Guernica: I wonder if part of the problem with translated fiction is publishers making assumptions about what readers will like. Assumptions that they’ll see the book as homework, when in fact the bulk of readers might be more willing than we think.
Nicole Aragi: Yes. I do think readers are by and large more open-minded than we give them credit for. But publishers have to spend their lives guessing at what people will want a couple of years from the date the manuscript is sent to them by an agent. It’s not easy, and they get nervous. So I think they do fall back on some assumptions, sometimes. They have to. It’s part of their work.
I represent a Somali writer called Nuruddin Farah. His very early books were published very seriously, with very serious photographs on the cover, and they looked like academic works. The turning point was when a book of his came out with a face on the cover. Something as simple as a picture of a face humanized the work. It changed Nuruddin’s readership in America. We think of books in translation too earnestly and then publish them too earnestly, and then we’re surprised when they feel earnest. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.