Big Think Interview with Alane Salierno Mason

  • Transcript


Question: What factors contribute to the paucity of literature in translation?

Alane Salierno Mason: Well, one is that it’s harder to publish fiction of any kind. So, it’d be intersting to compare those figures with the figures for first novels, for instance, or first collections of short stories. It may be that just as many are being published but fewer are being published by major publishers. So in general, there’s a contraction of literary publishing that’s been going on since the contraction of independent bookstores, the mergers of many small publishers into larger corporations—so there are now far fewer major players in the publishing world than there were even when I started 20 years ago.

I think the fundamental change of attitude is when publishers started to look at each book as carrying its own weight financially. In the Golden Age of American publishing, publishers were well off and not looking to make more money to begin with, but for those who were in the business of profit-making they knew that only a few titles are really going to turn a profit and they expected that those few bestsellers would carry the more noble part of publishing, the serious literature that might not make any money.

But presumably as more NBA started to come into the workings of publishers and publishers became more corporate, we now believe that every book is to carry its own weight and needs to carry an equivalent share of the overhead cost as a big bestseller, so per-copy that book needs to contribute as much to salaries and health insurance and lights as a big bestseller, which really makes it much harder to publish books that might only sell a few thousand copies.

And almost all translation falls into that category and has the additional impediments of the additional cost for the translation and the fact that it is much harder to promote authors so in this period it’s become essential that authors promote themselves. It’s very hard for foreign language author coming in to this market with no experience with American entrepreneurship and self marketing to be able to do that even if they speak English—and of course most of them are writing in their foreign language because that is the language they are comfortable in, they’re not comfortable writing or speaking in English. Some can speak in English but with enough of an accent that radio programs or you might not want to interview them. So, the foreignness becomes a handicap in more the promotion more than in the actual work.

Question: How does a foreign language manuscript arrive on the American market?

Alane Salierno Mason: The wonderful thing about publishing is that there is so much serendipity, there is no one path to publication. In some cases, authors are living in the States because they have a teaching job at a university or they are journalists based in the United States for a period and they formed connections that make it easier for them to get published in English. In other cases they win a Nobel Prize and suddenly publishers are scrambling for the rights to works they have previously completely ignored.

What "Words Without Borders" has tried to do is provide the kind of roots publication that small magazines have served for English language authors—or even big magazines. So for instance, if an English-language fiction writer has a story published in the “New Yorker” and nobody has ever heard of that writer before, suddenly there’s a rush to published works by that author. Other English language writers have gotten known through the “Paris Review” or “Granta” or any number of well-regarded quarterlies.

There has been really no such thing for writers in translation, because the small journalists usually didn’t have people who could read foreign languages or didn’t have a large enough net of connections among translators. Some journalists have done some translation, but “Words Without Borders” is really the only one to my knowledge that focuses exclusively on literature and translation, and has put all of its energy in seeking new work and into building a network of translators, foreign publishers and other reliable allies to recommend work for translation and publication.

Question: How are translators different in the U.S. than in Europe?

Alane Salierno Mason: The best translations are done by people who are also writers and it is much more common in Europe, for example, for literary writers to also try their hand at translation. In some cases, they actually to make a living at translation to support their own artistic work.

Now, in this country there is just no opportunity to make a living during translations, so writers are much less likely to study foreign languages and to have a foot in another language. It’s not to say there aren’t any, but it’s just much less common—so it is hard to find good translators.

There’s a lot of academic translation which I think is not as strong—the academic is coming to the material from a particular ideological point of view, or a sense of the nonfiction interest of the work, but perhaps a less strong sense of the texture of the language as a poetic or a literary endeavor. So that said, we have a fantastic network of translators and it’s been built up now over 10 years and the editorial director of “Words Without Borders,” Susan Harris, has also been one of the lead players in the American Literary Translators Association and I think we have the best network out there.

Question: Are literary agents friendly to foreign authors?

Alane Salierno Mason: It’s much harder for a foreign language author to get an American agent. Again, American agents, like American editors, are less likely to read foreign languages. The exceptions, like George Broussard, have been hugely important to American literary culture. George Broussard arrived in this country fluent in French and was the agent for Beckett and UNESCO and Jean Genet. There was also a whole generation of refugees from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War who ended up here heralding Kurt Wolff or someone else, and they were hugely important to bringing European literature into English.

Question: Which publishers are promoting works in translation?

Alane Salierno Mason: Well there’s Archipelago Books provided by Joe Schulman; they are devoted entirely to literature in translation, which really makes them unique. There is Open Letter Press run by Chad Post—who is a very dynamic and articulate advocate for translation. He had been at Delphi/Archive and then started this new imprint at University of Rochester Press. They are going to be publishing the next “Words Without Borders” anthology, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, coming out this November. Judith Gurewich, who was a psychologist or psychoanalyst who is I believe Hungarian-born, started a publisher which has done a lot of translation.

Of course, Farrar Strauss, Knopf, Ecco, Metropolitan still play an important role, but they are under pressure from the larger corporations that own them so there is limit to what they can do.

Question: How does the Internet facilitate literature in translation?

Alane Salierno Mason: Well a number of the authors that we have published have then gone on to get book contracts because they got noticed through our efforts. It also certainly makes it easier in practical terms to be in touch with authors in foreign countries and with translators and editors who are living abroad. It makes it possible to feature the original language text alongside the English translation, which is fun for students of foreign languages, and because it is accessible everywhere—50% of our readers are actually not in the United States—it enables somebody in Iran to read a piece from Indonesia even if they don’t read Indonesian. 

Question: How did you found Words Without Borders?

Alane Salierno Mason: I started thinking about this project in 1999 and three things had come together. I had done my own translation of a little Italian novel which I love called Conversazione in Sicilia or Conversations in Sicily by Elio Vittorini, and immersing myself in that process made me remember how much I love foreign literature and how little of it was available in English and how hard it was for me as an editor even at one of the top literary publishing houses to actually publish any literature in translation.

I was also a panelist for the NEA, evaluating small presses and literary magazines. I was really inspired by the grassroots literally ferment of what was going on across the country. I’m felt as if I learned more in 3 days reading those applications to the NEA than I had in 16 years of institutional New York publishing. Some of those projects were also dedicated to trying to get literature and translation into English.

Then, I was invited to go on a literary jaunt to Germany. Germany, like many other European countries, has a portion of its cultural ministry devoted to getting German books translated abroad—supporting German culture in that way and disseminating it. They had invited five American editors to tour German publishers and talk with German editors about the books that they were doing in the hopes of that would spur more U.S. translation of German books. This tour was very German—I had thought that we might have one on one conversations with editors, but was much more formal than that. We would all be seated around a conference table with the same chocolate cookies at every meeting and we would listen to two or three hour presentations of the entire list of what that publisher was doing in German. I started to daydream: “Yes, I’d like to know what is going on in German literature and no, I am never going to learn about it this way” and thinking how might I find out which of the authors in German I might be excited by. Each publisher would castigate us for the fact that so little German literature is published in the U.S. and one in particular—somebody I’m fond of—said, you know, “Americans are only want to read books from Germany that have to do with the Second World War. We have young authors too. We have young authors writing about divorce and shopping malls. Why don’t you want to read these books?” I thought, “Well, we have lots of American books about divorce and shopping malls and I really don’t want to read German books about divorce and shopping malls.”

But how could I find out what I do want to read from Germany? The obvious answer is you have to have a couple of people on the ground in Germany whose tastes you feel some sympathy with, who can make recommendations to you, and then, since I don’t read German, there needs to be some kind of sample translation of this authors. Anyway, I’m not interested only on German literature—I also want to know what’s going on with Syrian literature or Japanese literature and wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of space where editors like myself could encounter voices from all around the world in reasonable English translations

Question: What was the response?

