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Archive for the tag “translation”

Who Has the Larger Audience?

globes

Courtesy of louisemore.wordpress.com

A couple of days ago my husband and I were having a ding-dong – I mean a civilised debate of course – about which writers have a larger audience worldwide: English-speaking ones or those from other countries?

I was arguing that American crime writers, for instance (talking about a genre that I know a little about), have a large audience back home, plus they can be easily exported to the UK, Australia, Canada and so on.  Additionally, European publishers and readers are much more likely to translate American crime fiction, while US publishers and audiences are more reluctant to try translations.  For instance, looking at bestseller lists for crime and thrillers across Europe, I find similar stats for the Top 20 at any given time. In France only a quarter are by French authors, about half are by English-speaking (largely US) authors, and another quarter by other Europeans.  In Germany, slightly more German authors (about a third), but again half are translations from English and slightly fewer translations from other languages than in France (predominantly Scandinavian). Italy, by way of contrast, numbers about one-third European translations in their Top 20, plus one-third Italian, one-third Anglo.

What is the picture in the US, meanwhile? Well, things have moved on, apparently, from the notorious 3% problem, i.e. that only 3% of all publications in the US are translations.  It seems that nowadays, out of approximately 15,800 new titles being published each year, 300 or so are translations. Which brings the percentage total up to 5.2%, yippee! Of course, I am not comparing like with like, as this is translation across all genres, rather than just for crime fiction. Every crime author hopes to crack the US market though, that’s when you know you’ve hit the jackpot!

Certainly in the UK, there has been a boom in translated crime fiction, particularly of the Scandinavian persuasion, since 2005 or thereabouts.  So much so, that it sometimes feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, as for every outstanding author like Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum, there seem to be some real duds being foisted onto the British public as well.  However, if I conduct there too my admittedly unscientific sampling of bestselling paperback crime titles at any given point in time, what do I find? 1 or 2 out of 20 are translations (sure enough, Scandinavian): everything else is English – and by that I mean about 60% American.

translationglobeMy husband dared to suggest that the quality of the writing might have something to do with it.  You know what you get with an American thriller, it’s pretty standard, just like a Hollywood blockbuster.  That sounds to me like consistency rather than quality, but I suppose some readers are less willing to experiment. They prefer the tried and tested.  Clearly, though, the marketing, translation rights teams and PR all work better state-side – they probably have much bigger teams to handle it all.

‘But,’ argues my numerate and oh-so-scientific husband, ‘The European publishing market overall is bigger. See here, I googled it and European publishing houses report 22 billion euros revenue, while the US is only 15 billion $.’

I think that may have something to do with book pricing, so I’m not even going to go there.  But the point is that Europe of course is a much more segmented market, so you need to be translated into several languages to make a killing there.  And the final clincher is: Europeans get translated by other Europeans (and a teensy bit in the US), while Americans travel everywhere. Cultural imperialism is still alive and well.

Without forcing you to take sides in this conjugal dispute, what are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you think readers in other countries are more open to trying something new, unfamiliar? Do you think the slick Anglo-Saxon model of crime fiction is taking over the entire world? What are some of your favourite recent discoveries in translated fiction, anything that surprised you?

Plans for My Reading Challenges

globeI’ve been doing a bit of research for the two reading challenges I am planning to complete this year: the Global Reading Challenge (dedicated to crime fiction) and the Translation Challenge (any kind of literature).  Along the way, I have been inspired by such wonderful bloggers and review website such as: Fair Dinkum Crime, Mysteries in Paradise, Pulp Curry, Margot Kinberg, Mrs. Peabody Investigates, Savidge Reads, Crime Fiction Lover (OK, I review for them too, but I learn so much from the other reviewers there), Rhian Davies, Stuck in a Book,  and Smithereens.  And of course, the incredibly prolific reader and private investigator of world literature,  Ann Morgan of  A Year of Reading the World. Too many others to list here, but I will do so as I read each novel they recommended, and link to their reviews as well.

Of course, as we say in Romania, sums at home don’t match your sums in the market-place.  In other words, what I plan and what I actually end up doing may be quite different things. I may not find these books easily in my rural, non-English-speaking community.  And I can’t possibly buy them all.  So there may be some last-minute changes to reflect the quirks of the local libraries.

