In Brooklyn, Aleksandar Hemon and Nicole Krauss make the case for internationalist literature

Nicole Krauss and Aleksandar Hemon (Jacob Silverman)
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At BookCourt in Cobble Hill Sunday night, Aleksandar Hemon and Nicole Krauss went to bat for translated literature, eviscerating American publishers for their neglect of work from abroad. (The commonly cited statistic has it that only 3 percent of books published in the United States are translated from another language.)

Hemon was in town to promote Best European Fiction 2012, the latest in the short fiction anthology series that he's edited for Dalkey Archive Press since 2010. Krauss, the author of three novels and herself a frequent advocate for writers from Israel and Europe, wrote the preface to this year's volume. (John O'Brien, director of Dalkey Archive, told me in an email that John Banville will write the preface for next year's edition.)

“There is a crisis of literature because the dominant mode of cultural consumption is entertainment,” Hemon said, which both precludes so-called “difficult” work but also ensures that readers look at literature expecting difficulty.

While unlikely to break down the “entertainment” paradigm, a wide-ranging anthology of European fiction could expand American readers' awareness of European literature, going beyond stale notions of translated work as inherently demanding. Hemon jumped at the offer.

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“I liked to think I was the first one they asked, so I quickly said yes.”

The anthology has become a staple of Dalkey Archive's eclectic slate of books. It's allowed Hemon to sample literature from all of Europe, including from minority languages (the 2012 volume includes work originally written in Galician and Rhaeto-Romanic) and some of the continent's smallest countries.

“I am one of the foremost experts of the literature of Liechtenstein,” Hemon cracked.

Along the way, Dalkey has benefitted from its nonprofit status (a for-profit press would be unlikely to invest in such an effort), its connections with writers and publishers overseas (translated literature forms a large chunk of its catalog), and the astute decision to ask European culture ministries to help finance some of the translations as a means of promoting their writers. Hemon joked that European countries “don't have Republican parties,” who might oppose the very existence of such ministries.

For each anthology, Hemon chooses from more than a hundred submissions from dozens of languages and many countries. Emphasis is placed on finding writers from outside Europe's major languages and literary centers (i.e., Georgians and Montenegrans stand a somewhat better chance than Germans or French).

Appearing in the book brings writers into contact with a global audience and more publishing opportunities. One Macedonian writer published in the 2011 edition told Hemon that his work had been translated into 30 languages, a figure that Hemon said he couldn't confirm but that “makes [his] heart go boom boom.” But Hemon noted that even being one of the anthology's finalists—and being sponsored by the culture ministry of one's country—has its advantages.

“The stories that are translated stay translated,” Hemon said, meaning that writers whose work doesn't make it into the final volume can shop their translated work to other publishers.

Hemon eventually gave over the mic to Krauss, who read “The Telescope,” a story by Russian writer and critic Danila Davydov. Introducing the story, Hemon called it “a masterpiece.” Krauss seemed to agree, adding, “This is the kind of thing I wait for.”

“The Telescope” describes a man named Ippelman, riding a bus that is suddenly bombed (the full nature of the event isn't clear). Blinded, he wanders along until a farm boy takes him in. Confined to Ippelman's perspective, the story maintains a piquant mixture of menace and eccentricity—it's not clear what the boy's intentions are for Ippelman; he also seems strangely naïve about the severity of the man's injuries. We soon realize that Ippelman's blindness—combined with the boy's oblique answers to questions about what is going on—is causing him to go mad. By the end of the story, Ippelman, on his way to a hospital, believes that the bomb was part of an alien invasion. The story suggests it was likely a Chinese attack, but the truth is unclear, and the entire story is told with the tender irony of a folktale.

Following Krauss' reading, both writers spoke of their encounters with translated literature as foundational in their artistic development.

“It wasn't until I read writers from somewhere else that I saw that there was this homeland” that she could belong to, Krauss said. As she does in her introduction to the anthology, she cited Philip Roth's Writers from the Other Europe series, which Roth edited for Penguin from 1974 to 1989, bringing authors like Danilo Kiš and Milan Kundera to American audiences.

Hemon, too, reflected on his youthful dalliances with translated literature, which could be as transgressive as they were moving.

“I grew up in socialism and experienced the horrors of socialized medicine and subsidized publishing,” he said, wryly. He noted that this combination of state largesse and a surprisingly lax attitude towards some subjects allowed publishers to translate widely and to take on risky or unprofitable titles. He remembers his mom reading Erica Jong's Fear of Flying and spoke with relish about encountering the works of the Marquis de Sade as an adolescent.

“It's hard for me to imagine a writer, unless he's a hard line nationalist, reading in only his native language,” Hemon said.

The conversation several times touched on the supposed difficulty of selling translated literature in the United States, to readers and publishers alike. This attitude has become a kind of truism in American publishing, a millstone that must be hauled out in any discussion on literature-in-translation, and both writers indicated their exasperation with it.

Krauss noted that books by small presses like Archipelago list the translator on the cover, while those by major houses do not, as if trying to hide the book's provenance and process from potential readers. Regarding the notion that American readers might be turned off simply by seeing a translator's name on a book's cover, Krauss was unequivocal: “This just seems to me entirely like bullshit.”

Hemon spoke with a similar mix of fierceness and eloquence—a rousing cultural ambassador, with a touch of the shoe-banging Khrushchev. He called translation “an act against the onslaught of monolinguality.” America's big publishers, he said, project “a capitalist arrogance. They always pretend they know what they're doing.” The promise of translation was to “open up the gates of language so that they can flow into one another”; it could put us in touch with the “prelinguistic shared territory of humanity.”

Hemon, who writes fiction in English but often turns to his native Bosnian for nonfiction, translated some of his own early work, but he wasn't happy with the results.

“It was an awful translation,” he said. “I shudder to think of it.”

He now works with his translators, offering editorial advice, but leaving the heavy lifting to them.

Like some partisans of translated literature, Hemon and Krauss can speak in utopian terms, as if translated literature could raise us all to an ecstatic state. But they do so convincingly, with a goal of cultural plenitude, of turning American literary culture away from its tendency towards self-isolation.

Hemon and Krauss also find themselves among a loose network of fellow travelers that includes publishers like Archipelago, Open Letter, Dalkey Archive, and New Directions, as well as a spate of blogs, online journals, and even a couple of moneyed awards. While literature-in-translation remains severely underrepresented in the United States, one can point to these parties as evidence of its stubborn vitality, and perhaps even as a source of optimism for its future.

Hemon, who will return to edit next year's anthology for Dalkey, spoke about the project as practically existential in nature.

“The notion of giving up on translation is just inconceivable to me.”