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Romanian-born writer wins Nobel Prize for Literature — try finding an English copy of her work

Herta Mueller, 56, was honored for work that “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” the Swedish Academy said.

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Herta Mueller, 56, was honored for work that “with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed,” the Swedish Academy said.

On Thursday, Romanian-born author Herta Mueller won the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was the second year in a row the Nobel went to a writer whose work I had never read.

You might not have read any of Mueller's 20 books, either. But reading books — I average about 125 per year — and keeping up with writers is my business.

So how did I miss Mueller, and 2008 winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio before her?

The best explanation I can offer is that their work literally got lost in the translation.

I had heard of Mueller, as I had heard of Le Clézio, but had not read a word by either one. In that, I'm like most Americans: We rarely read books translated from other languages.

Mueller, 56, was born in Romania but was a member of the minority ethnic German population there; she moved to Germany in 1987 after being persecuted for her writing under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Her writing is well known in Germany and read elsewhere in Europe.

She writes her books in German; Le Clézio writes in French. Only four of Mueller's books have been published in English-language translations. When Le Clézio won the Nobel, only one of his several dozen books was available in English (although about half a dozen more have been published since). The New Yorker made a splash by rushing a translation of one of his short stories into print a couple of weeks after he won.

That does not mean that Mueller or Le Clézio are obscure authors. The fact is that books translated into English from other languages generally sell very poorly in the United States, and publishers often treat them like afterthoughts.

For every Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is widely read in translation by U.S. readers, there are hundreds or thousands of authors writing in other languages who can't give away their books in U.S. bookstores.

Exact figures are hard to come by, since no organization consistently monitors international trade in translated books. But Bowker's Books in Print, which monitors the U.S. publishing industry, reported that in 2008, 275,232 new titles were published here.

Three Percent, an organization for international literature at the University of Rochester in New York, is named for the estimated percentage of all titles in translation published in the United States. It tracked translations of new works of literary fiction and poetry published here in 2008 and found 362 — a little more than a tenth of 1 percent of all new books.

In 2007, the New York Review of Books reported that of all books published in European countries, translations represented 6 to 29 percent.

We Americans don't import literature, we export it.

American authors who make U.S. bestseller lists often do so in other countries, too. The works of romance novelist Danielle Steel have been translated into 28 languages and sold 400 million copies worldwide. Crime novelist Michael Connelly's books have been translated into 35 languages.

And it's not just American pop fiction that readers of other languages pore over. The very literary Thomas Pynchon's work has been translated into a dozen languages, from Japanese to Croatian.

One of the American authors who was considered a front runner for this year's Nobel was the hugely prolific Joyce Carol Oates, who manages to be both a literary writer and a bestseller. Many of her more than 100 books have been widely translated. The Nobel for literature hasn't gone to an American since 1993, when Toni Morrison won it.

After the announcement of the Nobel on Thursday, I took a look at Amazon.com for English translations of Mueller's novels. Two were available.

Over at Amazon.de, the bookseller's German-language site, there were at least 18 books by Joyce Carol Oates available in German translations.

On the German site, Mueller's latest novel, Atemschaukel, meaning "Swinging Breath," was the No. 2 bestseller.

At No. 1? Das velorene Symbol, by Dan Brown. His German publisher, Lubbe, did a first print run of 1.2 million copies.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Romanian-born writer wins Nobel Prize for Literature — try finding an English copy of her work 10/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2009 5:54pm]
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