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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Them Other Languages 

In an email exchange with Sarah, she thought it might be interesting for me to talk a little about translations. So I'll give it a shot.

At this point, I'm being published in three other languages--Swedish, French, and Japanese. Someone as fine as Jason Starr has enough for a whole page devoted to foreign editions. Yet Rebecca Pawel, winner of the Edgar for First Novel, hasn't a single foreign edition under her belt. Not even in Spain, the country she writes about. Sarah and I were shocked when she told us this. (The Edgar, though, should right this wrong.) Similarly, Adam LeBor, whose Milosevic biography I mentioned below, has a slew of foreign editions going, but none in Croatian -- a country that would be happy to read a tough retelling of that man's criminal life.

Getting foreign deals seems pretty random to me. The way it works is that I have an excellent agent in New York -- Matt Williams at the Gernert Company. He takes care of all American contracts. He works with a co-agent based out of London, Andrew Nurnberg Associates, Ltd. Nurnberg, in turn, has agents placed in strategic locations throughout the world. So, for example, a Nurnberg agent based here in Budapest covers Hungary and the ex-Yugoslav countries. And the quality of these local agents varies wildly. From what Adam LeBor and I can tell, the woman who's our local agent is doing as little as humanly possible. She hasn't secured him a Croatian deal, and I even gave her number to a publisher I met in a bar here. The publisher left messages on her machine, because she wanted to do a Hungarian edition, but my agent didn't reply. After weeks of trying to coordinate this thing, I finally gave up in frustration.

These frontier agents don't (as far as I've been able to tell) go out and hunt down local publishers. They wait to be contacted. And a publisher only contacts them if they've had the good fortune of running across an English-language edition and loving it, having read that it's made some waves in the States or the UK, or are contacted by freelance scouts who bridge the gap between the publisher and the agent. My agent in NY is contacted now and then by scouts, who have carried my books to Italy and Germany, so far without success.

But there seem to be variations to the whole process. The English edition of Natsuo Kirino's Edgar-nominated Out, I see from looking at my copy, was published by a Japanese publisher, in Japan. They skipped the whole local-publisher route altogether and just went with local distributors. (A friend remarked that the Japanese government subsidizes the translation of authors in other languages, which may explain this.)

Recently, with my French edition, I was surprised by the liberties that foreign publishers can take. Liana Levi, my Paris publishers, have changed the titles of all my books. The Bridge of Sighs is now Cher Camarade, while The Confession is now Niet Camarade. Now, I understand that different markets require different titles to catch the local eye, but the shock was that I was never consulted. In my English editions I'd gone out of my way to come up with titles that didn't reek of the communist motif I use in my stories, because to me the communism is secondary to the characters and their story; but in France they've gone out of their way to do just the opposite.

Can I complain? Yes. Does it do any good? It hasn't, not yet.

So then you have the deal. You're excited. How long do you have to wait before you get to hold that volume you can't understand? Well, I just received my Swedish and French copies this morning. The Swedish edition took a year and a month from signing to book; the French took a mere four months. The Japanese I'm still waiting on, and it's been over two years!

Answer: There's just no telling.

Since I'm new to this, I don't know what follows the foreign publication. Maybe some of the more experienced writers out there can comment on their experiences with the foreign press and perhaps even book tours. (All I know is that I was told that if I didn't speak French, the French press would not interview me. Which does seem strange...kind of.) And maybe there's an agent out there who wants to clear up some of the mistakes I've no doubt made.


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