Anyway, here is my list for the Global Reading Challenge – medium level (2 from each continent):

Europe MapFor Europe: 

Jean-Claude Izzo: The Marseille Trilogy – a city I have never visited before, either physically or through books

Alfred Komarek: Inspector Polt series – I have yet to read crime fiction by an Austrian author, despite my love of all things Viennese.  Change of plan here, as I have heard very good things about the Lemming series by Stefan Slupetzky, also set in Vienna.

For Australia/New Zealand:

P.C. Laird: The Shadow World (NZ)

Sulari Gentill: A Few Right-Thinking Men (AUS) Have been unable to find this, so opted instead for Arthur W. Upfield and his Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series.

For North America:

M.J. McGrath: White Heat (Canada)

Penny Louise: Armand Gamache (a name which always reminds me of a dessert – chocolate ganache) – Quebec

translationglobeFor Asia:

Natsuki Shizuko: Murder at Mt. Fuji (Japan) I had no luck finding this, but was fortunately sent a book to review by a Japanese thriller writer who is obsessed with Spain and flamenco guitars.  So I read ‘The Red Star of Cadiz‘ by Ōsaka Gō, to be reviewed on Crime Fiction Lover website.

Martin Limon: Jade Lady Burning (South Korea) Yet another change to the planned schedule, as I got to hear and meet John Burdett, so I want to read his crime novels set in Bangkok. 

For Africa:

Andrew Brown: Coldsleep Lullaby (South Africa) 

Deon Meyer: Thirteen Hours  (South Africa)

For Central/ South America:

Leonardo Padura Fuentes: Havana Red (Cuba)

Garcia Roza: Silence of the Rain (Brazil)

Seventh Continent (a new territory, outside our comfort zone):

Ben H. Winters: The Last Policeman (sci-fi)

Elizabeth Kostova: The Historian (historical, paranormal)

I am a little bit worried, for instance, that for all of that magnificent continent of Africa, I ended up with two South African writers.  So if you can recommend anybody else, from another African country, that would be wonderful.  Any other suggestions or comments on my choices would also be appreciated.

GlobalFinally, for the translation challenge, there is no set number, but I would like to aim for between 5-10 of these.  Some of them are still crime fiction (am I cheating a little here?), but others are in more varied genres.  This is a live, changing list, so feel free to make further recommendations.  For instance, it’s a little light on feminine voices, so I may make up by reading lots of English-speaking women writers instead.

Petros Markaris: The Late-Night News – Liquidations à la grecque

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The Shadow of the Wind

Mario Vargas-Llosa: Who Killed Palomino Molero?

Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude

Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence

Diego Marani: New Finnish Grammar

Birgit Vanderbeke: The Mussel Feast

Roland Topor: The Tenant

Miyabe Miyuki: All She Was Worth

Stanislaw Lem: Solaris

I promise to post reviews along the way.  And of course, I will have the usual books to review and books written or recommended by friends, plus lots of English writers to enjoy.  I wonder how many I will get to read this year? 52 would be a good place to start, one for each week of the year.

Happy Bastille Day!

 

Not far from where I live is the Chateau de Voltaire, where the great man lived for about 20 years, when he was banished from Paris and Geneva for his inability to put up and shut up.  Voltaire was also imprisoned twice in the Bastille, so today’s celebrations of the Fall of the Bastille would have gladdened his heart.  I hope the weather holds and the fireworks, dancing, music and theatre will take place as planned in the grounds of his estate.  He would have rejoiced to see children playing, couples flirting and sipping champagne, poetry being recited down the shadey paths. After all, he is not only the champion of social justice, tolerance and anti-mumbo-jumbo, but also the man who said:

Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.

 

If you are an admirer of French philosophy and literature and want to celebrate the 14th of July with fiction, here are some recently-released English translations or  novels set in France which you might enjoy. It has often been said that French literature and French films are an acquired taste for English-speaking audiences, but the mix below is a really painless introduction:

1) Sylvie Granotier: The Paris Lawyer

Sylvie Granotier is a former actress now turned full-time writer of thrillers, well-respected in France.  You can find a full review of this interesting, atypical crime fiction novel on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

2) Fred Vargas

This is the pseudonym of a French historian and archaelogist and I have probably mentioned her before (and will do again).  Her crime fiction books are always surprising, unusual, with historical and supernatural element, always unsettling me (in a good way).  She has two series – the Commissaire Adamsberg that more closely resemble police procedurals, and the Three Evangelists, about three friends who share a house. If you don’t mind reading books out of order, then ‘Seeking Whom He May Devour’ and ‘Have Mercy on Us All’ are probably good ones to start with.

