Rushdie: Bolano Proves We Should Translate More

Opening the PEN World Voices Festival, Salman Rushdie has declared that the example of Roberto Bolano proves that there are tons of great writers still unknown in English. So American publishers, get going:

El autor anglo-indio Salman Rushdie destacó hoy
el reconocimiento en EU del fallecido escritor chileno Roberto Bolaño y
animó al mercado editorial estadounidense a tomar nota e impulsar más
traducciones al inglés de obras de éxito.

"El éxito tardío de Roberto Bolaño (1953-2003) con 2666 es una muestra de lo poco que se traduce en Estados Unidos", dijo el célebre autor de Los versos satánicos
durante la presentación en la sede del Instituto Cervantes de Nueva
York de la quinta edición del Festival Internacional de Literatura del
PEN Club.

It's surprising that this hasn't gotten more play. GalleyCat has video clips from his speech, but no mention of the Bolano.

Of course, Rushdie is absolutely right. And if publishers don't want to do it for higher aspirations of opening a dialog with the world, well, there's a lot of very marketable material out there in other languages. Instead of trudging through the notebooks of famous deceased authors, more publishers should be finding out which authors currently working in other countries would sell in America.

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Well, if we’re going to count Bolaño as evidence that we should translate more, aren’t we also obligated out of intellectual honesty to take into account the far greater number of literary translations that lose money for their publishers…?
One might certainly reply that our motive for translating should be cultural, rather than financial. In which case, to whom does the “we” in “we should translate more” refer? Perhaps Sir Salman means that there should be greater subsidy of literary translations in the U.S., which is a prospect I wholeheartedly endorse.
And I believe we should start by having Sir Salman endow the Rushdie Literary Translation Fund!
(It could be a great opportunity to seat a pompous board of directors bloated with “higher aspirations of opening a dialogue with the rest of the world.” How many novels could be translated and published widely with a starting charitable contribution of, say, $5 million or so? And they could throw a really great party every year in Frankfurt!)

I think the publisher’s financial obligation that you refer to is known as keeping a balance sheet. And the publishers that I know that are heavily into translation (e.g. Dalkey, New Directions, Open Letter, Archipelago), are doing a lot better than many not publishing much in translation.
In any event, lots of untranslated works lose money, and that doesn’t stop publishers from printing up more of those.

Scott, you make my point for me. Three of the four companies you list (the exception being New Directions, which survives off its backlist) are non-profits that are heavily subsidized. Why are they subsidized? Because their businesses are otherwise unsustainable, i.e. they’d be bankrupt.
Since you seem to know these companies well enough to know their balance sheets and that they are “doing a lot better than many not publishing much in translation” – please ask Chad Post the unit cost on, say, Vilnius Poker (a $17.95 hardcover). Even if the full cost of translation was met by the Lithuanian Arts Council (or whatever), he is guaranteed to lose money at that price, and on a print run of what is guaranteed to be less than 5000 copies. Without the subsidy it would have to be a $35 (or more) hardcover, which means that it wouldn’t be carried in B&N or any other chain (and few independents would even bother).*
But who needs to worry about making money when you’re fully subsidized?
So it’s easy to be preachy about the need for more literary translations, but there are only two ways to achieve it: widen the market (good luck with that!) or increase the subsidies. And since Sir Salman thinks there should be more translations, and since he’s filthy rich, he may just want to put up or shut up.
* Please let it be understood that I don’t mean to pull Chad Post’s nose. I only use his case to show that in comparing subsidized publishers to the “many not publishing much in translation” you are really comparing apples and oranges.

Obviously they’re non-profits. My point is that their business model is sustainable. And if you think they’re awash in subsidies . . .
But fine. You want for-profit publishers heavily into translations:
Europa Editions
NYRB Classics
Seven Stories
Black Widow Press
Serpent’s Tail
Melville House
. . .

Scott, since publishing translations is such good business, why aren’t these powerhouses you named answering Rushdie’s call and churning out more translations? After all, Bolaño’s success proves something, right? Since they’re doing as well as you insist they are, why aren’t they expanding?
The answer, I think, is obvious.

Salman rushdie is a microscopic crapule on the asshole of the late great Roberto Bolano. Then again a smirking narcissist whose fame is built off media circus controversy rather than literary talent would never in a thousand years grasp how out of his league he is next to Bolano’s *actual* genius. Needless to mention Bolano’s disposition toward magic realism practically guarantees he’d have unapologetically thrown Rushdie under the bus like he did those other “magic” hacks Marquez and Allende.


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