Sunday, February 26, 2012

Never Lost in Translation: The Lure of the Foreign Bestseller



















The largest publishing industry in the world speaks English. With so many books published in that language, there is barely time to read what the foreign literary market has to offer. Moreover, a foreign novel has its caveats, such as the thorny translation factor. Are we really reading what the author wanted to convey? And yet, once in a while, a foreign book creeps up the Anglo world bestselling list. What would prompt such a feat?

Going over those foreigners who made it to American bestselling lists in the Twentieth and Twentieth First Century, I find several factors that could explain them beating the odds of translation and cultural differences. The first is good references. American readers would be interested in novels that have made it big in the European market, especially if critics have praised the style and prose of novels. That explains the success of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s work.

 Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist has also achieved worldwide recognition, but its fame rests not exclusively in the critic´s recommendation. This Brazilian novel includes thought-provoking ideas and a sort of comforting mysticism that makes the reader cling to the book despite its exoticism. In its universal message, The Alchemist manages to cross-over cultural differences.

Almost the same magical message and universality was found in another foreign bestseller. Written in French, but originally published in the United States in 1943, The Little Prince is still one of the most loved books on Planet Earth.  At first glance, it may seem a children´s book, but its content hides profound lessons for all the adults who confuse hats with elephant –eating boas.



I was not surprised to find Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate among foreign bestsellers that did well in the American Market. Food is a universal subject, and Esquivel’s depiction of a repressed household in turn- of-the century Mexico, is swamped with themes of food and cooking. The story of Tita, who breaks free from her mother´s machismo via the magic of Mexican cuisine, would seem close and full of identifying factors to cooks, gourmands and women who have known repression. The book, which included several of Tita´s best and most aphrodisiac recipes, opened a new trend of novels dwelling on the relationship between food and sensuality.
                                               One of Tita´s magical meals

Another factor that helps propel a foreign book to the American bestselling lists is genre. People will read mystery novels, historical romances and fantasies regardless of where they take place. That explains the worldwide fascination with the adventures of Inspector Maigret, born from the fertile mind of Belgian writer George Simenon, and our current love affair with Stieg Larsson´s trilogy of Swedish thrillers.

In the post-war period, Finnish author Mika Waltari made it to the American lists with his historical works, particularly Sinhue, the Egyptian. It was one of the favorite novels in the United States in 1949. Sinhue returned to bestselling lists in1954 after it was turned into a Hollywood sword-and-sandal epic.
                                             Dame Jean Simmons in The Egyptian

Another historical novel that became a rage throughout the five continents was Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s Il Gatopardo, the story of a Sicilian aristocrat in the changing Italy of the 1860’s.Two decades later; it was the turn of another Italian writer to cross oceans with a historical novel that was also a thriller. Umberto Eco´s The Name of the Rose had conquered Europe and would go on to become both a bestseller novel and a film in the English-speaking world.

If a foreign book arrives to American bookstores already wrapped in controversy, it is bound to sell well. It happened in the Fifties, when Francoise Sagan’ scandalous first novel Bonjour Tristesse was translated into English. Tristesse’s plot centered on the antics of an epicurean playboy and his spoiled, free-spirited daughter, but what the public found wickedly tempting was its author. At eighteen, Sagan was a high-school dropout who led a fun-loving   lifestyle that appealed to the repressed readers of the McCarthy Era as much as her tale did.

Jean Seberg and Sir David Niven in Bonjour Tristesse

Less notorious but equally noisy was the arrival of Doctor Zhivago. Boris Pasternak’s chronicle of the Russian Revolution had been refused publication by Soviet authorities. Smuggled to Milan by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the novel was published, in 1957, simultaneously in Italian and Russian editions. Soon, its publisher Giangiacomo Fertrinelli (who was subsequently kicked out of the Italian Communist Party) secured its translation to eighteen languages.

