The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon: Good intentions

Posted on: January 27, 2008

6:40 PM: Book haul

  • The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate
  • Dangerous Liaisons – Choderlos de Laclos, translated by Helen Constantine
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts – Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher
  • The Library at Night – Alberto Manguel

Acquired earlier this month

  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys (I read a library copy so I picked up a pristine Norton edition at the used book store.)
  • Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys
  • The Last September – Elizabeth Bowen (I broke my rule and bought this, motion picture cover and all as it wasn’t very obnoxious (and had Dame Maggie Smith and Harry Potter’s aunt). A few readers blogged about Bowen novels for the Outmoded challenge.)
  • Dracula – Bram Stoker (To my shame I did not know that Stoker was Irish until I read the brief bio.)
  • Out Stealing Horses – Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born (I had to use Amazon’s “search inside” feature to find out the name of the translator. Banville persuaded me about this book in something…LRB? Bookforum? *Googles* Ha! New York Review of Books of all places…you should probably check out the January 2008 issue, if my opinion means anything to you. High ratio of well-written articles on intriguing topics and books that did not necessarily fall within the predictable Iraq/Iran/American history categories.)
  • The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy (Prompted, perhaps, by NYRB classics request (which was refused) to reprint this supposed gem, Virago has sent this one out to Canadian stores.)

Current mood: sleepy.

12:56 PM: Ah. I opted for an entertaining night outside of my room last night rather than a pleasant evening by the heater with the cat toiling over Walsh’s literary theory. This early afternoon I am sleepy and content, my stomach in a perfect state of fullness blueberry tea and a yummy breakfast. I will be off to the book store soon to pick up, among other things, a little thing by Kundera. So for this post I’m taking it easy.

Many took to my short excerpt last week from the Como Conversazione: On Translation panel published in the Summer 2000 Paris Reviewedition. To pick up on a thread in my “Another Phase” post (a hop down the page) I expressed doubts about this constant universalizing of foreign texts in Western classroom. It is linked to an idea in less assured parts of the world that one’s literature must be successful in Europe or the USA to be considered worthwhile by the author’s country of origin. The translators, mediated by Jonathan Galassi, explored this idea and came up with answers a little more thoughtful than one usually comes across. Again, my favourite bits involve particular details about how it is in specific countries.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: If you look at a list of bestsellers or even recommended lists in The New York Times you will find that it is ninety-nine percent homegrown. So the upshot is that the bigger an empire is, the less it will need outsiders. It’s rich in productions, it’s more easily accessible so why go to the trouble. If we talk about the politics of translation, there are some feeble attempts to convert this difficulty. More and more countries have systems of subsidizing translation. This is mostly export oriented, by and large it’s the only way you can achieve at least a symbolic presence in a big empire. But without being fatalistic, it’s just a fact of life, so we have to live with it. In Germany, it’s the opposite. We have about sixty-seven percent of literature imported from England and America.

Jonathan Galassi: It’s worth asking: Why is it that in Italy, say, or in Germany, so many of the best-selling books are from the English-speaking world? The Anglophones are blamed by some for dominance, but Italy is a willing victim.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: German novels haven’t been very entertaining, for one thing. And, of course, in England and America there are experts for this. They can almost make them to order.

Tim Parks: To be successful in Italy you have to be successful abroad first. Umberto Eco was not successful in Italy until he was successful in the USA. And that’s happened with other Italian writers: they’re so convinced that the real literary judgments take place outside Italy. The publishing houses generally do not read typescripts coming from Italian authors if they don’t know them; they have absolutely no tradition of bringing in people except through a kind of capillary system of knowing people. Even with the very best students I’ve had who were good translators generally, I thought, intelligent and sharp people, I found it absolutely impossible to even get their work read, even at the level of the smallest sample, by any of the people whom I know quite well in Italian publishing. The other thing is that the Italians, when they start to write, have a different project in mind, more like the Germans, perhaps. They want to be sages. There are few Italians who actually want to write in the sense of best-sellers.

Barbara Bray: A sinister element in all this is who makes the selections, and for what reasons. One explanation of why there’s such a huge amount of translation — in France, for example, of English and American works — is that, as ever, the people who are publishing books or making TV or radio programs don’t want to take the first risk on anything. That’s the real blight. Whether it’s a matter of translation or of original writing, the idea has to be revived that every generation has a duty to help filter what is worth perpetuating and transmit it to the generations who come after. Somebody’s got to go out and find it before anyone else does, has got to take a risk and use his own judgment.


Eva Hoffman: I would make another, perhaps provocative point. I can think of two Polish novels I read recently that are terribly good which probably won’t be translated for a very long time…I wonder whether we should make American publication the only measure of success.

Tim Parks: It is a little disturbing to think that the whole thing is this constant competition for total international attention. I see no reason why national literature shouldn’t exist fully on its own, as long as it doesn’t become totally enclosed, which is hardly likely.

Adam Czerniawski: There is a difference between living happily with your Swedish literature, or your Norwegian literature, and being a Pole living in a country that doesn’t exist or that is constantly threatened in it existence. It’s threatened in its existence partly, or mainly, because there is a view — the Germans held it for a good while — that we’re racially expendable, and the West came to accept that view. I often reflect on the fact that Poland suffered under German occupation and the French didn’t. If you happened to be a Parisian writing plays or producing films or writing things for radio, you could do it. French culture was tolerated, while to publish anything in Poland at the time, even as little as a pamphlet on a duplicating machine, meant that you could be hanged or sent to Auschwitz. So this is a political and ideological reality in which I grew up, and I had this sense that so long as Polish culture lacked international recognition, the country could be treated like a colony inhabited by savages.

6 Responses to "Sunday Salon: Good intentions"

Your recent acquisitions make me drool especially The Curtain.

The store had a buy-two-penguin classics-get-one-free bonanza! Instead of the de Laclost I thought of getting Monte Cristo but decided I wasn’t ready to have that in my TBR piles.

Interesting that Parks says to be successful in Italy you have to be successful abroad first…this is exactly the case in Canada.

An intriguing discussion is worth comment. I feel which you need to write more on this subject, it may not be a taboo topic but normally folks are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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