If you're reading this, it's probably because literature matters to you, because you agree with the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa that literature is "one of the common denominators of human experience through which human beings may recognize themselves and converse with each other, no matter how different their professions, their life plans, their geographical and cultural locations, their personal circumstances."
Yet here in the United States, we seem to be conversing mostly with ourselves. Even among those of us who love to read, we are largely cut off from the great dialogue that connects so much of the world (and missing some damn good books) due to the fact that less than three percent of what's published in this country is translated from other languages.
Three percent is low: in France and Spain, for example, both of which produce prodigious amounts of their own literature, more than half the new books published in a given year are translated from other languages. And even among the small number of foreign-language books that do make it into English in this country, about 300 to 400 titles in an average year, how many do you hear about?
If your main source for book news is mainstream media, the answer is: not many. Nine of the ten books on The New York Times's "Best Books of 2009" list were written by Americans (the tenth was by a Brit), as were nearly all the titles on their year-end list of 100 notable books. And very few of the books reviewed in any major American newspaper come from beyond our borders.
If you find most of your reading on the front tables at your local chain store, you're not likely to find much in the way of foreign lit either. Most translated novels published in this country come from small presses that can't afford to buy space on those tables like the big publishers do - so, aside from the latest book by a tried-and-true Nobel Prize winner or Scandinavian detective story writer, most of what you see on the front tables at the chain stores is the same handful of books you already read about in the paper.
As the owner of Idlewild Books, a Manhattan bookstore dedicated to travel and international fiction and organized by country, I can report that there is a strong market for world lit, even if big publishers and big chain stores have largely relinquished it to the smaller players. Many of our customers are interested in foreign authors because they're planning a trip and want to read a novel set in their destination, but most of our customers just live or work in the neighborhood and are looking for a great read, and are excited to find books they don't see everywhere else. (Our store is located within two blocks of two huge Barnes & Noble stores so if we didn't offer something different, we'd be out of business; Barnes & Noble sometimes sends customers who can't find what they're looking for to us.)
This post is the first in a regular series focusing on the best new literature in translation. Starting in March, I'll highlight five great books from five different countries every month -- but this month I leave you with the ten-book shortlist for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award, which was announced at a standing-room-only event hosted by New Yorker editor Cressida Leyshon at Idlewild Books on Tuesday night.
The Best Translated Book Award was founded in 2007 by Three Percent, the literary magazine of Open Letter Books, one of this country's most important publishers of literature in translation. The final winner will be announced at Idlewild on March 10, but all ten finalists are terrific and worthy of the prize. Pick one of these indie-published books up at your local independent store (full descriptions are available on our website www.idlewildbooks.com) -- and happy reading!
The 2010 Best Translated Book Award Shortlist
Ghosts, by César Aira (Argentina)
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker (Netherlands)
Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
Anonymous Celebrity, by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão (Brazil)
Translated from the Portuguese by Nelson Vieira
Wonder, by Hugo Claus (Belgium)
Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim
The Weather Fifteen Years Ago, by Wolf Haas (Austria)
Translated from the German by Stephanie Gilardi and Thomas S. Hansen
The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven (Israel)
Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
The Discoverer, by Jan Kjærstad (Norway)
Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland
Memories of the Future, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (Russia)
Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull
Rex, by José Manuel Prieto (Cuba)
Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
The Tanners, by Robert Walser (Switzerland)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky