20 February 2012

Local character and the publishing biz, part 1

Anyone can see that publishing is in upheaval. I've mostly experienced it as a reader, one who's daily offered new opportunities to discover and read books (e-readers, web distribution, social platforms like Goodreads) while other means of access are closed off (Borders goes belly-up, indies struggle, conglomerates squabble). These changes are usually laid at the feet of technology, as though we have no control over it, and as though the really disruptive contemporary changes in the economy (of publishing as well as everything else) are only some minor annoying side-effect of Pure Technological Progress.

So I was surprised and glad to see the reaction last week to major press coverage (The Guardian) of England's new small press And Other Stories as a possible savior of translation publishing. Surprised, because I called it two years ago (but I guess that would assume anyone read my blog); glad, because the responses were genuinely pleased and welcoming.

But two years is a long time to wait for just one newspaper feature. Publishing is still messed up, translation publishing perhaps most of all, and AOS can't fix it all by themselves. That's why I'm thinking more and more that I might as well give it a try myself.

The problem

According to apocryphal but persistent statistics, translated works account for less than 3% of the US publishing market, versus 40% and up in pretty much every other developed country. The work is underpaid, often working out to $10 an hour or less. Except for a dozen or two superstars (who attract steady work and can demand per-unit royalties rather than a flat rate), literary translators have to have day jobs—either as commercial translators or, usually, as academics—to make ends meet. With profit thus off the table as a possible motivating factor—and because they still have to justify their work to tenure and promotion committees—many translators tend to choose to translate works which are interesting academically, rather than entertaining and engaging stories. Which then just helps keep the market and readership small.

Some people have made a fuss lately about AmazonCrossing, which is a publishing imprint launched by the e-commerce giant to produce both Kindle and print books translated from other languages into English. They use their global sales data to find out what people buy and read in other countries, then bring it home to the Big Daddy market. (Disclosure: I've done some sample translations for them, for which they paid a fair rate—and if they offer more work in the future, I'll probably take it.) But it's not something they're doing for the benefit of translators; it's a move against the giant New York conglomerates (Random House/Bertelsmann, HarperCollins, Penguin/Pearson, Simon & Schuster/CBS, Hachette, Macmillan/Holtzbrinck) and the remaining big-box chain (Barnes & Noble). Amazon wants to take money away from those competitors by cutting out their middleman roles, and if that means they need to give translators a little more work and pay them a little bit more, well, they can afford it. They are squeezing efficiencies out of the existing tired business model, not inventing a new one. It's not about the technology, either; Kindle is just a marketing device which happens to display text.

The real problem is that there are books and readers out there who don't find each other. Many Americans really do want to learn about the rest of the world—hell, about non-corporate culture within their own country—but they have few opportunities to do so. Language is a barrier, but a superable one. The real impediment is the (economic) structure of the publishing business.

[to be continued]

10 February 2012

Making room in the madhouse

My translation of Machado de Assis' classic novella "O Alienista" will be coming out in May from Calypso Editions, a small artist-run cooperative press which I'm a member of, under the title The Psychiatrist. (Cue applause.)

Yesterday, I found out that Melville House is reprinting William L. Grossman's 1963 translation under the new title The Alienist, and it's coming out in August. (There's also Alfred Mac Adam's 1998 translation under that title, published by Arion Press as a limited-edition fine press volume; I've never seen, let alone read, that translation. But it's the Melville House edition that got my attention.)

Quite possibly, yes, someone I talked to at ALTA last fall mentioned my Calypso translation to Dennis Johnson at Melville House—but no matter, it's validation of a great work by a great author, both deserving better recognition in the U.S.

Most likely Melville House will sell more books, because they've been around for more than a decade now, they're distributed by Random House, and the Art of the Novella series is well established. Probably they only paid a small fee to Grossman's estate for the right to reprint the translation, no royalties. (Machado died in 1908, so in Portuguese his work is public domain.) Looks like theirs will be priced to move at $8, which strongly suggests they're not paying anybody a per-unit royalty.

