May 27th, 2014

Experts Don't Know Shit: Translations Edition

I'm working on a second post about AmazonCrossing (short form of what I'm going to say: AmazonCrossing's translations FROM English TO other languages appear to be overwhelmingly genre fiction so far, and That Matters), and along the way I'm trying to understand what kind of literary translation ecosystem existed before AmazonCrossing came along and Changed the World as Amazon is wont to do: how were works selected for translation, did they make money, were translators able to eke out an existence on literary translation or was this one of those Labor of Love/Rich Dilettante Hobby things. Etc.

I ran across a lot of interesting stuff that was highly variable in quality, and then I found this, which is LONG so I don't expect you to read it.

It's from 2008 and he is a hard core translation Nerd. If he's not on the spectrum, well, probably no one really is.

He starts off with a Frankfurt Book Fair story of a British guy and an Italian guy being confused about what "smart" meant in a toss off remark by the Brit. Obvs, it meant nice-looking and equally obvs, the Brit wasn't going to Get Into It with the Italian and so the "clever" interpretation was allowed to slide, leading Lawrence Venuti, in classic Asperger fashion, to conclude: "The conversation hardly inspired confidence about the current state of literary translation."

Oh, sigh.

The balance of the very long piece is about how works are selected for translation which was one of the things I was interested in. Venuti is very knowledgeable and produces a careful and compelling argument based on 20th century publishing history and experience. Shortly after the war, Stanley Unwin argued that a translation would need to sell most of 5K copies to justify the costs associated with the translation and publication. That time-and-place dependent estimate became an English-language market benchmark and authors whose first translated work did not meet that benchmark didn't get a second shot -- which meant that they didn't get an opportunity to build a readership for themselves or for other works in translation. The example he gives -- Paola Capriolo -- still isn't available in English widely. He then goes on to list "great works of modern literature" that sold dismally in translation for a really long while. From here, Venuti gets into why it's so tough to translate texts: "verbal texture" (so the sound and structure unique to the source language that's going to be hard or impossible to re-render in the target language), literary allusions that make sense to the source audience but not the target audience and then then something to do with the packaging of the book that I Find Really Confusing. Because these things travel poorly, when you or I read a translation, we're reading a different book.

Well, fucking duh. He then goes on to note that readers will make sense of the translation in terms of their own reading experience (duh) and That Is A Problem. Next, he notes what works _DO_ survive translation:

"Matilde Serao, who explored themes like illicit romance among aristocratic and middle-class women, the uneven cultural and economic development between North and South and the provinciality and poverty of her native Naples." Me, I'd love to read that -- that sounds like fun. But Venuti is a nerdy guy -- he's mostly interested in whether Serao could be used as a bridge to render accessible authors who "revised or abandoned naturalism ... devised innovative strategies to probe character psychology ... intriguing narrative innovations." (Side note: Venuti's theory about the success of _Mrs. Dalloway_: "Mrs. Dalloway was so successful, I suggest, because enough readers could understand and appreciate its experimental narrative." I think maybe the actual presence of a riveting story (stories) may have made a difference, and Venuti isn't giving any indication that the books he wished worked better in translation had any of that going on. Forward Momentum -- Narrative Thrust -- is Everything.

While Venuti's idea that any significant market in the US might be trained to want to read anything like Svevo is fairly entertaining in its own right, even more amusing is his proposal. He thinks that publishers should be working together to publish enough literature in translation so that someone reading in English could have the reading experience -- over time -- that a person in the source language would have had. Venuti is Not Stupid (not at all!): he knows that this project is unlikely to be successful.

"But publishers can coordinate their efforts, banding together to select a range of texts from a foreign culture and to publish translations of them. This sort of investment cannot insure critical and commercial success. But in the long run chances are that it will pay off handsomely by laying the foundations for an informed readership that will not feel inadequate before translations from a particular foreign language and will actually be eager to sample new texts from it. Readers as well as publishers have much to gain from a translation policy that is based on an incisive understanding of the translation process."

Look, I _get_ having a special interest. I really do. I will ride a fascinating, bright, shiny idea right into the ground, boring the people who love me to tears. (Instead, I blog! And then they can tl;dr and move along. Best of all possible worlds.) But I know better than to propose stuff like this. Silly!

AmazonCrossing Is Publishing Genre Fiction and That Matters

Marie Force is a romance novelist. She has a series about the McCarthys of Gansett Island which is available (at least in part) on the German Amazon site (_Liebe auf Gansett Island_, _Sehnsucht auf Gansett Island_) and the French Amazon site (_Cadeau d'amour_, _Folie d'amour_ -- which is only available for pre-order at the time I write this). I was actually unfamiliar with Marie Force prior to noticing her pop up on several of these sites while I was perusing the titles that AmazonCrossing had on offer.

