Thursday, 4 August 2011

An Answer of Sorts to Tim Parks

In April of this year, Tim Parks wrote a piece for the Times Literary Supplement on the paradoxes of ‘international literature’, sparking a great deal of interest in the literary world. A writer, translator and teacher of translation, Parks would seem the ideal figure to explain the phenomenon of global writing. And yet in this and three shorter pieces for the New York Review of Books blog, he persists in claiming a flattening of literature and language caused by authors writing with translation in mind – based almost entirely on conjecture.

Much of what Parks tells us in his TLS article is true. From his perspective as a translator, he has a special insight into the workings of international publishing. He is right to criticize what he calls an ‘industrialized translation process’ in which English-language books are split between several translators working under time pressure, in order to hasten publication in other territories. The findings of his study at ILUM University in Milan, showing that the space given to American writers in Italian newspapers is disproportionate to that for other nationalities, might well be reflected in Germany and elsewhere. Yes, translation into English is often regarded as a badge of quality, as he points out, and it is something many writers seem to yearn for. And his anecdotes from editors in the Netherlands and Italy on what books they manage to sell abroad are telling – titles for translation do indeed often have to conform to particular national and political expectations. Hence the proliferation of German novels featuring Nazis in English translation, incidentally.

There are certainly plenty of examples of translators being overlooked, yet Parks begins his series of exaggerations here. Translators are becoming less rather than more visible, he writes – without offering us any basis for comparison. In fact, as translators have become more professional, so we have been raising our profile. Nobody goes into translation for the fame, but it is becoming standard practice in the USA to print the translator’s name on the book cover and in Germany to credit them in promotional material, with some publishers including translator biographies below the author’s own blurb.
Parks states that translators only receive awards for translating major authors. A glance at the recipients of the Helene and Kurt Wolff Prize for translation from German to English proves how wrong he is – or are Gert Jonke, Michael Maar, Moses Rosenkranz suddenly household names? Not that their translators Jean M. Snook, Ross Benjamin and David Dollenmayer are any more famous, but still.
It is in his criticism of the Nobel Prize that Parks enters the realm of the ridiculous, however. Readers, he tells us, are not interested in hearing about translators, so they ‘must be reduced to an industrial process’ and disappear in the reaction to such prizes. May I recall Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize not too long ago, when one of the first of those to comment in the British press was her former translator Martin Chalmers? We can hardly expect the Nobel committee to honour all of a writer’s translators (Müller has been translated into English alone by at least six people), or even in fact to single out their Swedish translator for praise, for instance, despite presumably reading their works in translation, as Parks points out. Yet translators and academics – in the English-speaking world often one and the same individual – are often the first port of call for journalists unfamiliar with writers of the ‘Herta Who?’ ilk. Despite being notorious whingers, we translators should acknowledge what we have achieved. The picture is not quite as black as Parks paints it, and we do ourselves no favours by denying that any progress has been made.

The next of Parks’ contentious theories is the idea of a rivalry between nations to establish literary prestige, with governments promoting national literatures as ‘expressing the genius of a people’. In the case of Germany, that would be the Goethe-Institut, which does indeed do an excellent job of getting German literature into English and many other languages. Yet it is hardly the bastion of cultural imperialism as which Parks presents it and its equivalents. Certainly, it is open about promoting translations as an aspect of cultural policy, which the German Foreign Office defines in this context as ‘presenting Germany as a country with an internationally renowned and diverse cultural scene’.
But its employees are hardly badmouthing other literary cultures or kicking the people from the Institut Français under the dinner table. Nor do they live and breathe Herder’s romantic nationalism, as Parks seems to be suggesting. In fact the various national cultural institutes often work together on promoting international literature in New York, London or Prague, running European Literature Nights and European Book Clubs. Yes, there are editors who’ll say, ‘Oh, but we already have one translated book in our catalogue this season.’ But no, the nations are not in any real sense vying for literary recognition. Individual books, of course, are – regardless of their country of origin.