My translation will be only Calypso Editions' sixth book, and we're just now working out a distribution agreement which will make it easier for Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local indie bookstore (if you have one) to carry our books. The price will be $15, which is as low as we can go and still guarantee the author (or translator) a fair share of the income. We'll sell it to you direct, postpaid. Thanks to distribution, you may be able to find it for less at the mass-market vendors—and if that's important to you, go right ahead.

Because of the schedule coincidence, it's hard not to see it as a head-to-head competition. But this isn't about who "wins" by making the most money. My translation is 50 years newer and will come out 3 months sooner, but those are no measure of quality any more than are sales or price. At this point, I can't even say that my translation is better than Grossman's, because I haven't read it for years and specifically avoided it while I was creating my own.

I know mine is loose and raucous in style, in a way we don't expect of books written in 1882, but which seems to me completely appropriate for Machado, especially for a satire on madness and other extremes. I'm pretty sure that makes my translation different than Grossman's—most translators imprison his wild experiments in narrative within staid Victorian English prose structures. Of course he wasn't Woolf or Joyce, but neither was he Dickens or Eliot. In "O Alienista," Machado makes a distinction between the madmen who laugh quietly to themselves and those who run riot in the streets. With "O Alienista" and the contemporaneous Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Machado moved from the former group to the latter.

07 February 2012

Awake Again, or:

I've been meaning to reactivate this blog for a couple months now, but as usual I've been sitting around waiting for the perfect comprehensive re-launch post to spontaneously type itself into the browser window. No more.

A number of factors prompt my return. Two prompt me to re-establish my "home" on the web, and will prompt further clean-up and refocusing in the months to come:
  1. I'm getting more active in translation, reviewing, and publishing
  2. I'm establishing more local connections, which (sometimes mysteriously) feed and support my . . . let's call them trans-local activities (since "global" sounds a bit much)
And two make this a great time to get out and get more involved in determining the future of my "industry" (which may take the form of some initiatives of my own, which of course would be discussed and announced here):
  1. The Occupy movement has re-opened discussion of cooperative and other post-capitalist ways of organizing work
  2. Publishing, prompted largely by e-books, continues to transform itself
So I'm going to start blogging again—but I'm refocusing on:
  • new writing (usually fiction, or at least narrative) in English as well as French, Italian, and Portuguese
  • and how it gets from writer to reader, by way of publishers, translators, designers, reviewers, bookstores, audiobooks, e-book devices, and so on
I'm sure I'll stray from time to time into film, travel, type, and food, and of course I'll tend to read and write about books that concern puzzles, cognition, design, and my other hobbyhorses. But the core will be books. It's what I do, and it's time to stop waiting for someone else to approve or bless my ideas and projects. Here I go! Or, equally: I go here!

25 May 2010

While I'm sleeping

This blog is pretty much dormant these days, but if you're interested in the kinds of things I discussed here you will probably be interested in the upcoming Future of Reading conference at RIT. I'll be there, so please say hi!

For other news and updates, I recommend the blogs listed under "Essential Reading," to the right.

17 March 2010

Yes, really

E-book typography sucks, which is the main reason I don't read them. Joe Clark explains why, and offers some solutions:
Why would publishers scan hardcopies? Aren’t all books produced on computers these days? Yes, but do publishers own those files, or do various freelance designers? Can anybody even find the files? What if they were saved in an old version of Quark Xpress or Ventura Publisher? Instead of rooting around in files resident on computers they don’t really understand anyway (these are book people), publishers find it easier to just send print books out to low bidders for scanning.

01 March 2010

A Note on the Type

The first thing I learned to love about a book was its colophon. As the son of a librarian mother and a father as committed to the life of books as only a largely self-educated son of a Kentucky coal miner (the model of Lincoln was hazily present, though my father is anything but tall) could be, I grew up surrounded by books, ranked most impressively on the shelves built into the wall of the den. There I came to know titles and authors' names, cover and spine designs, long before I was ready to read the books themselves. Many of those books I still have not read; my parents divorced and their library is no more. But when, at six or seven, I would pull over a chair from the kitchen table to reach down a book with a particularly intriguing design on the spine and a title that didn't seem too forbiddingly foreign—I am sure it was one of Camus' novels, The Fall or The Plague or The Stranger—there was only one short section of the book whose challenge I felt equal to: the very last one, the colophon at the end which described the typeface and the design of the book. Wondrous people with odd names like Bembo, Dwiggins, and Garamond, adjectives generous with descriptive power, a whiff of impressive industrial technology, and dates that stretched back into the realm of Important History: for me, growing up in the shadow of those shelves, those short-short stories were fairy tales.