I _did_ recognize some of the other authors: Barry Eisler (who I recognized from his contributions over at J.A. Konrath's blog: - for that matter, some of J.A. Konrath's books show up in German as well), Sarah Morgan (_Orageuse passion_ over on .fr, _Bought: Destitute Yet Defiant_, a millionaires category romance). The selection on .de in German is much more extensive than the selection on .fr in French (and the selection in Italian on .it is extremely limited). Not only are romances and thriller/horror well-represented in AmazonCrossing, specific subgenres (like Scottish historicals and Regency romances) pop up at a startling rate.

Romance, thriller/horror and mystery novels (which are also very common from AmazonCrossing, and the Scandinavians, including at least one Icelandic novelist, are well represented, altho often in English translation that is then available in the .de etc. kindle stores) all enjoy some happy characteristics for a translator: they are heavy on descriptive detail which is _descriptive detail_. This isn't some ambiguous literary thing where you have to wonder about whether that green light means something; if there's a splatter of blood, it's there to advance the plot, not as a Rorschach test. Nouns and adjectives which mean what they mean translate well. Blood spatter happens in every language, in more or less the same way. And for all that we analyze romance or crime to draw cultural morals, there's a whole lot about novels of love and death that also translates really quite well (people are attracted to these stories, can make sense of them, etc.).

Finally, genre novels are often written and consumed rapidly, so they present few of the stylistiques issues that the French translation group drew attention to in their open letter. Honestly, and I say this as someone who consumes a lot of genre fiction, if you spend a lot of time thinking about how to translate an entry in a romance series, you are overthinking it.

It's easy in the US market to think of reading translated works as something that is scholarly and high-falutin' and downright snobby. But it isn't that way everywhere, and the world would be a much better place if it wasn't that way here. We _should_ be sharing the stories that we enjoy, and which we read for pleasure and relaxation because they tickle the imagination and satisfy our desire for coherence, resolution and closure, which are often missing in our daily messy lives. We _should_ be sharing those stories across language and other cultural boundaries. I'm glad that the disruptive, disintermediating forces that are destroying so much that many book-lovers have such affection for are also destroying those boundaries between readers who have way more in common than they even realize (and differ in ways that will prove jolting and informative).

I, personally, am sort of excited that chicklit/mystery novels by Jutta Profijt are now available in English. I can absolutely imagine my reading group picking _Portrait of a Girl_ by Dorthe Binkert, altho I'd probably lobby hard for the more humorous _Life After Forty_ by Dora Heldt or the non-fiction and looks to be absolutely riveting _Between Love and Honor_ by Alexandra Lapierre.

At the same time, I must admit to being a little nonplussed by the idea that the board game Settlers of Catan has spawned a tome of a book now available in English. It has a lot of reviews of the form, I really expected this to be terrible but it was/wasn't.

So the next time you are reading something bemoaning AmazonCrossing and their translation standards, take a giant step back and remind yourself: we are not debating the translational quality of a difficult work like Joyce's _Ulysses_. We are discussing historical romance novels that involve Scottish highlanders and Regencies that revolve around the implausible details of a will and a "scientific experiment". They weren't particularly plausible or well-written in the source language; perhaps a translation will improve the reader's experience.

The Hated Business Model is Back

Once upon a time, I used to work for a little bookstore on the internet. Perhaps you've heard of it. Begins with an A. Anyway. When I used to work there, there were some things that we did that were Secret. I don't think they are Secret any more, but I will speak elliptically, just in case.

We had a catalog, which was basically the electronic data files supplied by two distributors, banged together into a Very Simple Database (was it a relational database? No. No, it was not a relational database) and updated in an extremely crude fashion. Because the electronic data files were never intended to be viewed by customers, but only by staff at bookstores who ordered books that were then sold to customers, they were Full of Errors. The novel thing that this little bookstore did was radically simplify a process that already existed at virtually every bookstore in existence: you could place an order for anything that the distributor carried, or that the bookseller had otherwise become aware of. Did we use Bowker data? No. No, we did not. That's a whole story in and of itself.

In Seattle, there were two bookstores where it was worth your while to try to order an obscure book: University Books and Elliot Bay books. By far, the better option was the former, but once I was gainfully employed, I tended to use the latter because it was walking distance from my place of employment (prior to working for that little online bookstore). When they failed, I'd go to University Books. Sometimes they would tell me, hey, we're sorry, we tried, but they don't respond. Here's the publisher information; you can try if you like.

So when that little bookstore came into existence (before I went to work for them), I tried one of the Difficult Books to Acquire and they produced it lickety split. So fast I jumped when I had a chance to interview for a job working for them and I mentioned the experience. Did that little bookstore have that book in stock when I placed that order? Absolutely not. No. It did not. Was I pleased with the rapid fulfillment of a book that previous determined efforts over a period of months to acquire had not resulted in success?