In 1958, Pasternak was awarded The Nobel Prize in Literature. Pressed by the KGB (that threatened to send his mistress back to the Gulag) Pasternak had to decline the award, but that didn´t stop Zhivago from becoming a universal bestseller. According to the Publisher´s Weekly´s list, it was the most popular novel in the United States for two years.
                                                Doctor Zhivago's Trailer

There is a final factor that may influence a reader into sampling a foreign novel, and that is a plot revolving around current or recent events. Two bestselling   authors in the 1920’s made it big, both in book-selling and in Hollywood, thanks to their Great War novels. But Vicente Blasco Ibañez and Eric Maria Remarque deserve an entry for themselves.  That is my promise for March.

Do you have a foreign novel (modern, not a classic) among your favorite books? Do you remember what made you read it? Do you think there is a bit of snobbery in the English-speaking world against foreign works? Have you ever read a foreign novel that turned you off because its content was too alien for your taste?

29 comments:

  1. Interesting topic, Sister Violante. When I was in undergrad and grad school, I had Le Petit Prince repeatedly shoved down my throat in just about every French lit. class I took. To this day I don't like the story, and no, I don't understand the fascination with it. (And Lord knows I tried hard to like it!) For me, there were so many other interesting French authors to read and enjoy instead of Saint-Exupéry. I've seen Doctor Zhivago and must say I really enjoyed it. It has such a moving storyline. I've read a few African writers and Asian writers in my time and I can't say there's ever been one I really connect with. I think a lot of what a reader likes and dislikes has to do with regions. If you're not overly interested in say Asian topics or culture, then those stories aren't going to really appeal to you. I love European and American history so I tend to gravitate towards those types of novels.

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  2. Having a book pushed down your throat certainly doesn’t make it a favorite reading! I went through a similar situation with Beowulf in college. Like you, Sister Mary, Mary, I am more oriented towards European and American literature. An interesting thought that came to mind while researching material for this post is how many bestsellers are set in exotic land but written from a Caucasian point of view. For example, I don´t have favorite Chinese authors, but I loved China thanks to Pearl S. Buck's novels. That should be a topic for another entry.

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  3. Again,Violante, a fascinating topic. I suppose the most read translated novels, must be those of the 19th century Russians, as well as Proust's remembrances, perhaps followed by Undset's novels. I read both as a youth. Francoise Sagan's precocity made me think of S.E. Hinton's 'The Outsiders', which she allegedly wrote in High School. Another strange book by a young genius didact, Colin Wilson, 'The Outsider', (1982) is a sort of philosophical equivalent of 'The Catcher in the Rye', very difficult reading, but praised at the time by young intellectuals of the same ilk. The San Diego library system lists a dozen books with outsider in the title, including 3 'The outsiders'. I have read that titles can't be copyrighted. Could I legally call my book, 'Gone With the Wind' ?
    A future discussion of very young (as well as very old) writers of best sellers, would be of interest to me. Perhaps there is a very young writer among readers of 'The sisters', who is just finishing a 'blockbuster' novel. Regis

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  4. Hi Regis,
    Hinton wrote about a world of youngsters, whereas Sagan wrote about an adult lifestyle which was an uncommon occurrence. "Eragon" written by fifteen-year-old Christophe Paolini is another example of a bestseller written by a teenager.

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    1. Whether it is true or not, Paolini has been accused of plagiaristic behavior, by taking Tolkien's works and changing names and scenery—but then if you disguise things well enough is it still plagiarism? Regis

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    2. Plagiarism is a slippery term, but for an author to get in any legal trouble for it, they'd have to do more than "steal" a plotline -- if stolen plotlines were banned, we writers would be out of luck! "Nothing new under the sun" and that. Writers who get busted for plagiarism have lifted actual passages from someone else's book.

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    3. Dear Regis,
      There is a whole myriad of respectable literary plagiarism. After Rowling hit gold cap with Harry Potter, the market was flooded with stories of boy wizards ad little witches learning their crafts in specialized boarding schools. That is formula. Then you have actual clonification, which means to take the story and move it to another space and time. I heard about a French novel called “The Blue Bicycle” (I think) that sets “Gone with the Wind” in WWII France. Finally there is the sequel syndrome, like A. Ripley´s “Scarlett” or the numberless follow ups of “Pride and Prejudice”. Bottom line, you don´t have to be original.