 

3) Cathy Ace: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

A debut novel by a Welsh/Canadian writer but set on the Côte d’Azure, this is a delightful cosy mystery and romp through pâté de foie gras and champagne for breakfast, cross-cultural misunderstandings and glamorous locations.  I will have a full review of it next week on the Crime Fiction Lover website.

4) Janet Hubbard: Champagne- The Farewell

Another one for foodie and drink fans, this is essentially manor house mystery set in the Champagne region of France. When an attractive French magistrate and a dynamic NYPD detective find themselves thrown together to solve a murder at a mutual friend’s wedding, sparks are bound to fly!

5) Muriel Barbery: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

This has been a runaway bestseller in France since it first came out in 2006, but the English translation has not done as well.  It is a controversial book, with not much in the way of plot, except the friendship between the concierge of an apartment building and a twelve-year old girl, both alienated, over-sensitive souls.  It’s the kind of book you either love or you hate, full of literary and philosophical allusions, yet not pretentious.  Definitely worth a try!

 

Rebellious Songs

Today is another ominous, rainswept day and I turn once more to music to lift my mood.  Yesterday my good friend Nicky Wells posted the lyrics and translation of possibly one of the saddest (though most beautiful) songs in the world, which didn’t help.  So I turned to more revolutionary songs that meant a lot to me in my youth, like Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.  But that was depressing too, so what to do?

Confession time: I was never an avid follower of fashion in either clothes, music or literature.  Especially with music, I just liked what I liked, usually becoming obsessive about a certain artist or band, following every single release and snippet of news about them.  Some of my choices were kind of obvious for the time (Madonna, Duran Duran), others were more unusual  or considered old-fashioned  (David Bowie, Queen, Dire Straits).  But one constant pattern in my life (which only really becomes obvious with the gift of hindsight) is my love for rebellious songs.  Perhaps it’s the legacy of growing up in a Communist dictatorship, but I’ve always had a soft spot for  songs that protest against the established order of things, that are critical of an unjust society, whether that society is democratic and capitalist (Bruce Springsteen) or more obviously in the grips of dictatorship (Mikis Theodorakis).

So here are two of my favourite songs, with very suggestive lyrics.  And, despite the serious subject matter, the music somehow manages to uplift rather than dampen me!

First, the classic Supertramp song that almost anyone can hum along to: ‘The Logical Song’.

Here’s a glimpse of Supertramp in action:

And these are the lyrics that get to me every single time:

But then they sent me away
To teach me how to be sensible
Logical, responsible, practical
And then they showed me a world
Where I could be so dependable
Clinical, intellectual, cynical

Secondly, a rather less well-known song ‘Superbacana’ by the great Brazilian singer,  composer and political activist Caetano Veloso.  He was briefly imprisoned by the military dictatorship in Brazil and had to go into exile in the late 1960s. I was unable to find a video of Caetano singing this, but here is an audio snippet:

My knowledge of Portuguese is very rudimentary, so my translation is probably not very accurate, but to me the song seems to be mocking the rhetoric of the absolutist Brazilian government of the time, promising ‘supersonic aircraft, electronic (high-tech) parks, atomic power, economic progress’, everything super-duper in fact, while contrasting it with the actual poverty of the vast majority of the population, who have ‘nothing in your pocket or your hands’.

Why do these songs cheer me up a little on such a gloomy day? [By the way, you may think I am harping overly much on the fact that it is raining, but I have been known to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, so it really is all in my mind!]  Because they express anger in a humorous way.  I find anger a more productive sentiment than sadness and despair, because it usually makes you want to do something to change matters.  And when anger is tinged with humour, it no longer is simply destructive, but becomes instructive and constructive.

What do you think of these songs?  Are you a fan of songs with ‘political’ messages?  Or does that create an obstacle in your appreciation of a song?  And what about songs in different languages, where you might not understand the subtext or even the outright meaning at all?  Can you still enjoy a song, even if you think it’s about something completely different?

 

Mal-Entendu

OK, last poem for a while, I promise.  I will be back with some prose and some reviews or discussions of writerly influences next week. 

Almost immediately after I write that, I ask myself: why do I feel apologetic about writing ‘only’ poems?  I am not implying that writing poems is the easy or lesser option.  Just that, in my case, it is very often compensation activity for not finishing that b***** novel.  Come on, lass, only 2 chapters to go (or so I believe). 

