I don't really see it as the primary mission, but I certainly made a conscious move to review more fiction in translation relatively early on, once it became clear to me how little coverage of it there was to be found elsewhere. (Of the first 1,000 titles reviewed at the Complete Review, 68 percent had been written in English; of the over 1,400 titles reviewed since then only 34 percent were written in English.) The traditional book review sources, especially newspapers (and most notably The New York Times Book Review under its current administration), seem to have increasingly moved away from covering fiction in translation, so there was and is a large void to be filled. The situation has improved somewhat in the past few years, especially with the many websites and blogs that take an interest in translated fiction, but there's still a lot of room for additional coverage.

The Complete Review hasn't evolved very much since I started it over a decade ago--right down to the very basic webpage design (in desperate need of an overhaul). Beyond the very occasional nod to popular fashion and what I think might be of interest to readers the vast majority of the books I review are the simply the ones I'm interested in and that I come across. What are some of the cliches or stereotypes about translated fiction, and how did your reading reinforce or negate those stereotypes?

M.A. Orthofer: I suspect there's a fear that translated fiction is art-house fare--like subtitled movies: more serious and demanding (and boring...). In some ways the fact that so much of what is available in translation is published by university and independent presses, who often do offer more serious and demanding fare, does reinforce that--but the BTB longlist is proof that there is a lot of playful and accessible fiction even beyond the generic Scandinavian thrillers that are being translated by the bucketload.

I like to consider translated fiction just fiction (that happens to have been translated); unfortunately it's often the most 'popular' fiction (i.e. the books that reach the largest audiences)--those Scandinavian (and Spanish and Italian) thrillers, among others--where it's most obvious that it has been translated (often hastily, far too often not very well--though the quality of the originals presumably often doesn't help, either). If my only exposure to translated fiction was that sort of stuff I'd be more suspicious of the translated-label too. Based on your reading over the past couple of years, are there any particular countries or regions that, in terms of translations, are “hot spots” for innovative and interesting literature?

M.A. Orthofer: There's interesting activity all over, though one of the difficulties with catching up with it in translation is that it often comes with such a time-delay, as American publishers take their time in bringing out translations (and many of the smaller foreign-fiction- focused presses also bring out older titles, rather than the most current works--indeed, eight of the twenty-five authors longlisted for the BTB are dead). I think that's especially pronounced with regards to "innovative" fiction: the big publishers tend to be scared of that anyway (preferring to translate safer bestselling mysteries and prize-winning novels), and the independents who do take it on often also only get to it years after the fact. In English translation I think a Latin American (and also Spanish) boom has definitely been building again, though--as usual--American publishers have hardly been keeping up. Consider that the Latin American works longlisted for the BTB include Juan Filloy's Op Oloop, originally published in Spanish in 1934, Fernando del Paso's News from the Empire (1986), César Aira's Ghosts (1990), and Roberto Bolaño's The Skating Rink (1993). Only two of the books were written in the past decade, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão's Anonymous Celebrity (2002) and José Manuel Prieto's Rex (2007). Aira is certainly among the most interesting contemporary writers, delivering something completely different with each book, but only a tiny part of his huge output is available in English.

Norway is a country from which an impressive range of talent has recently become available in English, led by Jan Kjærstad (shortlisted for the BTB with The Discoverer), Per Petterson, Dag Solstad, and Jon Fosse. Likewise, the past few years have seen quite a bit of notable Dutch-language literature appear in English, though much of that is work by an older guard--including deceased authors such as Flemish writer Hugo Claus, shortlisted for the BTB with Wonder, or Willem Frederik Hermans, whose works have finally become available in English in the past few years. But among the works shortlisted for the BTB was Gerbrand Bakker's The Twin, the first of his works to be translated.

A great deal is being translated from Arabic and Chinese, which is great to see, but the quality--both of the books and the translations--is very uneven for both languages, with very little (in my opinion) of standout quality. But they are certainly areas to keep an eye on.

There are some near-dead spots, too: it's very disappointing to see how little work of any interest is being translated from the Japanese, for example--whereby it's unclear to me whether that's just the fault of over-cautious American publishers, or whether contemporary Japanese literature has been reduced to little more than cellphone novels (which are "innovative", I suppose …) and poster-boy Haruki Murakami …..

Looking beyond what is currently available in the US, I think both Indian authors (writing in regional languages, as well as English) and European authors from the former Soviet sphere--from the Baltics through the Balkans-- will eventually make some impact in English. But it may take a while until we get to see their work. What publishers in the US and UK are doing the best job of getting great translated fiction to readers?

M.A. Orthofer: Getting it to readers is the hard part, I'm afraid. There are quite a large number who are bringing out an excellent selection, but they're almost all small and independent presses which lack the marketing clout that the larger houses have and are much less likely to get extensive review-coverage.

The list of publishers dedicated mainly or solely to translated works who bring out worthwhile books--i.e. where I am eager to get my hands on every translated title they bring out--is actually a pretty long one. I think it's no surprise that the ones who have established the strongest imprint-identity--where you know, at least to some extent, what to expect--have probably been the most successful. Among the ones that have been at this for a while Dalkey Archive Press, New Directions, and American University in Cairo Press are obvious standouts, along with smaller publishers like Dedalus and Green Integer. There are also quite a few relatively new publishers that have already established themselves quite well, including Europa Editions, Archipelago Books, and Open Letter.

But it's a tough market, and it's disappointing to see the problems some new publishers have had: Vertical's great series of popular contemporary Japanese fiction has been radically scaled back, and now Aflame, with its offering of contemporary fiction from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, is having difficulties. Does the internet make it easier for translated works to find an audience?

M.A. Orthofer: Absolutely. Given how little information is available in the print media -- save such wonderful resources such as World Literature Today -- the internet has, as in so many other regards, opened up new worlds. Sites such as Words Without Borders, which offers a wide variety of fiction (and non) in translation, as well as reviews and other information, discussion boards like the World Literature Forum, the many review sites that cover some (or a great deal of) fiction in translation, and the literary blogs that provide information about it all have helped to spread the word that there's a good deal of worthwhile translated fiction out there for the reading. What was the most surprising discovery for you personally during the judging process?

M.A. Orthofer: I probably shouldn't have been, but I have to admit I was surprised by how dependent we are on small and independent presses for fiction in translation. The only shortlisted title from anything approaching a "major" publisher was José Manuel Prieto's Rex, from Grove Press; add the fifteen longlisted titles that didn't make the cut and there's only one more, Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence, from Knopf.

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