May 10th, 2012

Reading in Translation with Three Percent: An Interview

To celebrate World in Translation Month, Picador got in touch with the co-hosts behind the Three Percent Podcast, a weekly show devoted to conversations about new books, literary events, and the publishing scene in all its variations.

Tom Roberge, Publicity and Marketing Director at New Directions, and Chad W. Post, Director of Open Letter Books and Managing Editor of Three Percent, a website that promotes literature in translation, bring a unique voice to the literary podcast community with their knowledge of world literature. 

Recently, Tom and Chad hosted the Best Translated Book Award ceremony at McNally Jackson in New York City. You can read about the winners here as well as watch the video of the announcement.  

Here’s what they have to say about translations. 

PICADOR: When did you first become aware of translated literature? 

Chad: Julio Cortazar. I read “Continuity of Parks” in Spanish class and was pretty blown away, but also fairly certain that my Spanish was so faulty that I just wasn’t getting it. So I bought Blow Up & Other Stories in English translation and promptly fell in love with all things Cortazar.  

Tom: I suppose this happened at some point in college, sometime after all of my Shakespeare and Chaucer classes and before we got to WB Yeats and modernist poetry. Actually, it was probably specifically the Marquis de Sade’s The Misfortunes of Virtue (published as a longer novel called Justine, not the Durrell book). It was the only translated book in a course on 18th Century novels or some such thing, and the last on the syllabus so that it could be left off of the exam since the professor told us it was optional owing to its, well, vulgar content. I of course was very intrigued. My first reaction to Sade was the admiration for his rhetoric, and I suppose my love of distasteful characters began there. But the fact that it was a translation was secondary; it was simply a really good book…

What do you look for when deciding what translated work to read next? 

Chad: There are so many things that go into a decision like this. Sometimes it’s the buzz around a book, sometimes it’s the author (I’m currently on a Clarice Lispector kick), sometimes the translator (Bill Johnston is a translation jesus!), and sometimes it’s something totally other (Satantango has a gorgeous cover, The Safety Net is about terrorism).  

Tom: I don’t necessarily look to specifically read a translation or a non-translation. I look for good books. When I do find myself choosing from among the vast array of choices, I usually gravitate to plot first, style second. Country and translator are important eventually, but first, for me at least, it has to be something I’ll enjoy reading. There was a time when I read the “difficult” books for my own edification, but I’ve since realized that there are things to be learned about human nature in a wide array of books, not just difficult ones that academics deem worthy. 

Do you find that you gravitate towards a certain country because of your interest in the culture?

Chad: I read a lot of Mexican and South American books because I particularly like the aesthetic sensibility prevalent in a lot of works from down there. The aforementioned Cortazar and Lispector, but also Borges, Bioy Casares, Chejfec, Zambra, Saer, Sada, etc., etc.

Tom: In the end, I read a lot of French translations. I like their philosophers and their novelists’ tendency to draw on those philosophies. And I’m a huge French film fan, so the overall outlook on art I’m very familiar with and love. But I also read a lot of stuff from Spain and Latin America — they too seem to zero in on themes I’m drawn to.

Can literature teach us about a location? 

Chad: Depends on what you want to know about a place and what type of books you read. Neo-realistic works attempt to paint you a picture, fill you in on what a people are like. That’s all fine and good, but always inadequate and maybe not that interesting. Great works of literature are great for other reasons. Maybe this is a dodge, but literature has taught me about the types of imaginations and viewpoints that exist in the world. After reading a book from an Icelandic author I know Iceland a little better because it’s the sort of place where people with this sort of imagination and sense of the world can exist.

Tom: I doubt this is what most translation enthusiasts would argue, but I think the answer is ultimately no. What’s that line, “A little learning is a dangerous thing”? But that’s not why I read them — I read them because of the perspective on humanity, on our universal struggle to just live. 

In a translated work, what is lost and what is gained? 

Chad: Words.

Tom: The beauty of idioms are the greatest loss, at least as far as I can tell. I’m never aware of it while reading a translation because I’ve never read the original, but when I watch a French movie, for example, and the subtitled English has re-purposed an idiomatic line (that I’m hearing) because the literal translation would make no sense to an American or Brit, it’s a little sad. Gained? Wow — I really don’t know how to answer that.

What country has seen some great translations lately? 

Chad: Iceland. Hungary. Catalonia. Argentina. 

Tom: I will stand by my Francophilia, if only because one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time is French: Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory

Is there a modern writer you’re particularly excited about whom you wish more people read?  

Chad: Juan Jose Saer. The translation of Scars reestablished my faith in fiction.  

Tom: Javier Marías. Just look him up and start reading every last thing he’s written.   

What question do you wish people new to translations would ask?

Chad: Why haven’t I been reading Open Letter books my whole life?

Tom: “Is this book good?” Because to me that’s all that matters. No translated novel is inherently better than an American novel because it was translated. What matters is that we publish good books.   

How do you find out about upcoming translations? 

Chad: By running the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Award, almost every translation published in the U.S. finds its way to my office. Every day is like Christmas.

Tom: The usual: blogs, other publishers, agents, reviews.

What are you reading now and how did you find out about it?

Chad: Just finished Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, which New Directions is publishing and which Ben Moser (an old friend) edited. Also finishing Wenguang Huang’s The Little Red Guard. Wen was part of the translation-centric Salzburg Seminar that took place in Austria a few years back and happens to be the nicest person in the world. He’s a talented translator, and this memoir is absolutely captivating. After that, I’m reading The Guard by Peter Terrin, which is coming out from Quercus, and Dickens’s Bleak House (just cause).

Tom: The Laughing Policeman, which is, coincidentally a translation. It’s by a husband-and-wife team from Sweden: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It’s part of a ten-novel series called “The Story of Crime” and was written in the 1970s. I found it in a mystery-themed bookstore (I read a lot of noir and thriller-ish kind of stuff, some even in translation) and it sounded interesting. Never heard of it before that day. 

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