It is when it comes to what he defines as the paradoxical aspect of the ‘international space’ of literature that Parks takes off into pure conjecture. Writers, he claims, are seeking to escape this imagined national literary culture by writing outside of its narrow boundaries and expectations. This we can accept; also, today’s writers are as strongly influenced by David Foster Wallace, Kathy Acker and Valérie Valère – to take the rather obvious example of Helene Hegemann – as by their national forbears, at least in countries with lively cultures of literary translation. What Parks adds is that authors are now aware of ‘the harvest of celebrity to be reaped in terms of international recognition by doing so.’ This is the scandal of the entire piece – the author is accusing his peers of abandoning any realistic details of their own countries and any linguistic ingenuity in favour of a bland global form of writing, for the sake of world fame. He refers to this kind of writing – that does not employ linguistic deviance or cultural specifics – as a ‘strategy’ and a ‘recipe’, as if it were deliberate rather than a matter of influences, taste or fashion.

While Parks doesn’t name names in his TLS piece, his blogs for the NYRB go further. In the first on this topic, entitled ‘The Dull New Global Novel’ and dating from February 2010, he quotes several examples: the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, to whom we shall return in a moment; ‘Scandinavian writers I know’ who ‘avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader’; and bizarrely, Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk. Here, if I understand rightly, he is claiming that the writers maintain their political positions as a similar form of strategy for literary success: ‘So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.’
In the next of his NYRB pieces (‘Franzen’s Ugly Americans Abroad’, May 2011), Parks has the unusual idea of comparing two individual writers to buoy up his theory. And who does he take? Jonathan Franzen and Peter Stamm. In contrast to Franzen’s long lists of Americana, he tells us that Stamm ‘never tells you anything about Switzerland, or the other countries where his books are set,’ allegedly making his work easier to translate. His conclusion: ‘We might say that if the Swiss Stamm, to attract an international public, has been obliged to write about everyman for everyone everywhere, Franzen, thanks to the size of America’s internal market, but also to the huge pull the country exercises on the world’s imagination, can write about Americans for Americans (which is no doubt as it should be) and nevertheless expect to be read worldwide.’
A month later, in ‘Your English Is Showing’, Parks admits it may not have been a good idea to back up his theory with reference to only two writers, and goes on to claim with a little more caution that Peter Stamm, Siegfried Lenz and ‘many other French and Italian authors’ appear to him to have ‘a skeleton lingua franca beneath the flesh of these vernaculars, (…) basically an English skeleton’. He is researching the matter; we await his findings with bated breath.

But back to the idea of homogenized writing with translation in mind. This theory has been doing the rounds of academia since about the mid-1990s, and Parks cites one of the very few examples ever given: Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro has in fact made statements on the subject in the past. Following the release of Never Let Me Go in Britain in February 2005, he told Tim Adams of The Observer that he’d always written with a sense of translation in mind, initially because his narrators were Japanese but speaking English. But now: ‘I want my words to survive translation. I know when I write a book now I will have to go and spend three days being intensely interrogated by journalists in Denmark or wherever. That fact, I believe, informs the way I write – with those Danish journalists leaning over my shoulder.’
Three months later, he talked to Michael Scott Moore and Michael Sontheimer for Der Spiegel about what it means to be an international writer. Ishiguro: ‘Well, one important aspect is that if I spend time here in Germany or somewhere else explaining why I've written certain passages, when I go home and try to write my next book, somewhere in the back of my mind I have this idea that I'm going to be translated. Something that looks great in English may not work in other languages because it relies too much on puns, brand names, cultural references. And I feel a pressure to remove these things from my writing. This can be very dangerous.’ (My italics)

So we have a single writer who has spoken about being affected by this phenomenon. Ishiguro is aware of the issue and realizes it presents a risk to the quality of his writing. When it comes to Stamm, on the other hand – another much-translated writer – Parks may well be confusing cause and effect. Could it be that Stamm has been so widely translated, with his debut novel Agnes available in twenty languages, because his style is so sparse and his subjects so universal? Could it be that he is not obliged to write in the way he does but chooses to do so for reasons of personal taste? Rather than Stamm being a cold, calculating egomaniac chasing the international literary limelight by avoiding mentioning too many details of Switzerland in his work. We can’t know – but then again, neither can Parks. One thing at least is for sure: we’re not dealing with a chicken/egg scenario here. Agnes came first, the translations followed.