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    4. Just a side note, both "Scarlett" and "Rhett Butler's People" were commissioned by the Mitchell estate. Lord only knows why because neither one was worth the paper they were written on!

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    5. Completely agree about how awful 'Scarlett' is! That was one of the few books I couldn't make myself finish reading, and I quit while she was still in the South. I've heard that the book gets even worse after she gets to Ireland. I only skipped ahead a little to read the unintentionally hilarious sex scene I'd been told about, when Scarlett and Rhett decide to get it on after surviving a ship wreck. I'm so glad no one ever decided to attempt a sequel to Forever Amber, which is very similar to GWTW.

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  5. What an interesting topic, Violante! I don't tend to look at where a book was originally published before I buy it, and I've finished books that I didn't realize were translations until later: "Inkheart," by Cornelia Funke, comes to mind. (Translated from German.) The point was made that the reader has to have some way of connecting to the story: this is so true. If the concepts are too foreign, reading the novel will be more like an anthropology expedition, and that may be worthwhile but it's more work than readers usually want to put into a book.

    This may be what kept me from getting into "Snow," Orhan Pamuk's 2002 novel, originally written in Turkish. The subject matter sure seemed like it would keep my interest but I just could NOT get through that book. I also have had a hard time connecting to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." And, now that I think about it, I had a similar struggle with Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." I gave up on all those books. Maybe I just fail at reading translated books! :(

    On the other hand, I love Isabel Allende -- perhaps her themes of family and womanhood have been enough to close any culture gaps?

    Hmm, much to think about here! Thought-provoking post.

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  6. Sister Stephanie, I am such an ignoramus! I didn´t know Inkheart was a German novel (I saw the film). I had that same problem with Pamuk, and Murakami (not so with Yukio Mishima because I knew beforehand that he was weird), and I can understand your problem with Garcia Marquez. Allende, on the other hand, writes from a much more cosmopolitan perspective. In fact, on reading The House of Spirits for the first time, I hated it because it was “not Chilean enough”. But think of “The Kite Runner”, it is set on an exotic milieu and deals with a foreign culture, but the author manages to focus it from an American perspective. Moreover, it was written in English, there was nothing lost in translation.

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    1. I loved both of Khaled Hosseini's novels: maybe "A Thousand Splendid Suns" even more. I do get the impression he was writing with a Western audience in mind ... maybe that's one difference? Writers of the "foreign bestseller" are writing to their own people, making cultural assumptions that an outsider simply may not get.

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    2. Yes, that was one of my findings, the way a Westerner , an American (KH is an Afghan-American)would portray foreign cultures is different from the outlook of a native. Pearl S. Buck lived among Chinese in China, but her perspective was always that of a Westerner despite her love and closeness to the Orient. I realized that when I read one of her few novels set in United States.

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  7. Sister Violante, I love to hear about foreign bestsellers that do well in the United States. (I have my own selfish reasons :-)) For me, it's difficult to be sure of what the American public would like since I'm not from here and the first novels I read were Latin American or Spanish (except for some classics like "Heidi" and "Little Women"), but like some of you have said, there are universal themes that speak to all of us. Love, relationships, betrayal, family. The cultural details are just the icing on the cake. After studying--intensively--the craft of writing in the US, it's very refreshing to see that writers outside the US are doing things very differently and succeeding.

    I could never get into Garcia Marquez' "One Hundred Years of Solitude" but I adore "Love in the Times of Cholera" and "Chronicles of a Death Foretold". So, it may not be a cultural thing, but more of a plot/character issue? The many stories in "One Hundred Years" make it really dense and hard to get into, IMO.

    I've read a few of Allende's novels, but my very favorite still remains her memoir "Paula".

    That's a great scene from "Like Water for Chocolate," but I can't say that I loved that movie/book. It was just okay for me. (I do love, however, the Italian actor who plays Pedro, Marco Leonardi, especially in "Cinema Paradiso" :-))

    "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" are great examples of successful novels that explore foreign cultures.