18 February 2010

Collaborative publishing, and other stories

Borrowing some inspiration from Richard Nash's Cursor project and Hol Art Books, the bizarre Bite-Size Edits wiki, and two of my favorite bookstores (Left Bank Books in Seattle and Boxcar Books in Bloomington, both run by anarchist collectives), after ALTA last fall I started thinking about applying the collective idea to publishing translations. It's really just the next step combining the non-profit community orientation of small publishing with the peer networking of Web 2.0. I did some research and made some notes and talked to some people informally at MLA, but without active social contact with the kind of people who might be able to help make it happen, I never went any further.

Well, turns out I wasn't the only one thinking along those lines: according to Words Without Borders, Stefan Tobler and Jamie Searle in England are starting up And Other Stories, a collaborative publishing venture that sounds like it will proceed along very similar lines to what I was thinking. (I'm really just going on Stefan's blog posts, particularly this one.) Of course, they're in London and I'm in Port Townsend, so face-to-face collaboration won't be possible, but this might be a good test for the magic of the web—or at least LibraryThing.

07 February 2010

The Game of the Goose

I'm reading Margaret Drabble's The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws (for the subject matter—I've never tried one of her novels) and her brief description of the Game of the Goose is fascinating. As some quick googling will confirm, it's the original race-themed board game, an ancestor of Chutes and Ladders (a.k.a. Snakes and Ladders), invented (at least apocryphally) by Francesco de' Medici. I was peripherally aware of the game in Italian (and French and Spanish) culture, but I hadn't realized it had such a long history, probably as rich in cultural meaning as Lotería. While Jules Verne wrote a novel structured around it, it has been the basis for Italian and Spanish game shows, and there's a museum of the game in France, it appears no one has yet written a book about it—in any of the relevant languages! I call dibs.

But for now, I'm going to use it as lead-in to that other great parlor game, amateur etymology.

Square 58, just five spaces from the goal, is the unluckiest spot to land on: it sends your marker all the way back to the start. Though it's usually marked with a (human) death's-head, many of the rules and descriptions (including Drabble's) casually use the phrase "your goose is cooked" to describe what happens. But really, if you imagine a goose dying, wouldn't you assume it's because someone is going to cook it? I'm sure some scientists study goose mortality in other contexts, but for most of us, whether we eat them or not, the ideas of death and cooking are culturally linked when it comes to geese. Considering that there is no clear origin of the phrase—among the prominent theories is the notion that it refers to the burning at the stake of pre-Lutheran reformer Jan Hus!—I'm going to speculate that, when the game hit England in the 1590s (it was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1597) one popular edition may have turned the obvious connection into a joke by printing the legend "Your Goose Is Cooked" around an image of a fowl dinner in square 58. The proof, if it exists, lies buried somewhere in a historical archive.

That's also the period when Shakespeare's career was taking off; the game may have been well-known when Mercutio (in Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene iv) compared Romeo's jokes to a "wild-goose chase." (Romeo and Juliet was also published in 1597, though when exactly it was written is unclear. But Shakespeare used plenty of Italian sources, so why not a board game?) The standard explanation is that Mercutio is referring to a horse-racing game (with actual horses and riders) popular at the time—but why would a horse-chase use another animal as a metaphor? Perhaps the horse race game was devised from the board game, or perhaps the board game (back in Florence) was patterned after the horse race. In any case, since Mercutio is complaining that Romeo is leading him on an impossible chase of wits—more like a parlor game than a hunt or a horse race—I think it's possible that Shakespeare was alluding to the board game as well.

