Friday, 20 June 2014

Ross Benjamin on German-language Literature in English

At the Goethe Institut's US website, the translator Ross Benjamin has an interesting article on the state of play regarding German books in the English-language world. I agree with almost everything he says – that there have been some great books coming out, that they are each a tiny blow against parochialism, that it's hard to get translations published, and that when they are published some editors want them to be exactly like non-translated books so as to satisfy an imaginary lowest common denominator.

But there's one thing I see differently, and that's the reviews situation. Ross laments "the relative paucity of reviews or other media attention they manage to attract (due to the above-mentioned disadvantages plus the automatic ethnocentrism of Anglo-American literary culture) and the shortage of critics 'who can say something informed about the quality of the translation' (as David Dollenmayer notes). This set of circumstances seriously impedes the capacity of translated literature to gain a broad readership in the English-speaking world."

This may well be true of the US, but I think it's changing in the UK. Perhaps it's my personal social media bubble, but I'm seeing a lot of reviews of translated fiction in the British media. Three of the pieces in the latest London Review of Books cover translated books, and at least six of the books advertised in its pages are translations. The Guardian and the Independent regularly report on and review books not written in English. International writers are invited to the big literary festivals in Edinburgh and Hay. Prizes that include or focus on translated fiction get major coverage. I'm seeing bloggers and tweeters and critics who are no longer shying away from international fiction because they fear they can't say anything informed about it. Instead, they're embracing it and enjoying discovering and sharing it. I'm seeing macho-tinged hype about macho-tinged writers, but I'm also looking forward to a campaign about reading women in translation. Translated fiction, in certain circles, is hip. And being an incurable optimist, I don't think it's a passing fad either.

Yes, we have grounds for complaint, as Ross lays out in his article. But let's work to get our books the coverage they deserve in a positive way. I genuinely believe things are getting better on the media attention front, at least in the UK.  

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