    Fascinating subject!

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  8. Siste Mary, Mary I din´t now about B's People being commissioned. But I remember that the reason the Mitchell Foundation requested the Ripley's sequsl (in fact it was a whole contest) was because they were terrified some outsider would write a sequel and they woud have mo grasp over book, content and copyright.

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  9. Sister Lorena,
    I have a hunch that perhaps we won´t write like Americans, but neither would we sound very South American either. I had that experience when writing "The Hamilton Murder Club." My Chilean readers would say "people in our country don´t think like that."
    I love Solitude, it´s my favorite Gabo´s novel.
    I love the Esquivel book, much more than I lovedthe film. I didn´t like Pedro in the film, I favored dear Mario Ivan playing Dr. John.
    I have recently discovered that (ironic since I specialized in Iberian litsrature) that I have a problem relating to modern Spanish novels.

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  10. Uff that construction!!! "we won´t sound very South Ameican either" is whst I meant to say.

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  11. I should clarify that I love Marco Leonardi BECAUSE of Cinema Paradiso. I can't say that I liked his character in "Like water for chocolate." I never understood him or had much respect for him.

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  12. As my brother put it "he is just a rooster strutting about his harem"

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  13. Most of my favorite writers did not write in English. My favorite writer is Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, my second-favorite is Hermann Hesse, my third-favorite is Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, and my fourth-favorite is Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev. Other favorite writers include Bertolt Brecht and Giovanni Boccaccio. For whatever reason, I've always gravitated towards older books and literary fiction, and many of the classic novels, poetry, and other works were written by Russians, Germans, Italians, French, etc.

    I eventually became aware of the fact that Hermann Hesse was extraordinarily popular about a generation before I discovered him, and have heard some former hippies refer to their "Hesse phase." If I'd been alive during the Sixties and Seventies, I'd like to think I would've gotten into him for the same reasons I fell in love with him when I discovered him in 1994, because I love his ideas and the stories he created, not because his books fit in with the counterculture movement. His book were around long before the hippies discovered him, and they're still being read long after he was forgotten by people who only got into him because he was considered hip.

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  14. Hi Carrie-Anne, I didn´t find Solshenitsyn in the bstselle lists, but he was huge all over the world. The beatniks rediscovered Hesse, and then the hippies made him an icon when the author was long dead.My brothe worshipped his writings in the 70's.

    I never bought Scarlett. Took it out of the library, stayed up until 4am reading it. By the time I finished it, I was beyond shock. I couldn´t believe something so obscenely bad had been published. And yes, I remember that idiotic lovemaking after the shipwreck.

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    1. Although not a big fan of Gone With the Wind, I will say (after having reflected on what I read years ago) that yes, Scarlett was a bad sequel. Personally, I hated the fact that Ripley moved the action to Ireland. Scarlett's heart was never in Ireland and this just removed her from one of her core loves - Tara. What was the point in doing that?

      As to Rhett Butler's People, I was just finishing my first novel when I read it and all I could think was, "What crap is this?" The book felt like it was all over the place, and quite honestly, I don't think it did Rhett any favors. Learning some of his background made me cringe more than anything. Whoever runs Mitchell's estate should probably go back and read her book again before doling out any more rights to sequels. Actually, how about no more sequels from here on out. How about that?

      Sister MM

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  15. Sequels are nothing but glorified fanfiction, so you have plenty of wites willing to try it, and (sadly) plenty of agents willing to peddle it. The reason why Ripley moved the action to Ireland, was to avoid dealing with the Reconstruction of the South a very delicate historical period and subject matter.

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  16. Re: Plagiarism, A fascinating article about a strange plagiarist is available at:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/02/13/120213fa_fact_widdicombe,
    Regis

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  17. Perfume is my favourite foreign novel. It was originally written in German. Wonderful story.

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    1. Ooh, I'm so glad you mentioned Perfume! I read it so long ago I didn't think to mention it, but it was brilliant.

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    2. Thanks Lynda, I had forgotten Susskind’s novel. Perfume was a hot bestseller in USA.

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