In the TLS Tim Parks explores the fact that 'Translated works are increasingly prominently among Nobel candidates but what kind of literature appeals to a global audience and can "direct, unmediated contact" between a writer and their reader survive translation ?' [sic, sic, sic -- who penned that copy ?], in The Nobel individual and the paradoxes of 'international literature'.
Where to start ...... Well, maybe with the claim that "Translated works are increasingly prominently among Nobel candidates". We actually don't know, until long after the fact, who the 'Nobel candidates' were -- it's a complicated process, and there are candidates (nominated by the local literary organization in obscure country x) and candidates (the ones actually in the running); assuming that the Swedish Academicians can handle the Scandinavian languages, as well as English, German, and French it doesn't appear translated works have become any more dominant: English, German, and French alone cover seven of the last ten laureates, which is actually less international than most of the post-World War II decades .....
Parks tries to stuff a lot of argument into this piece, and overextends himself; the Nobel focus certainly doesn't help. Still, there's some interesting stuff here-- such as the idea that:
Readers, wherever they are from, want to feel that they are in direct, unmediated contact with greatness. They are not eager to hear about translators. The writer wants to believe his genius is arriving, pristine, unmediated, to his readers all over the world. So the prize is important, while the translator must disappear. The translator must be reduced to an industrial process, or a design choice; he is on the same level as the typeface or the quality of the paper. Okay, maybe he goes overboard with the argument (the "quality of the paper" ? come on, Tim ....) -- but certainly the basic point is correct.
Also of interest:
In a study I have been directing at IULM University in Milan, we have compared the number of articles in the cultural pages of major newspapers dedicated to Italian authors and the authors of other nations. The space given to America is quite disproportionate. American authors, far more than their British, French or German counterparts, need not make any special claims to international attention. No novelty is required. The opposite is true for the writer from Serbia, the Czech Republic or Holland. A writer from these countries must come up with something impressive and unusual in terms of content and style if a global audience is to be reached. Five hundred pages of Franzen-like details about popular mores in Belgrade or Warsaw would not attract a large advance. Again: it's surely a bit more complicated: Franzen's Freedom may have gotten something of a free pass -- but then it's hardly his first book to reach the local market; in fact, he's been at this for a while, and I'm guessing Strong Motion ... scusi, Forte movimento didn't get quite the same attention back in the day (which was quite a few days ago). True, it's harder for a writer from Serbia or wherever to accumulate the same publishing credits in translation; nevertheless .....
I also disagree with the idea that:
If a translator himself or herself wins a prize it is because he or she has translated a major author. A brilliant translation of a little-known author impresses no one. 'Little-known' is relative, and international authors tend to remain -- especially in the English-speaking world -- little-known. Parks himself has translated works by, for example, Antonio Tabucchi -- surely a 'major author', yet just as certainly qualifying as, at best, 'little-known' in the UK and especially the US. What sort of 'little-known author' does he mean ?
There's something to Parks' point that:
An editor at a Dutch publishing house remarks that if she wishes to sell the foreign rights of a Dutch novel, it must fit in with the image of Holland worldwide. An Italian editor comments that an Italian novelist abroad must be condemning the country's corruption or presenting the genial intellectuality that we recognize in different ways in Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco or Roberto Calasso. All too often, novelists from ethnic-minority communities find that publishers will only buy their work if it speaks about those communities. This is a universal problem -- but extends just as much to American fiction: it's expected to be 'American' -- surely a major reason behind Jonathan Franzen's international success. (Indeed, the problem extends to regional, ethnic, etc. fiction within a language, too.)
In sum: it's a lot more complicated than Parks' short piece suggests.
See also the complete review review of Pascale Casanova's The World Republic of Letters, which he cites.
For another reaction, see Scott Esposito's commentary, The New Role of Translation in International Publishing, at the Center for the Art of Translation weblog.