My last unwarranted speculation is about the verb "to goose." When a goose (or anyone or anything else) bites you on the ass, it's natural to jump forward a few feet; using the verb for the physical act doesn't require any detours through the history of games. But the verb also has a metaphorical use, as a (rudely or at least unexpectedly delivered) prompt to motion and action, and that could be related to the game. In Sports and Pastimes of the People of England by Joseph Strutt (2nd ed., 1903) we read: "It is called the game of the goose, because at every fourth and fifth compartment in succession a goose is depicted, and if the cast thrown by the player falls upon a goose, he moves forward double the number of his throw." In other words, a "goose" was something unexpected that made your piece jump ahead. The choice of imagery for the board game may well have derived from the physical experience, but there probably came a time when the game was more familiar than the goose itself, and if this use of the word comes from that time, then the game's to blame. An OED would probably answer this one yea or nay, but I don't have one handy.

I'll probably have more to say about The Pattern in the Carpet; I'm enjoying it, though more as memoir than for what it has to say about jigsaws, at least so far.

06 February 2010

Abstractions and essences, types and stereotypes

Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, wrote a blog post yesterday titled "Borges was a neuroscientist." It may sound equally unlikely, but Lehrer makes a case (himself building on another writer's appreciation) for the connection between Borges' fiction and recent neuroscience work on the formation of abstract concepts. Even a concept as comfortable as personal identity contains an element of abstraction: after ten years or after even a day, you or I may look very different, but most people have no trouble identifying both present and past person as instances of the same abstract concept. And it's that "most people" that's key: much neuroscience work depends on studying the exceptions, the people who lack a certain ability, to see what's different about them.

But even assuming that the ability is general, we still have to be careful about which specific instances we choose to study. Whether or not we are able to form abstract categories or identify some "essence" common to a set of phenomena depends a lot on our cultural background. Personal identity, for instance, seems safe—but some cultures treat what Western medicine calls schizophrenia as a revered and mystical state of access to other minds. And we are regularly expected to suppress our personal-identity-meters, whenever we watch a movie star on the big screen. (I find that I can usually quite easily see through a role to identify an actor—but that I often fail to do it for actresses. Perhaps my identity-abstraction-detector neurons are more tuned to male faces because I'm male?)

We're all like George Clooney's character in Up in the Air: "I'm like my grandmother, I stereotype; it saves time." (Clooney's easy to recognize on screen, because he's in everything: we have a larger sample size.) But we each stereotype in the domains that are most relevant to us, the ones where stereotyping saves us the most time.

Somebody saves time by stereotyping translated fiction as difficult or unsellable. Others save time choosing what to read by taking the publisher's deliberate design and marketing choices as a cue to shortcut via a stereotype: see my post on judging books by their covers.

The surest way to dismantle a stereotype (alas, not guaranteed) is to have direct experience of individuals who don't fit it. One of the ways that can happen is to bring multiple stereotypes into conflict—though it's unclear which one will emerge the stronger, or whether we'll simply muddle through with our "ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time" (as Fitzgerald put it).

So maybe a way to undo the stereotype about translated fiction is to undermine it by exposure to positively-stereotyped fiction that happens to be translated—like, say, mysteries (Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Andrea Camilleri)? If it works for mysteries, why shouldn't it work for pirate and vampire stories? Curate and present them as equivalent to familiar models, and their original language becomes irrelevant to the reader.

From a different angle: our ability to identify abstractions from real-world instances is also key to the act of reading itself. We can recognize thousands of different shapes, with gross or subtle variations, all as the letter a. For most people, the type designer's painstaking work might as well be invisible—and yet book designers carefully choose one typeface over another, as part of the set of subtle cues they assemble to trigger readers to stereotype a book one way or another. The publisher depends on this stereotyping to help sell the book.

Translators, like type designers, labor in obscurity, but that is not the same as invisibility. They can be handy scapegoats for what we dislike, and poor work by either can certainly spoil our appreciation of the author's achievement. But there should be no reason for most readers to stereotype based on the fact of translation, or the language of origin, or the translator's identity—any more than there should be reason for most readers to stereotype based on the cover designer, or the typeface chosen, or the type of binding.

And yet we do. It saves time. It's all very well-intentioned to ask publishers or readers to learn more or choose better, to move beyond their simplistic stereotypes. But it'll only happen if it'll save them time.

