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"Erasing" the translator

Posted by Christopher Shea  December 8, 2008 02:05 PM

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Natasha Wimmer, unerased

Mark Shafer, of Roxbury, registered a complaint in the letters section of yesterday's New York Times Book Review: In reviewing "2666," by the newly fashionable Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano, who died in 2003, the American writer Jonathan Lethem "all but erases its translator -- whom he mentions, in passing, only once -- and her work."

"Lethem," Shafer continued, "writes about Bolano's novel as if it were written in English rather than Spanish." If "2666" is a triumph in English, Schafer said, then Natasha Wimmer, who rendered those English words, certainly deserves more than the briefest of nods.

Letters like that -- from slighted translators and their advocates -- appear with numbing regularity in book reviews. But now there's a Web site -- Three Percent -- founded precisely to give translators their due as well as to call attention to foreign authors who don't get the coverage that Bolano has been showered with, however posthumously. The site takes its name from the proportion of books published in America that are translations of literature from other languages: Three percent is not a very impressive figure.

Three Percent, the site (and blog), is a joint venture of the translation program at the University of Rochester (where undergraduates can earn a certificate in literary translation studies) and Open Letter, a new Rochester-based publishing house with plans to release a dozen translated works each year. It recently nominated its choices for the best 25 books translated into English this year. The Bolano-Wimmer "2666" is represented, unsurprisingly, as is Bolano's "Nazi Literature in the Americas," translated by Chris Andrews. Other books on the list include "The Post-Office Girl," by Stefan Zweig, translated from the German by Joel Rotenberg; "The Elegance of the Hedgehog," by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson; and "Death with Interruptions," by Jose Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

That last was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which recently announced a freeze on the acquisition of new books. Which in turn has people worried that the blog's eponymous 3-percent figure may drop even lower next year.

Three Percent will be featuring a book a day from its list over the next few weeks, for broader discussion, leading up to the naming of the top ten translated works in late January. The winner of the "Best Translated Book of 2008" prize will be announced in February.

Via Maud Newton
(Photo: New York Times)

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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