Character Counts in Translated Fiction

Ken Gordon
From the November/December 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

These days many wired Americans count characters more carefully than calories, spending long stretches of time figuring out how to express themselves in one hundred forty or fewer of them. Size matters in social media and, unusual for Americans, we’re going small. Recall the tale of one novelist who, after failing to find a traditional publisher for his book, decided to put it out there himself via thirty-seven hundred tweets—and received quite a bit of media attention for his efforts. (Matt Stewart’s The French Revolution was later published, in June 2010, by Soft Skull Press.)

However, if you look at the new books of translated fiction appearing on our bookstore shelves lately, it seems the rest of the global literary community isn’t following suit. Outsize page counts seem to be, for serious foreign readers and writers, a trending topic—and U.S. publishers are taking heed.

For instance, in August an English version of The Emperor of Lies by Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG). The novel runs 672 pages. In October Knopf published its single-volume translation of Haruki Murakami’s three-part, 928-page novel, 1Q84, which was an instant best-seller when it was originally published in Japan. This month FSG will release the thickest of them all: a translation of Péter Nádas’s 1,152-page novel, Parallel Stories, which was hailed by the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet as a “twenty-first-century War and Peace.” And in December Melville House will publish all 720 pages, translated from the German, of The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll.

All of which reminds me of the way Henry James, surely the most Twitter-resistant stylist in the history of Western literature, tagged War and Peace: “a loose, baggy monster.” (Imagine this hashtag: #loosebaggymonster!) Will this international cast of literary behemoths easily assimilate itself into our Twitter-crazed culture, and maybe our best-seller lists?

We’ll have to wait and see, but true lovers of literature, no matter how plugged into social media, will likely find themselves pulled out of the Twittersphere by an exceptional story and amazing characters—regardless of a book’s heft. As Vladimir Nabokov once suggested, the true mark of a great author is that his prose has an addictive effect: “When you read Turgenev, you know you are reading Turgenev. When you read Tolstoy, you read just because you cannot stop.”

Or as Dennis Loy Johnson, the publisher of Melville House, says, “Sometimes people just like to get caught up in a saga that takes a while to unfold. That can be really submersive, which to my mind is the best of all possible reading experiences. A great example of that is our biggest-selling book—and one of the world’s biggest-selling books over the last couple of years—Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, a translation from the German that’s over 550 pages long.”

The success abroad of these gigantic books says something hopeful about foreign literary culture. It may be true that non-American attention spans are longer and more structurally sound than ours, or that some cultures, no matter how technologically tuned-in, can still page back to the days of the expansive prose narrative. And yet, there’s no need for non-American exceptionalism here. After all, a year ago Yankee Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel, Freedom, became a best-seller. Last November debut author Adam Levin made a splash with his 1,030-page novel, The Instructions, published by McSweeney’s Books, which made a number of must-read book roundups, including IndieBound’s Next list and New York Magazine’s most-anticipated fall titles, and went on to win the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award for a first novel. And this past September, Little, Brown published Chad Harbach’s 528-page debut novel, The Art of Fielding, which at the time of this writing seems destined for similar reception.

But for many readers there remains something special about big books produced by a culture different from our own. “The appeal of big translated books is the news they bring of other perspectives than our sometimes myopic own,” says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of FSG. “The success of Roberto Bolaño’s big posthumous magna opera did just that—gave readers access to a major new sensibility,” he adds, referring to the five volumes and 912 pages of 2666, published by FSG in 2008 (and which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction). “And serious readers want to be engrossed by the worldview of a great writer. It takes a long time to develop such a vision.”                 

Ken Gordon is a freelance writer in Boston.



good article..karenmillen