It’s been some time since I felt much optimism about the prospects for foreign literature in English translation, but for the last three years or so, I’ve been in open despair. In the Eighties, there was still room for the kind of felicitous miscalculation that made the appearance of certain books in English possible – it seems to me these things were only ever done by mistake. The period we are now embarked on is quite possibly terminal. After it, we may expect a deluge – a deluge of nothing.
Vol. 19 No. 18 · 18 September 1997
How often in a year does the LRB review fiction in translation? My guess is no more than once or twice. So why spend a whole page knocking A Book of Memories by Péter Nádas (LRB, 21 August)? Michael Hofmann obviously did not like the book: he could have said that briefly and then gone on to review a new translation he did like – or does such a book not exist? The English media pay so little attention to literature in translation that it seems a shame to waste space on knocking copy.
Hofmann singles out ‘Carcanet and the inestimable Harvill Press’ for their commitment to translations, but seems to forget that many other independent and corporate publishers continue to bring out translated work without much encouragement from either the book trade or the media. There is no point reviewers getting on their moral high horses when they themselves are a major part of the problem.
This February we published Floria Tosca, the first novel by an Italian writer, Paola Capriolo, to be translated into English. The only national reviews the book got were in Scotland and Ireland, the English media, in their self-sufficiency, could not be bothered to review it – not surprisingly sales were very poor. Recently we published the book in the United States: a full-page review in the New York Times made it clear that Floria Tosca was the work of a major writer. The effect on sales was phenomenal, especially as readers could download the first chapter from the New York Times website and then order the book from the site. If the English media and the book trade will not give their support, they cannot expect publishers to continue sinking time and money into translations.
Serpent’s Tail (and other publishers of translations) consider dozens of books in foreign languages for every translation we undertake. Our selection is not random: I am absolutely sure that all the foreign writers we publish make an important contribution to their national literature and so to world literature, whatever that might be. Michael Hofmann has every right to think that a translation he reviews is utter rubbish – but I would rather he assumed there were good reasons for a publisher choosing to publish it.
We reviewed 12 novels in translation in the past 12 months – so don’t blame us. Why give so much space to a negative review? Has Mr Ayrton read the other reviews? Does he believe them?
Editor, ‘London Review’