Talking Translation at Book Expo America

This year was my first time at Book Expo America, and it was interesting to see, especially after having visited the London Book Fair just a few months ago. BEA is much smaller, and it’s not as much a marketplace for permissions and rights as the other big fairs (esp. London and Frankfurt), so it feels more intimate, and also somehow trashier, because most of the important literary publishers don’t bother to show up. This is because even the smallest booth there costs $4000 rent, and anything smaller than a $10,000 booth is going to look pretty dinky, so participating is a considerable investment, especially since NYC-based publishers can easily enough invite any international or out-of-town publishing professionals who come to town for BEA to drop by their offices for meetings. There are publishers who throw BEA parties every year without actually attending the expo. So what is BEA good for? It seems to be quite important e.g. for American booksellers not located in NYC looking for stock for the upcoming year. Unfortunately my quick spin around the expo floor revealed an alarmingly high percentage of junque and silly novelty swag. By far the biggest crowd I saw all day was waiting in line to get Grumpy Cat’s autograph. It was refreshing, after fighting my way through this crowd to get where I was going, to be asked at the stand of the Polish Cultural Institute, “What is Grumpy Cat?” Wish I didn’t know. On the other hand, I also happened upon the stand for the legendary publishing house David R. Godine – amazingly being manned by Godine himself, who has just published The African, a short and powerful-sounding childhood memoir by Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio, in a translation by C. Dickson – whom Godine unfortunately neglects to credit on his website or in the data transmitted to booksellers, though Dickson’s name does appear on the book’s cover. (Amazon generally lists translator names when provided; only Barnes and Noble, bless their hearts, sleuthed it out on their own; and Indiebound couldn’t even spell the author’s name, somebody help them!)

Anyhow, the occasion of my visit to BEA was a panel discussion entitled “The Translator and the Editor: A Fraught Relationship,” organized by David Goldfarb of the aforementioned institute and featuring Polish crime novelist Marek Krajewski along with editors Chad Post of Open Letter and Victoria Wilson of Knopf (neither of which had stands at BEA), the illustrious Mary Ann Caws, and me. We had only 50 minutes for the panel, so the mud got slung around pretty fast, even though Mary Ann and I both sang the praises of editors we have worked with. Marek, on the other hand, pointed out that he had worked both with beneficial, helpful editors and mad “narcissists” who make changes to his manuscripts just for the sake of putting their mark on a book. Poor Marek. We had an interesting side discussion of the translation of the Polish word “rynek” into German – his translator Doreen Daume was hesitating between “Marktplatz” (marketplace, market square) and “Ring.” This surprised me because I think of “Ring” in German as “Ringstraße” (the circular road usually built where the old city walls once stood), but now that I have consulted German Wikipedia, I see that the word “Ring” is used differently in Bohemia and Silesia, where it means, for some reason, “marketplace” – Ring and rynek are cognates. Prague, Opole and Wrocław all have squares that are/were called “Ring” in German. The latter is the setting of a series of Marek’s books, including the latest, Death in Breslau (transl. Danusia Stok), and he provocatively calls the city by its German name even in Polish, since the book is set in 1933.

The panel did also include some talk about translation. Mary Ann told a juicy horror story of having her translations “dumbed down” by a publishing house whose name remained shrouded in tactful silence, and I spoke about the differences in editing practices between the U.S. and Europe: most editors in the German-language world are pretty hands-off compared to their American counterparts, and some European authors actually want to have a U.S. editor work over their books (an extreme example is Gregor von Rezzori, who gave star editor Elisabeth Sifton license to do whatever she wanted with his manuscripts, and she did in fact often make significant changes, smart ones). Vicky and Chad had interesting things to say about the commercialization of literary publishing and the shift in the publishing of translations to smaller presses, though she disputed his claim that the larger publishing houses are no longer interested in translations. There was also a discussion of when U.S. publishing went corporate. Was it with the purchase of many NYC publishing houses by the international conglomerates Holtzbrinck and Bertelsmann? Vicky pointed out that before Knopf was bought by Holtzbrinck it had belonged to R.C.A., and that C.B.S. owned publishing houses too. So there’s a long history there. In any case, the panel flew by too quickly for me to jot everything down, so if you want to know for sure everything that got talked about, check out the podcast of the event that the Polish Cultural Institute is planning to post to their website next week. I’ll add the link here when I get it. Meanwhile, today is your last chance (until 4:00 p.m.) to head over to the Javits Center for your own Book Expo America experience. If you manage to snag a cup of the “For Dummies” wine, let me know how it was.

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