Anyway, this poem is about the challenges of a normally chatty, even glib person becoming tongue-tied in a new country with a language she only half-speaks.  Yep, this time it is personal!

BreadOne might say the magic faraway tree

is walking away and not toward me,

Always almost, but never quite there.

Haunted by failure, aware of the dangers,

I navigate, anxious, between the extremes.

All blandness in word choice,

accents raining in all directions,

avoiding the telephone for fear of rapid riposte.

My jokes are more plodding,

some meaning eludes me.

I snigger along even when I am lost.

Distracted by how I pronounce the word ‘pain’,

the baker hands me the wrong kind of bread.

I think I’ll stick to baguette in future.



My Favourite Scandinavian Crime Fiction

This is part of an article on Scandinavian crime fiction which I wrote during my seemingly endless offline period – actually, only about 2 1/2 weeks since I moved, but had no means of posting online.  Yes, I did not waste endless days on social forums and idle chat – but it will probably take me a few days just to wade through all th emails and interactions, to make sure that I don’t miss anything important.  And no, I did not finish my novel, although I did make some progress with it.  Having to live in boxes and using a box as a desk did not quite work for my fussy, pernickety creative muse!

What is it with the current obsession with Scandinavian crime fiction (loosely defined as crime fiction from those countries suffering bleak winters and darkness for half of the year)?  It’s not a new phenomenon: they are rooted in good ancient stock of storytelling in fur-lined caves around a campfire, when there is little to tempt you to go outside. The Gothic imagination of the North – the ghost stories of Scotland, Ireland and England, bloodthirsty Viking tales, the equally gory Nibelungensaga… Yet the latest batch of crime fiction emerges from societies that are well-ordered, neat and contained, where people consistenly report high levels of wellbeing (and fairness and equality) and where serious crime is fairly uncommon.  Murders are the exception here rather than the norm.  But it’s almost as though there is a fear that under the veneer of civilisation, that dark ancestral spirit is waiting to come out – as it sometimes does (I cannot tell you how devastated and puzzled Norwegian friends were about the shootings last summer).

It is nearly impossible (and not very productive) to lump together all Scandinavian crime fiction as a vast, amorphous mass: there are huge differences between Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (both Swedish), not to mention between Iceland, Denmark and Norway. And I am not sure why Finland is habitually ignored and untranslated, as last time I looked, they too were part of Scandinavia, or at least as much as Iceland.  Yet if there is one thread that they all have in common, it is that they all use crime as a social commentary and in this sociological perspective they have all been influenced by the godparents of Scandinavian crime fiction: Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ.  Not as well-known as they deserve to be (perhaps because they are not easily available: thank you to Harper for their reissue of the whole series under the Perennial imprint in 2007, translated with great verve by Alan Blair, Joan Tate and Lois Roth).

Written in the late 1960s and early 1970s and reflecting that period of tremendous social change in Sweden and throughout the world, the so-called Martin Beck novels were planned as a series of ten novels by this husband and wife team (and Per Wahlӧӧ managed to live just long enough to complete the final novel in the series).  Much has been made of the authors’ Marxist sympathies and their criticism of the perceived failings of the Swedish social democratic welfare state.  But you will find no blatant propaganda beating you around the head here: merely razor-sharp observations, small details that can almost be overlooked, comments made by one or the other of the policemen or the people whom they interview.  All of which help to place the novels in their time frame, yet not enough to make them feel dated. And there is lots of humour, some gentle, some satirical.

Fifty years on, when the dysfunctional police team led by a middle-aged, sour-faced male detective with a troubled marriage have become clichés, it is hard to appreciate just how fresh and exciting these novels were when they first appeared.  Yet some of that freshness and novelty still comes through, even to (comparatively) younger readers like me, who were born after the novels were published, and who have been brought up on a steady diet of gloomy cities where even gloomier detectives investigate crimes that expose the underbelly of a society in decay.  The writing is sparse and powerful, no word is carelessly flung on the page.  Without fuss, extreme posturing or excessive interior monologues, we are privy to the complexities of characters in this ensemble piece (for, although Martin Beck is the main character, his colleagues Kollberg, Larsson, Melander and Rӧnn are well-rounded figures in themselves, rather than just convenient sidekicks).

It is hard to pick a favourite among all the books, but perhaps ‘The Man on the Balcony’ (third in the series) and ‘The Laughing Policeman’ (fourth) lingered most in my mind, although the series gets more ambitious,complex and darker as it progresses.

