Non-literary translators have nothing to worry about. They get sent something to translate by the client, they translate it, and they move on to the next project. Literary translation is a different kettle of fish, though. For those of us who are not yet household names, we knock on the doors of publishing houses, they don’t come to us. And when we are lucky enough to see something published, we would like it to make as big a splash as possible, hoping it will make us if not quite a household name then at least The Guy Who Translated That Last Big Book (think Lazer Lederhendler and his translation of Nicolas Dickner’s novel Nikolski).
So my big day passed by quietly enough earlier this week as I Hate Hockey was released across Canada on amazon.ca and in Chapters stores. I walked into the Chapters store in Moncton with a spring in my step, ready to subtly move a pile of my books up to pride of place on the bestsellers table and at least turn the others round on the shelf to catch the eye of propsective buyers. (A technique used by Joseph Heller to promoted Catch-22, by the way, and if it’s good enough for Joseph Heller…) The problem was that the store didn’t have a single copy of the novel. And the online presence isn’t much better: a quick search shows amazon.ca to have only one copy and the Chapters stores in Montréal are all sadly IHateHockeyless, except for Place Montréal Trust and Pointe-Claire (2 copies each). We’re not exactly talking an inviting stack by the door here.
Talk about a Catch-22. It doesn’t matter how good the novel is, how good my translation is, if people aren’t even going to see a copy of it in a bookstore, it’s not looking likely that it’s going to be climbing the bestsellers list any time soon. A literary award would no doubt help. Maybe we’ll win next year’s Giller Prize. Or maybe I’ll do a Casey Roberts (also of Baraka Books) and win the John Glassco Literary Translation Prize and that’ll really kick things off. I’ll have to ask if winning the prize has got people talking about the book and if it has done anything to boost sales.
I’d like to be very clear that none of this is anybody’s fault. My publisher has been great. I feel much better in the hands of Baraka Books than in the hands of a much bigger publisher that doesn’t care about the book. But I do admit to feeling a little like J.R. Hartley (he’s very famous in Britain – if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, just click on the link).
But I’m wondering what I can do myself to give sales a bit of a kickstart and get people talking about the novel. The thing is it’s not as though I wrote the whole thing myself. In other words, I can be more objective about the whole thing. I’m a step or two removed from the novel. I know it works and I know why I like it (and why I continue to like it and chuckle out loud despite having read it from cover to cover probably a good dozen times). I found a novel that I enjoyed in French, that was well written, that had a fast, fun plot (in an age of pretentious writing styles, just imagine that for a minute: it has a quick-paced plot, stuff happens, it’s fun to read!), and that I was sure deserved a wider audience in English.
In this age of Facebook and Twitter it seems strange to be wondering how to promote a novel. But it’s probably more a case of not really knowing where to start in an age of information overload. I’m going to start by reading the ALTA Guide to Literary Translation on Promoting Your Literary Translation. More on that next time.