03 February 2010

Paying for what you get; or, Pirates, vampires, sex, and literary translators

Publishing Perspectives this morning covers a German case which resulted in the establishment of legal minimum pay levels for literary translators. The article and comments discuss the many ways publishers are finding around the rules as well as the vagueness of some of the terms used, but let's just take some rough guesses to get an idea. €15/page for a short 200-page novel = €3000, $4200 at today's exchange rates. I know that's three or four times what friends have been paid for equivalent work by US publishers. The pay rate which the German translator found so insultingly low she felt compelled to sue would be seen as generous in this country. And that's not even counting the royalty and sub-rights participation German translators are guaranteed by this court ruling.

Converting to the standard unit of measure for translation in the US, assuming 300 words/page, the Germans are getting 7¢/word, while my American friends get something like 2¢/word. For non-specialized commercial translation, market rates start at 8¢ or 10¢/word for beginners, up to 15¢ or so for experienced professionals, and then to 18-20¢/word and higher for specialized (legal, medical, technical) translation work. Many of these rates are pushed down by the now-dominant online marketplaces which, while they do provide the valuable service of hosting the exchange forum and dealing with the business details, also often promote a race to the bottom in the form of translators underbidding projects just to get the work. So you might see prices like 5¢ and even 3¢/word: those clients get what they pay for. In any case, literary translation is surely on the more specialized end (at least to the extent that the original work was written by a competent author with attention to the nuances of language)—and yet it gets compensated worse than an unqualified hack job.

Oh, sure, there are presses that pay $3-5000 for a book-length translation, and some even give the translator royalty participation. But a lot of small non-profit presses see no problem with paying $1000 or $1500, and a lot of translators sell their work at that rate because otherwise it won't get published at all. The press might sell only 1500 copies, so that's $1/copy sunk cost as far as they're concerned, and while the trade paperback may list for $15 it actually wholesales for about $8—and don't forget, the press also has to pay the original author, not to mention editors, designers, proofreaders, printers, distributors, PR and sales, and all their operations support.

For that 200-page book, let's assume our literary translator is skilled and experienced and can bash out a rough draft at 500 words/hour, or 120 hours for the 60K-word book. Three weeks of full-time work, and double that to allow time for editing and revision. $1500 for six weeks of work is $6.25/hour, less than minimum wage.

So why do people do it? To get the work out there. To build a reputation and a publication list that will get them the $5K jobs. Because it's how they study texts. And that, I think, is where this whole dysfunctional system really breaks down, because most literary translators in this country are (necessarily) not professional literary translators: they're professional academics. They have a day job, and they can do translation on the side. The day job covers their major financial needs, so they can afford to pursue their translation hobby at less than minimum wage. They choose translation projects based on what they study and teach, so they pick tedious and obscure writing and translate it in a tedious and obscure manner. They are rightly incensed that their translation work is not counted for (sometimes in fact is counted against) their scholarly credentials, because (as many have said) translation is the closest possible form of reading, and literary academics love nothing more than close reading.

At the MLA in Philadelphia, I saw ALTA—the American Literary Translators Association, the only organization for the profession in this country—bend over backwards to win the favor of the assembled scholars and academics. Most of the people in ALTA are themselves scholars and academics and they want their work to be accepted and respected by their peers: that makes sense. But scholars and academics already have a professional organization: the MLA. ALTA doesn't need to become more like the MLA; it needs to go in precisely the opposite direction.

Literary translation needs to be accepted and respected as a stand-alone profession. That means translators must pick projects based not on what they like to study and teach (because professional translators are not scholars or teachers) but based on what they like to read and write. Maybe the reason only small presses publish literary translations in this country—and they can get away with paying the pittance they can afford—is because the vast majority of what professional academics are interested in translating is tedious, obscure, academically-oriented writing?

I like the idea of formal experimentation—300-page sentences and all that—but usually I can't be bothered to actually read it. It's not a discrete choice, it's a continuum, but (like, I think, most people) I'd much rather read books about pirates, vampires, and sex.

And I'd rather translate books about pirates, vampires, and sex. And such books should sell well enough to attract reasonable professional pay rates, and the fact that someone could make a living at it should be the definition of a profession. That's the situation our professional organization should be concerned with building, and the people we have to please in order to bring it about are not academic peers and tenure committees, but publishers, editors, reviewers—and, above all, readers.