So, if you like crime fiction, if you like the Nordic countries, if you admire and devour  Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum and all the other Scandinavian crime writers increasingly available in translation, then I do recommend going back to the source: Maj and Per. Their names almost say it all, don’t they?  The Ma and Pa of all the writers that came after them…

Whatever Happened to … Tawara Machi?

Once a week I will wallow a bit in nostalgia and write a post about a favourite author (past or present), someone who really influenced me as I was growing up.  However, I won’t stick with the obvious choices such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Sylvia Plath and all the paraphernalia of the adolescent girl.   At least not at first.  Not until I run out of lesser-known writers, who deserve much wider recognition.  I may not feel quite the same about them now as I did during my adolescence, but I cannot deny they have contributed to me as I am (and write) now.  Today’s chosen author has a double significance, as she is Japanese.  What better way to pay tribute to the courage and resilience of the Japanese people one year on from the earthquake and tsunami?

I discovered Tawara Machi while I was studying Japanese at university.  We were struggling to understand and translate the famous haiku and tanka poems written over a thousand or more years of Japanese literary history, so our teacher introduced us to the contemporary poet Tawara Machi.  A young school teacher and translator of classic Japanese waka poetry, she is credited with single-handedly reviving the tanka form, which had fallen out of fashion compared to its shorter, flashier cousin, the haiku.  In less than six months, her 1987 debut volume of poetry entitled ‘Sarada no kinenbi’ (Salad Anniversary) sold nearly 3 million copies in Japan and gave birth to the so-called ‘salad phenomenon’ of a young writer being crowned as rock star, TV celebrity and serious intellectual all at the same time.

A few nights ago I was searching for a book of poetry to read before bedtime and I cam across an English translation of ‘Salad Anniversary’ by Juliet Winters Carpenter, published by Kodansha International in 1989.   I probably hadn’t opened it in 10-15 years, and perhaps you need to read it as a young person to fully savour the somewhat whimsical and very personal ruminations of a young woman in love.  Yet, once again, these short poems captivated me with their freshness, intimacy, flashes of inspiration. Some have objected that Juliet Carpenter’s translations are a bit too sparse and dry (you can find an exploration of alternative translations here), but I find they capture the succinct charm of the original, and the spirit of that everyday observation that suddenly reminds us of the universal.

I became curious: what had happened to Tawara Machi?  Was she ever able to live up to her early reputation? Well, after quite a bit of digging around on websites of the world, I have discovered the following:

She sold more than 7 million copies of her first poetry book worldwide – almost unheard of for a volume of poetry, let alone a debut volume by a poet writing in a language not widely spoken all around the world.  Somehow, she survived the furore and stayed remarkably sane.  She stopped teaching two years or so after her fabulous success and became a full-time writer, while also hosting her own TV and radio shows, translating from the Japanese classics, being a judge on tanka poetry competitions and so on.  She has published several other volumes of poetry, including one entitled ‘Pooh’s Nose’ (after the birth of her child) and ‘Street Corner of Capitalism’ (about economic stagnation and urban alienation).  You can see and hear her reading some of her recent poems on YouTube. (translations are below in the comments section), or access Quentin S Crisp’s lovely readings of his translations of her poetry as part of a Soutbank Centre project back in 2007.

I am relieved that the story has a happy ending, that her early success (and incredible pressure on her to top that) has not killed off her creativity.  She may never again achieve that cult status, but the quality of her poetry, most critics agree, remains high.  I just think it’s a pity that she is not more widely known outside Japan, although I have to admit so much of Japanese poetry (both classic and contemporary) is extremely difficult to translate, because of its allusive, elliptical nature and constant self-references.

Here are some of my favourite poems by her:

‘Call again,’ you say and hang up/ I want to call again right now.

Late afternoon/ you and I gaze at the same thing /as between us something ends.

Like getting up to leave a hamburger place/ that’s how I’ll leave / that man.

Now that I wait for you no more,/ sunny Saturdays and rainy Tuesdays / are all the same to me.

To live is to reach out your hand/ The baby’s hand/ grabs Pooh’s nose.

Today a voice has joined his smile/ like a black and white film/ changing to colour.

A certain street corner of capitalism/ The tissues one accepts and receives when needed.

(the last with thanks to From Tokyo to the World, spreading the word for Japanese culture)

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