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Global Marketplace Demands Literature That’s Easy to Translate

Posted by Erin Brown in Bookselling E-books events translation trends uncategorized virtual offices world literature on March 4, 2010

global novel

Tim Parks, who blogs for the New York Review of Books, had an interesting post recently about the pressure that writers (particularly non-American writers) feel to reach an international audience and the way this is affecting what and how they write:

There is a growing sense that for an author to be considered “great,” he or she must be an international rather than a national phenomenon . . . [M]ore and more European, African, Asian and South American authors see themselves as having “failed” if they do not reach an international audience.

Parks goes on to describe how this pressure has increased with the advent of electronic submissions, which enable an author to send a new work simultaneously to publishers all over the world, such that international rights may even be purchased before the writer has found a publisher in his or her own country:

An astute agent can then orchestrate the simultaneous launch of a work in many different countries using promotional strategies that we normally associate with multinational corporations. Thus a reader picking up a copy of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, or the latest Harry Potter, or indeed a work by Umberto Eco, or Haruki Murakami, or Ian McEwan, does so in the knowledge that this same work is being read now, all over the world . . . This perception adds to the book’s attraction.

The disturbing side effect of this global market consciousness, Parks suggests, is that authors may be inclined to tailor their work for ease of translation and “remove obstacles to international comprehension,” particularly by keeping the language simple:

Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader . . . What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives.

It will be unfortunate if the proliferation of literature in translation can only happen through its homogenization.


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