Sunday, 18 July 2010

On Displaying Translated Titles

Not long ago, I referred to the podcasts from the Helene and Kurt Wolff Symposium in Chicago, which I listened to in the bath and can thoroughly recommend. Various translators, publishers and clever individuals all talking about translation (in particular of German literature). And I believe two of the panels touched on the subject of whether international literature should be marketed as translations or just plain ole books.

There was some disagreement, and it's a tricky issue. In the past, publishers have tried various approaches, including printing the translator's name in tiny letters and hoping nobody noticed the book was written by a dirty foreigner. Obviously, this didn't meet with major approval on the translators' side. Now we seem to be seeing a slight backlash, with special bookstore displays dedicated to translated fiction. I was in London last week and paid a visit to my old local bookshop, a suburban branch of Waterstones.

And lo and behold, there was a special shelf labelled "Lost in Translation". (A brief aside - is there anyone out there who doesn't groan instantly the moment they hear this hackneyed phrase? I've lost count of the number of articles I've read with this headline, which always makes my heart sink. But that could just be me I suppose.) In fact, however, I walked past the special "Lost in Translation" shelf and my mother had to call my attention to it. And do you know why? Because all the books were a strange shade of browny-grey. I can only assume that either most published translations come in strangely unexciting jackets or that Waterstones carefully picked titles that colour-coordinated with this dull scheme.

I probably ought to have taken notes, because I instantly forgot which books they were - apart from Charlotte Roche's Wetlands, which stood out a mile with its fuchsia pink avocadoed cover. And I also noticed they had committed the great folly of stocking the old Vintage Classics translation of The Tin Drum - surely some mistake what with Breon Mitchell's infinitely more interesting new version out there, even down to its much more funky jacket. But the overall impression I retained is that these books were worthy and old and not terribly sexy, and would probably make you a good person if you read them all. Which you would probably do sitting in your bath chair in front of a blazing fire, gouty leg raised on an upholstered footstool.

Now elsewhere in the store, there was a good sprinkling of more colourful translated titles - Roberto Bolano and Bulgakov under "Bad Boys" or some such, Stieg Larsson under "Local Favourites". So they seemed to be taking a belt-and-braces type approach, or at least not ghettoising international literature as such. And of course we should probably be grateful that the mighty Waterstones is highlighting translated fiction at all.

But I have to say the whole sorry spectacle placed me once and for all in the No To Special Sections camp. I much prefer the way German bookshops display their titles: arranged by genre pure and simple, no matter where the books come from. So you get Sophie Kinsella piled up next to Kerstin Gier, Feridun Zaimoglu next to Zadie Smith. Of course the huge difference is that translations are a perfectly normal phenomenon here and certainly don't need special attention.

But still, in an ideal world my perfect English-language bookshop would go to the trouble of stocking international literature but place it on the shelves alongside the books' untranslated peers. Readers would come across less well-known books as they browsed, rather than being explicitly alerted to them as translations. The translators would be credited on the covers, as is increasingly the case in the US but still unusual in Britain. And yes, it can make sense to highlight translations through events such as the (now defunct?) Reading the World series in the States, but in my personal utopia international writers would always be teamed up with domestic talents - firstly to foster exchange, and secondly to draw a larger crowd.

And there'd be a never-ending range of world literature in English, some with sexy covers and some fine upstanding re-translations of classics. And some fine upstanding re-translations of classics with sexy covers. And genre fiction and throwaway beach reading and books that change your life, and the booksellers would have read them all due to a secret time machine in the back room that enabled them to spend five hours of every day reading but still man the store all day long. And books would be really cheap because the state would subsidise them out of a special tax on tobacco, saturated fat and fossil fuels, but writers would be allowed to write anything they liked. And, you know, everything would be awesome.


Anonymous said...

Funnily enough the local Waterstones has just produced a display of books under just that exact hackneyed title (above eye-level, so I was idly wondering where they had suddenly got all these interesting books from in the middle of vacation...). It included Bolano (so I finally realise what the students have been mispronouncing all semester every time Borges came up) as well as Roche... I can only assume that this display is in honour of the Translation Summer School which starts today (happy memories?)
j in norwich

manan said...

" And, you know, everything would be awesome." Amen.

kjd said...

Hi J,

I suspected as much. It's a nationwide conspiracy.

Happy memories indeed, but the display is merely in honour of corporate bookselling.