Translated lit good, Amazon evil?

As I noted last weekend, Amazon is now helping fund the Best Translated Book Awards. That, however, has led to a bit of a tempest involving a couple of my favorite organizations.

Melville House announced this week that it is going to withdraw from any future involvement with the awards. Dennis Johnson says it is because of Amazon’s “predatory and thuggish practices.” He contends that “Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical.” As a result, he says the publishing house’s announcement is intended to “offer a much more genuine support to translation in America than taking part in a ruse leading to its further denigration.”

This is sad because Melville House publishes 20 or more translated books a year, more than many large publishing houses. Those books include not only Every Man Dies Alone, my favorite novel last year, but The Confessions of Noa Weber, which won the 2010 Best Translated Book Award for fiction.

On the other side is Three Percent, the University of Rochester site/blog for international literature that originated the awards. The University of Rochester also has Open Letter Books (of which I’m a charter subscriber), which publishes translated works. Chad Post, who started the awards “one morning when [he] was drunk on coffee and ambition,” points out that the structure of the awards are such that Melville House can’t withdraw its books from consideration unless it stops publishing literature in translation. Plainly hurt by Johnson’s announcement, Post calls it a “diatribe” and an effort to “undermine the awards in an attempt to make a political point.” At the same time, he says that if a Melville House work is chosen for an award, “we will offer the money to the winning author and translator. It’s up to them if they want to reject it or not. We’ll still promote the book, try and get people to read it, etc., etc.”

Lurking in the background of all this is Amazon this year launhced AmazonCrossing, a publishing imprint devoted to translations of foreign language books. Given the sparsity of translated literature in the U.S. (the percentage of which gives rise to the name of the Three Percent blog), it isn’t like Amazon is seeking to corner a huge market. I also think readers like me want to see more translated works published. At the same time, independent bookstores and publishers have long rightfully cast a wary eye at Amazon so it may not be surprising some could view Amazon’s growing involvement with translated literature as another step in trying to squeeze them out of existence.

I don’t know who is right, if anyone. I’m perhaps as conflicted. I love indie bookstores and translated lit but I also buy books from the local chain store and Amazon (and have links to Amazon on this blog). Yet as a reader of literature in translation, it is somewhat saddening that such a dispute arises between two organizations devoted to ensuring the quality of and accessibility to this type of literature.

National literature does not mean much these days; now is the age of world literature, and every one must contribute to hasten the arrival of that age.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Conversations with Eckermann

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