Confessions of a Translation Snob

My browsing habits have changed.  I noticed it a few days ago in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore.  My husband was off in Sci-Fi/Fantasy and I was wandering through the fiction section, half-heartedly looking for a book I didn’t need.  My expectations were pretty low.  I started out looking for Mario Vargas Llosa.  Nothing. And then I spotted those three FSG fishes.  And a Europa book.  And – what the hell?! – Melville House.  Wait, the Soft Skull logo is an ant with a pen nib in its butt?  How did I not know that???  By the time I’d worked my way over to my husband I had a stack of books in my arms.

Recognizing the names and identities of different publishing houses is a bit like knowing the names of your favorite fashion lines.  I could easily drop an entire paycheck on J. Crew. Ditto for New Directions.

That’s the point.  We look for what we like.  I’ve read well-written, engaging books filled with interesting characters by British and U.S. authors.  But Latin America! My god, the quality and variety of the writing that’s coming out of Latin America is ridiculous.  And the Middle East; I will read anything that’s been translated from Persian or Arabic.  Then there’s the completely unexpected – like falling in love with a book translated from Bulgarian (a country I, sadly, had to look up on the map).  I guess what excites me is discovering the slightly obscure; reading books with complicated narratives and unusual plot structures. Experiencing the unfamiliar.  Finding books I couldn’t read without the help of a translator.

True, there’s also that feeling of – and I suppose you can’t get more snobbish than this – being a member of a select club.  Where instead of wealth or income or pedigree, membership is contingent on knowing certain passwords: Aira, Shishkin, Dowlatabadi and Ogawa.  Of being able to recommend a book to friends that they won’t necessarily find on the feature table of the local B&N.

(Is that really such a bad thing?  How is a geeky obsession with translations so different from – and any worse than – someone else’s obsession with Fantasy Football, video games, The Game of Thrones? Why is it suddenly okay to judge art, wine, food, television… but not literature?)

There’s also the satisfaction that comes from supporting a cause.  Stephen King, Margaret Atwood or [insert bestselling author’s name here] don’t need assistance promoting their latest blockbuster.  Neither do their large publishing houses.  But have the majority of readers heard of Ludmila Ulitskaya?  Marie N’Diaye? Hans Fallada? Marguerite Yourcenar? What about Edith Grossman? Chris Andrews?  Or Gregory Rabassa?

So now I mostly read and only blog about translations.  I find the idea of an author and translator collaborating to create a book that is both the same and separate from the author’s original vision absolutely delightful. And, since this is a confession: I also generally don’t read YA.  I think 50 Shades of Gray sucked on multiple levels.  I love PBS, but have zero interest in Downton Abbey.  I don’t read a lot of “commercial” literary fiction because I’m busy reading other things.  I have a weakness for steampunk and *cough* romance novels.

This is what works for me.  It doesn’t need to work for everyone.

And for the record: this isn’t the first time I’ve written this kind of thing.  I just usually don’t post it.  Why now?  When I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago I came across a link to this post on Flavorwire.  Curious, I Googled “Book Snobs” and was a bit overwhelmed by the number of results. That, combined with the ongoing arguments about reviewer vs. blogger, is it okay to write a bad review, and all the other silliness that we all waste waaaaayyy too much time thinking (and reading about) compelled me to stick up for the underdog.*

Which brings me to my point…

Do I only read translations? Pretty close.

Do I want you to read more of them? Yep.

Do I care about the newest Nicholas Sparks or Jennifer Weiner novels? God no.

Do I think less of you because you read and liked it? Not really.

Does that make me a translation snob? Probably.

But I’m OK with that.

Does anyone else find it strange that some people (and book sites) aren’t?

*Not that, in the big scheme of things, we really need defending. I mean, we’re not exactly  Sumatran Rhinos.

Welcome 2014!

Untitled drawingA brand new year!  I won’t pretend that I’ll miss 2013… years ending in the number 3 are never among my best.  But now is the time to take stock of the last 12 months of reading and set some goals for the upcoming year.

How many books did I read?  A sad, sad 47 books.  Not even halfway to my goal (Damn you GoodReads!  Your badge of reading achievement eludes me once again!!!)

How many of those were translations? 32 books in 13 different languages:  French, German, Norwegian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Turkish, Spanish, Catalan & Finnish.

Favorite book of 2013? I can’t bring myself to narrow it down to just one.  My top 3 books would be (in no particular order):  The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber, Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Draeger and 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev.  O.K., that’s four.  18% Gray snuck its way onto the list by way of my subconscious.  It made such a strong impression on me that it just felt wrong to leave it out.

2013 Highlights? What were the blogging highlights of 2013 for me?  All the extracurricular activities I was able to take part in this year:  hosting some of my favorite bloggers in The Rise of the Short Story at the beginning of the year;  being invited on the Mookse and the Gripes podcast not just once, but twice (some people are just glutton for punishment); contributing reviews to Necessary Fiction and Literary Kicks;  being asked by Kim at Reading Matters to take part in her Advent Calendar; finding the wonderful translator Jordan Stump through Twitter and him graciously agreeing to an interview.

There’s also been an exciting number of innovative  independent publishers who’ve released strong and important books in translation over the past year.  These indies aren’t just thinking outside of the box to publish great books, they’ve grabbed the scissors, paint, hot glue gun and turned that box into something new and refreshing. & Other StoriesReadux Books and Frisch & Co. have exciting publishing models. Readux focuses on short fiction for the digital age; & Other Stories have an AMAZING list of authors and a subscription program that makes you feel like a member of an elite club; and Frisch & Co. is tapping into the opportunities of e-books.

And last, but definitely not least, the highlight of 2013 was all the wonderful readers – old and new – of BookSexy Review.  Thank you for your comments, shares, likes and sticking with this little blog even when the post schedule got a little *ahem* erratic.

2014 Resolutions? This year my goals are more modest than last. I’ll only attempt to read & review 52 translations.  26 of which, as I wrote in my last post, will be by female authors.  I’ve also developed a large backlog on my TBR pile.  So, in 2014 I’m going to work to make a dent in that.  While I love reading new releases, there are authors like Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, more of the works of Juan José Saer, Péter Nádas and every Inspector Montalbano mystery ever written.

Happy 2014 dear readers!  Have you made any reading resolutions for the new year?  Share in the comments below!