Shoulda, woulda, coulda: On oughts and wants and my taste in books and translation

My note-taking at this year’s London Book Fair wasn’t all that it might have been, so I’m not sure who it was who said there are too many “shoulds” and “oughts” around literature in general, and in translation in particular – “You should publish this author”, “everyone ought to read this book” etc. It might have been Sophie Buchan from Weidenfeld & Nicholson. But on the other hand it might not. Anybody remember?

Spiral Staircase, Philosophical Reading-Room

Our library isn’t this grand. Photo by Curious Expeditions (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Anyway, the other day I had some time to kill in town so I went to the library. Once upon a time, when I didn’t have money to buy books, and I didn’t have the luxury of getting review copies in the post, and I didn’t have small children, I went to the library about once a week. Although we still go every three or four weeks, it’s usually just to the children’s section. And I have towering To Be Read piles at home. But here I was in the library, on my own, with time on my hands. And there were all these books. Ones I actually wanted to read. Ones that I’d been wanting to read for ages, but there were other books that I should read. Because they’re important. Or translated. Or translated and important. Or because somebody was kind enough to send them to me. So now I was picking up books to satisfy my own tastes and it felt so good, like coming home. And even better, one of the books I’d been wanting to read since it came out is a 7-day loan. So I have to get on with it, and I’m enjoying it hugely. I’ll write about the book itself when I’ve finished it. And then maybe I’ll write about some of the books that I ought to write about because this is a book blog and I read them…

There’s something else that I’ve been realising lately. I don’t want to translate books that people ought to read. I want to translate books that they’ll want to read, because they’re good, funny, interesting, page-turning. Books that might get written off as genre fiction or looked down on as “chick lit”. I want to translate accessible books that will open up so much more of French and German literature to English-speaking readers, to show them that translated fiction, or international fiction or whatever we want to call it isn’t all obscure, high-brow and difficult. And there has to be a place for those books alongside the experimental, literary books, the books you have to work at.

Reading a book by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Reading a book by Pedro Ribeiro Simões (CC BY 2.0)

I mentioned these thoughts to one of those high-minded, literary publishers at the Book Fair, and she said “Oh, you’ll be all right then!” I’m not so sure. It seems even harder to make a mark on the big publishers, the ones who publish the kinds of books I like. Small presses you can get to know, but if a big house wants something done, they just email Anthea Bell. But perhaps by following the time-honoured advice of offering to do reader reports and suchlike, I can make contacts there. And perhaps if Anthea Bell is busy, something might come my way… Or if other translators want to concentrate on other kinds of books, they might pass things on. Who knows? But it’s got to be worth a try.


About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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6 Responses to Shoulda, woulda, coulda: On oughts and wants and my taste in books and translation

  1. Lydia says:

    On the plus side, you have at least one newly-minted literary agent on your side! (on the minus side, it is me, and it’ll be a while before I have a good enough grip on literary agenting to be useful for this sort of thing. But I’ll get there, I hope!).

  2. have you tried translated books for what do you think? just translated my first novel EN>FR with them

  3. Pingback: Americanah and Reading What I Want To | a discount ticket to everywhere

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