Good advice from the FT

by on July 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm in Books | Permalink

Tyler Cowen, the economist, advises readers to “snap up foreign fiction
translated into English, if only because the selection pressures are so
severe”: in order for a publisher to think a work of fiction worth the
risk of translating and promoting to a foreign audience, its quality
has on average to be higher than the average for homegrown work.

Here is more.  The best place to follow new releases of such fiction is the blog Literary Saloon.

1 jory July 18, 2009 at 7:01 pm

By the same token, only buy books selling at both Walmart and Costco. The selection pressures are so severe so they must be good. NOT.

2 babar July 18, 2009 at 7:31 pm

or, favor books written in the 17th century.

3 blink July 18, 2009 at 7:46 pm

So it is the Alchain-Allen Theorem in a different guise. Is this example from CYOE, or does it only feel like it should have been?

4 Gary July 18, 2009 at 10:45 pm

Does the motive for selection matter? If most readers of translated works read them because of Tyler’s rationale, I would probably enjoy them, too. If, however, most readers read them because they want to brag about reading foreign works, I’m less interested.

5 rluser July 19, 2009 at 12:35 am

On this front: I highly recommend snapping up Frans Gunnar Bengtsson. Perhaps we can inspire reprints.

6 Gary July 19, 2009 at 3:10 am

“Why would you want to brag about reading foreign works? Aren’t all books foreign for someone and local for someone?”

The same is true for languages, but that doesn’t eliminate bragging opportunities. When I learned some Chinese (badly), I suspected that fellow native English speakers would be impressed. What surprised me was that Chinese were even more impressed. The one language nobody is impressed by is English – too common.

Now I look like a dick.

7 londenio July 19, 2009 at 7:18 am

Three unrelated observations.

1. The rule could be made more general. Choose books that have been translated to many languages. So I should choose books written in Spanish (my mother tongue) by checking first which books had been translated to English and other languages. So I benefit from the advice without the disadvantage of the translation “loss”.

2. Selection pressure is necessary but not sufficient. Let´s say that readers have different valuations for literary quality and assume that most of the mass is concentrated in the low quality range of the spectrum (admittedly, this assumption is quite snob). Once you solve for equilibrium prices, you may have Wal-Mart stocking many low quality books (high demand, low price) and editors investing into the translation of the few books that can recover the investment: unique literary gems.

3. Admiration from learning a foreign language in the corresponding country has to do with expectations. I learn French and German and speak both rather badly. My French is slightly better, but I only receive corrections when I attempt to speak it in France (where I reside). In Germany, where nobody expects foreigners to learn the language, they applaud any of my clumsy efforts. This can explain the comments about Chinese above.

8 Taeyoung July 19, 2009 at 5:42 pm

Following on Tom T., apparently the American anime importers are now translating Japanese “light novels” in significant volume. Light novels are generally fairly light, comedic fare, intended for teenagers. They apparently get serialised in magazines the way manga (comics) do. And they have illustrations every chapter or two. I will admit, with some guilt, that I do read light novels from time to time, and they are kind of fun. I would not claim that they are works of any particular literary merit — they’re kind of like modern penny dreadfuls, right down to their being serialised in monthly magazines. But they can be fun.

On the other hand, translators have a tendency to err on the side of dreary, pretentious works. There’s lots of works that are fun and enjoyable stuff that don’t get translated. For example, Akagawa Jiro is a fairly popular author in Japan. He writes mostly light comedic murder mysteries. I don’t think any of his works have been translated yet, and I don’t expect them to be. They’re like one step up from light novels, so they’re not serious enough for serious translators (who would prefer to translate stuff by Murakami Haruki or whoever) and they don’t have anime illustrations to go along with them, so they’re unlikely to be picked up by the anime companies (incidentally, if I have one complaint about Akagawa’s works, it is that they come with hands down the most unappealing covers I have ever seen — the three trolls on the front of “Three sisters detective group” series are absolutely hideous to behold). Anyhow, his series are fun enough and quirky enough that I think they’d do fairly well here in the US market, but the translation industry isn’t really set up for that.

9 derrida derider July 19, 2009 at 11:03 pm

A bit OT, why do few modern novelists ever publish their major work in serial form, as was the Victorian norm?

It doesn’t seem to me as though the economics have changed materially – the same mutual benefit to author and magazine publisher ought still to apply, not to mention the same opportunities for building hype between instalments. Indeed the internet means that serial publication these days could much more easily respond to readers’ reactions. Why then did tastes or norms change?

10 Sbard July 21, 2009 at 4:49 pm

To anonymous and derrida derider: The other thing that has happened over the years is that periodical fiction has tended towards the short story format instead of the serial novel. Much easier to follow if you aren’t a subscriber or regular reader. If you publish a magazine where the stories contained within require you to have read five or six previous issues to understand what’s going on, you have trouble picking up new readers. You don’t want to limit your reader base by locking out those who haven’t been diligently following you since the beginning. This is, incidentally, one of the criticisms that has been laid against TV serial dramas.

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