By implication, what Parks is looking for is a restoration of distinct national literary cultures; his ‘genius of a people’. The Chinese should write like the Chinese, for the Chinese, and about the Chinese. A vain hope no doubt, and rather a patronising one at that. As writers gain access to more and more literature in translation, so they take on new influences and adjust their writing, consciously or unconsciously.

Happily, there are plenty of counterexamples to Parks’ theory of the dull global novel in German-language fiction. While we’re on the subject of the Nobel Prize, let’s take a brief look at Herta Müller, known for her difficult language riddled with neologisms and her very specific focus on German-speakers in Romania. Certainly this blatant contravention of Parks’ ‘recipe’ for international success has done her little harm; she was another widely translated (if not widely read) author even before 2009. I’m currently enjoying the conundrums of translating Sibylle Lewitscharoff’s Apostoloff – a novel about Bulgaria, for God’s sake, that revels in its use of original language. For just as some publishers are happy to commission translations that are less culturally specific and linguistically challenging, there are others – and many translators – who relish the challenge of more ‘difficult’ texts.

Let us hope, then, that German writers do not swallow Tim Parks’ recipe for international success and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. That for every young man imitating Raymond Carver there is a Thomas Lehr, a Steffen Popp, a Peter Wawerzinek, a Dietmar Dath, and for every piece of pared-down Prenzlauer Berg realism there is an Emine Sevgi Özdamar, a Maja Haderlap, a Kathrin Röggla and an Elfriede Jelinek waiting in the wings. With around thirty German-language novels translated into English a year on average, it hardly seems worth the effort to write Parks’ mythical dull global prose in the hope of international fame.


David said...


I'd like to get your advice. I've started translating a novel by a well-known German writer (at his request and with his support)but his publisher is trying to talk me out of it.

kjd said...

Dear David,

At the risk of sounding like a rather dreary agony aunt, they may have their reasons. I've come across a few similar cases where publishers are strangely reluctant to sell foreign rights, thinking they'd be better off holding out for a better offer (or that's what I assume they think; they rarely reveal their motivations). They may also be wary of you because you don't have a proven track-record as a translator.

In this case, I'm assuming you haven't found a US publisher yet and are translating on spec. That's one of those things translators are encouraged not to do under any circumstances (another reason for the publisher's reticence no doubt). But to be perfectly honest, it's up to you what you do with your spare time and energy, and I always rather admire that kind of undertaking.

So here's my advice: you're perfectly within your rights to translate the whole novel, as long as you don't publish it. If you really want to do so - and you know the chances of finding a US publisher are slim, right? - just go ahead and enjoy every minute of it. Translation is a wonderful mental exercise, and there are days when I believe it makes the world a better place.

And then if and when you finish your translation you can talk to the publisher again – bearing in mind that they *may* say no to a publication. I'd say that's unlikely if you have the writer's support, but who knows. Finding a US publisher would be the next step, and a tough one at that. Which is why people usually do it the other way around.

Another option is to translate samples and put together a synopsis, reviews, etc. to send out to potential publishers. You'd definitely need the German publisher's support for that though. And there's always the slight possibility that a US publisher might say, "Great book, let's get our usual translator to do it for us." I've heard anecdotes along these lines but they might be a kind of translatorly urban myth.

Plan C would be self-publishing or the like. Basically, you can completely forget this option because no German publisher is ever going to agree to what they'd see as a total loss of all credibility for their writer.

Anyway, to get back into agony-aunt mode, think about whether you want to invest so much time and energy in a project that might well not come to fruition. You'd get a lot out of it personally, I'd imagine, but it might also be terribly frustrating.

kjd said...

And just to clarify: the German publishers would have to give their permission to a specific US publisher. If they give you the OK to look for one on the basis of your manuscript, they still might say no if they don't think the one you find is right for the book (i.e. prestigious enough, as a rule).

David said...


Thanks for your thoughts on this.

It appears that the author has little say in the matter. I still think the project has merit and may shop some translated chapters.