Final Thoughts on Frankfurt

23 10 2008

From this recent NYT article:

Anne-Solange Noble, the foreign-rights director at Gallimard in France, said American publishers did not support translated books with marketing budgets and then complained when sales failed to dazzle.

Ms. Noble said she was amused — but also appeared irritated — when she recounted running into an American publisher who, on the first night of the fair, described Mr. Le Clézio as “an unknown writer.”

“American publishers are depriving the American readership of the cultural diversity through translation to which they are entitled,” Ms. Noble said. “It is what I call the poverty of the rich.”

American publishers devoted to translating say there is no shortage of gems. On Thursday Mr. Post of Open Letter eagerly plunged into one of the international halls, plucking brochures of translated English excerpts from stands hosted by cultural agencies from Croatia, Latvia, Poland, China and Korea.

Frankfurt, he said, is about renewing contacts with people whose judgment he trusts and who can help him winnow the hundreds of titles he hears about here and elsewhere.

Chad Post, who continues to cut a swashbuckling youthful figure (“eagerly plunged”) on the international literature circuit, has weighed in amply about the Gallimard rights rep’s legendary hauteur both at Threep and on the Ffurt Book Fair Blog. Still, well-deserved hauteur or no, Mme. Noble has indeed identified a recurring problem with American publishers. Bad or no publicity can sink a book—no, make that utterly torpedo. From her perspective, it must seem American publishers are shooting themselves in the foot, and then blaming “translation” which, in the pejorative form it often takes in these articles, seems to refer less to the act than to some ineradicable foreignness Americans are said not to respond to by those who supervise their reading: as in “the difficulty of translation” or “translation won’t sell.” Much the way Americans are assigned all manner of preferences by savvy film and TV producers who know exactly what they will and won’t watch. “This is what the public wants,” is a self-fulfilling refrain that generally leaves the public little choice in the matter, while conveniently proving the speaker right.

Back at the Agency, we called Mme. Noble ASN, dread initials that would pop up penciled on post-its and email printouts. My former colleague Alice had worked for her while still in France, and on one annual trip the big boss, Jean-Guy Boin, told a story in dark Chicama, at ABC Carpet, about how he’d been out to dinner with her when some conversation topic sent her into a righteous tirade, during which, one erect finger in the air, she kept referring to herself not standing for assorted thises and thats in the third person: “Anne-Solange Noble ne supportera pas” etc. To which he replied, at last, a hand on her arm, when she’d calmed down: “Mais qui est cette Anne-Solange dont vous me parlez?

For his part, Mr. Godine said Frankfurt helped him discover, among many others, the Nobel-winning Mr. Le Clézio. “Even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut,” he said.

Mr. Godine is far too humble, for if he is a blind squirrel, what then are the vast majority of American publishers?

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