Alane Salierno Mason: The really rewarding thing was that people responded so strongly to the idea; the sense that America has become too provincial both in its literature and its politics is pretty widespread and a cosmopolitan literary endeavor like this really spoke to people. It very easy to get people to join the advisory board and to pitch in with translations. It was harder to convince European publishers that it was okay to publish on the Internet because that was still quite foreign to them. So we had some trouble to begin with getting rights to certain works, but ultimately they got comfortable with it as well. I wrote an application to the NEA and thought, “If they turn it down then I can give this up and go back to a more normal busy life instead of an insanely busy life,” but they gave the grant and then I had to do it. I have no choice but to actually pursue the project once they had awarded it—$30,000 dollars or $35,000 dollars. I had to find matching funds and the Internet boom had just gone bust. Nobody had wanted to give money to an Internet project and at one point I called up the program director at the NEA, Cliff Becker, who has since died: he was a very strong advocate for translation projects at the NEA and is really the godfather of this project to some degree. I called him up and said, “Cliff, I have only raised $10,000 dollars of that matching fee. What am I going to do?” and he said, “You’ve raised $10,000 dollars for literature this year? Do you know that puts you in the top 1% of fundraisers for literature in the United States?” And so, he gave me the support to get going and ultimately we did cobble together enough money to launch the magazine.

Question: Is there a literary scene in North Korea?

Alane Salierno Mason: The fun of the launch of “The Literature from the Axis of Evil” was that it required us to really scramble to find out who knew somebody who might have contact with literature from North Korea. We had the naïve idea that somehow there would be flourishing literature in North Korea and in fact there was no such thing. If there are dissident writers they’re either dead or silent; the only literature available was state-sponsored propaganda, which was interesting in itself—a real education for us as editors.

At the same time, we found out there is a vast amount of Iranian-Persian literature available because of the huge exodus of Iranian intellectuals and artists to American Academies after 1979, who still remain in touch with Iran. They act as a terrific cultural conduit between the Iran and the U.S., so it’s very easy to get Farsi literature and to find Farsi translators.

Iraq was another story because when we were launching the magazine the Iraq War had just began, and it’s not easy to contact writers in wartime and a lot of Iraqi writers had fled Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein. We ended up in touch with Iraqi writers living in Hamburg or London who were still writing in Arabic so they still fit our mission, but were not actually based in Iraq.

Question: How has Oprah changed Americans’ reading habits?

Alane Salierno Mason: I’m a biased commentator because Oprah made a huge difference for an author I really love, Andre Dubus III, when she selected “House of Sand and Fog;” that was a book that I really believed had a mass audience.

It went through a real roller coaster on publication. It had been turned down by 22 publishers before I signed it up, which I didn’t know at that time, but I had a real struggle in-house to get it signed up.

Then, everything had started to go right. Booksellers loved it. The first reviews were spectacular and three days after publication the author’s father died, Andre Dubus Senior, also a wonderful writer, very highly regarded. At that time a physical publicity tour was the most important thing in getting a book to potentially get on the bestseller list, and Andre had to cancel his, so the book stopped in terms of its momentum.

Then, some months later, it was nominated for the National Book Award and there was a spike again, a lot of excitement, there were 80,000 copies provisionally ordered waiting for the announcement of the National Book Award Winner. If he won, the printing was all set to go. Of course, he didn’t win. He was very happy to be at the National Book Award dinner—I don’t think he really cared if he won or not, he probably was privileged to be there—but his agents and I were devastated, totally devastated, because we knew that there were 80,000 copies not being printed.

So the book came out in paperback. It started to do well with some reading group attention, but still, I think it had sold maybe 100,000 copies or something in paperback—excellent, but nothing like the two and a half million copies that it sold after Oprah shown her very strong spotlight on it.

It is the case with many books: you know that there is a huge audience for that book, but there has to be a very bright spotlight shown on it, and often that doesn’t happen. So, I’m very glad that she had that great big star-making spotlight to shine. It meant that a lot of readers who were not necessarily Oprah watchers ended up finding out about the book and reading it because it became number one on the paperback bestseller list as other people were reading it.

Recorded on: June 5, 2009