Confessions of a Translation Snob

My browsing habits have changed.  I noticed it a few days ago in a Barnes & Noble Bookstore.  My husband was off in Sci-Fi/Fantasy and I was wandering through the fiction section, half-heartedly looking for a book I didn’t need.  My expectations were pretty low.  I started out looking for Mario Vargas Llosa.  Nothing. And then I spotted those three FSG fishes.  And a Europa book.  And – what the hell?! – Melville House.  Wait, the Soft Skull logo is an ant with a pen nib in its butt?  How did I not know that???  By the time I’d worked my way over to my husband I had a stack of books in my arms.

Recognizing the names and identities of different publishing houses is a bit like knowing the names of your favorite fashion lines.  I could easily drop an entire paycheck on J. Crew. Ditto for New Directions.

That’s the point.  We look for what we like.  I’ve read well-written, engaging books filled with interesting characters by British and U.S. authors.  But Latin America! My god, the quality and variety of the writing that’s coming out of Latin America is ridiculous.  And the Middle East; I will read anything that’s been translated from Persian or Arabic.  Then there’s the completely unexpected – like falling in love with a book translated from Bulgarian (a country I, sadly, had to look up on the map).  I guess what excites me is discovering the slightly obscure; reading books with complicated narratives and unusual plot structures. Experiencing the unfamiliar.  Finding books I couldn’t read without the help of a translator.

True, there’s also that feeling of – and I suppose you can’t get more snobbish than this – being a member of a select club.  Where instead of wealth or income or pedigree, membership is contingent on knowing certain passwords: Aira, Shishkin, Dowlatabadi and Ogawa.  Of being able to recommend a book to friends that they won’t necessarily find on the feature table of the local B&N.

(Is that really such a bad thing?  How is a geeky obsession with translations so different from – and any worse than – someone else’s obsession with Fantasy Football, video games, The Game of Thrones? Why is it suddenly okay to judge art, wine, food, television… but not literature?)

There’s also the satisfaction that comes from supporting a cause.  Stephen King, Margaret Atwood or [insert bestselling author’s name here] don’t need assistance promoting their latest blockbuster.  Neither do their large publishing houses.  But have the majority of readers heard of Ludmila Ulitskaya?  Marie N’Diaye? Hans Fallada? Marguerite Yourcenar? What about Edith Grossman? Chris Andrews?  Or Gregory Rabassa?

So now I mostly read and only blog about translations.  I find the idea of an author and translator collaborating to create a book that is both the same and separate from the author’s original vision absolutely delightful. And, since this is a confession: I also generally don’t read YA.  I think 50 Shades of Gray sucked on multiple levels.  I love PBS, but have zero interest in Downton Abbey.  I don’t read a lot of “commercial” literary fiction because I’m busy reading other things.  I have a weakness for steampunk and *cough* romance novels.

This is what works for me.  It doesn’t need to work for everyone.

And for the record: this isn’t the first time I’ve written this kind of thing.  I just usually don’t post it.  Why now?  When I was on vacation a couple of weeks ago I came across a link to this post on Flavorwire.  Curious, I Googled “Book Snobs” and was a bit overwhelmed by the number of results. That, combined with the ongoing arguments about reviewer vs. blogger, is it okay to write a bad review, and all the other silliness that we all waste waaaaayyy too much time thinking (and reading about) compelled me to stick up for the underdog.*

Which brings me to my point…

Do I only read translations? Pretty close.

Do I want you to read more of them? Yep.

Do I care about the newest Nicholas Sparks or Jennifer Weiner novels? God no.

Do I think less of you because you read and liked it? Not really.

Does that make me a translation snob? Probably.

But I’m OK with that.

Does anyone else find it strange that some people (and book sites) aren’t?

*Not that, in the big scheme of things, we really need defending. I mean, we’re not exactly  Sumatran Rhinos.

8 thoughts on “Confessions of a Translation Snob

  1. I don’t think it’s snobby, no more than listening to music from around the world. I love Aira and Borges and also ZZK record I from Buenos Aires! It’s a big world with a lot of cool stuff in it, including books



    1. Thanks Lisa! I’m curious – from your vantage point in Australia, do all the manufactured controversies and drama in the U.S. book review world appear as ridiculous as I think (and fear)?


      1. Oh dear, I can’t say that I’ve kept up with them. I don’t read any US review sites except for bloggers that I trust. I see links to this and that on Twitter and I kind-of wonder what they’re about, but I’ve given up following them because I’d rather read a book instead.
        I mean, that article you’ve linked to in your post is a classic example. I remember seeing a link to it, and thinking, no thanks. Without setting eyes on it I knew that it would be a utterly predictable, unoriginal, deliberately provocative rant of some sort, designed to provoke outraged comments and all for the purpose of getting publicity for the author of the article and/or whoever is hosting the rant. I mean, who cares? Not me…
        The pity of it is that there are probably some great books coming out of the US but it’s too hard to sort the hype and the drama from the real thing so I’ve just given up.


  2. ZZK Records is all about “digital cumbia” and the great thing is they have a whole bunch of mp3 “mixtapes” you can download and listen to for free from their website: My personal favorites are #’s 4,5,7, and 11 (El Remolon, Tremor, King Coya and Chancha Via Circuito). I secretly believe I must have a clone who’s Argentine because so many of my favorite writers and musicans are from there (Roberto Arlt’s “The Mad Toy” is possibly my favorite work of fiction, along with Aira’s “How I Became a Nun” and Clarice Lispector’s “The Hour of the Star”)


  3. Well, anything on Book Riot is artificial and designed to pander to the masses for a start (I still look back at the ‘Best Ten Novellas’ fiasco with a mix of bewilderment and dismay). To be honest, there is no real Australian scene,certainly not on the scale of the American one, so we end up taking part in whatever’s happening in the UK or the US.


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