Oh, yes I was.

Fast forward a few months.

That little bookstore had the most amazing business model in terms of cash flow. Because books tend to sit, unmoving, and increasingly dogeared from customer fondling at bricks and mortar bookstores, publishers offer generous financial terms to bookstores who are willing to stock their warez. That little bookstore had this great thing going: they didn't order the book until they had a customer that wanted it. They collected payment when they shipped it. And then they didn't have to pay the publisher for weeks -- they could do whatever they liked with that money in the mean time. Even better, publishers _loved_ this model when it came to returns, because there weren't any, and a sales channel that never returns a thing in an industry that returns double digit percentages of products -- in a good year -- well, my friends, that is a Miracle. (Also, the warez did not suffer as much customer depredation.)

There was just one thing: the onesies and twosies orders kinda drove the publishers nuts, especially when that little bookstore would order 3 copies on Monday, 5 copies on Tuesday, 2 copies on Thursday, 10 copies on Friday, etc. Why not just order 20 copies on the following Monday? they wanted to know, and negotiations ensued. (Obvs, it was not so simple, because many of the small orders went through the distributor rather than direct to the publisher.) You have to understand, those publishers were accustomed to orders from bricks and mortar chains which consolidated and pre-ordered pallets of books. Their fulfillment departments were not set up for this one and two and three stuff. I will leave the problems associated with a workflow aimed at pallets being pointed at individual items as an exercise for the reader (to ignore. And please continue to ignore just how amazingly difficult it is to get onesie/twosie order fulfillment right, because that's how come I have spare time to write stuff like this.).

And now, in the course of a dispute between Amazon and Hachette, Amazon says the following:

"For titles with no stock on hand, customers can still place an order at which time we order the inventory from Hachette -- availability on those titles is dependent on how long it takes Hachette to fill the orders we place. Once the inventory arrives, we ship it to the customer promptly."

I know that business model. That business model destroys publishing house fulfillment departments.

Returning once again to the mists of internet time (1997, give or take): a variety of commentators who investigated how this little bookstore did business said odd things, specifically, how did it manage to stock millions of titles? Oh, wait. They don't. Hey! That's cheating. Or words to that effect. (Meanwhile, with unlimited access to modifying that catalog, I spent a lot of time fantasizing about putting completely fake titles into it, just to see who would find them and order them. Which I never did. *sigh*)

Here is Scott Turow on the subject of this business model in its current incarnation as part of a negotiation between Hachette and Amazon (

""What kind of entity in a competitive market would willfully drive customers into the arms of its competitors unless it believes it doesn’t really have any competitors?” Turow said. “Can you imagine Best Buy refusing to deliver for a period of weeks what’s available from its competitors? But Amazon behaves as though they’re the only game in town. And increasingly they are. It’s a head-scratcher why anyone with regulatory authority would tolerate it. If this is not an example of untoward power, I don’t know what is.”"

So that's novel. If you decide not to sell something in a situation where your customer might go somewhere else, that is maybe evidence that there _isn't_ some other place to go to acquire it, otherwise you wouldn't do it. And, therefore, regulators should get involved. To require Amazon to fulfill orders faster? You know, you could probably get the FTC involved if Amazon was misrepresenting the amount of time it would take to fulfill an order, and you could prove that and demonstrate harm and intend to defraud and blah blah bleeping blah. But for just being slow? *blink* I kinda want to see that court case, actually. We've _had_ court cases (they involved railroads and occurred in the 19th century) that addressed the question of whether a company could be required to continue to engage in a business in which it was unable to make money. (The answer was no. Duh. Altho apparently it wasn't such a duh thing at the time. Go figure.)

There are two groups of people who LOVE the customer orders it, retailer orders it, supplier sends it, retailer sends it while collecting payment business model: people who read balance sheets (yeah, I know that's not you) and customers. The customers would be a lot less impressed if they had to place their order with a harried cashier, in a mall (or worse, in a Lifestyle Center, accessible only by car, surrounded by enormous, yet strangely always full, parking lots), during business hours; since they can do it at 3 a.m. in their PJs, they are as happy as a pig in slop. Everyone else hates it.

ETA: Okay, because I can't leave it alone. Amazon is not engaged in a merger, nor is it working in collusion with another firm, so the standard you have to apply to go after them as an antitrust regulator is difficult to achieve in the first place. Further, all the cases for decades have revolved around the pricing effects on the end-use consumer -- and Amazon's negotiating position is favorable for them. Attempts to re-orient antitrust law, especially in monopsony cases, to protect sellers from a powerful buyer determined to force prices down have, er, not succeeded. Altho I am not a lawyer, so hey, what do I know.