Booksmith's Found in Translation Guru Scott Esposito is Interviewed by Booksmith Co-Owner Praveen Madan:

Found in Translation:  A Unique Book Group


Last year at the Booksmith we started a new book group – Found in Translation.  While our reader community is comprised mostly of San Francisco residents, there is incredible international diversity in this community in terms of countries of origin, languages spoken, world travelers, and people who are just incredibly curious about other societies and cultures.   Found in Translation is a celebration of this diversity and a concerted attempt by us to continue enhancing it.  I have read and enjoyed several of the book group’s picks and each one has enabled me to learn and appreciate something new about a different culture – France, Lebanon, Chile!  I have also been really impressed by how much I enjoyed the group’s discussions – they help me get so much more out of each book.  I recently interviewed Scott Esposito, the discussion leader of the group, who hand-picks each book for us and also leads the discussions.


Our next book group meeting is on Tuesday July 20th and we will be discussing French writer Honore de Balzac's book Eugenie Grandet.  So, put your DVRs on record, log out of Facebook and join us to meet other book lovers.


Praveen:  How did you become passionate about translated literature?

Scott:  It's pretty simple: I love great literature, and I always read the books that seem the most innovative and most exciting. Over the past few years, more and more of those books have been literature in translation. I like a lot of U.S. writers too, but with translated literature you get so many different viewpoints and styles that the books feel very fresh. It's all about encountering new ways to understand this world we all live in.


Praveen:  Where do you learn about new translations?

Scott:  I work at a local nonprofit called the Center for the Art of Translation, which is all about publishing and promoting great new literature in translation. In addition to that, I review books for places like the Los Angeles Times and edit an online book review. So between those things, publishers and translators are constantly telling me about the best new books out there.


Praveen:  There were over one million new books published in the US in 2009.  With so many new books bring published these days, what's so unique and interesting about translated fiction?

Scott:  That's the thing about translations--of those million books, only a few hundred were novels in translation. I like to think of translations as the survivors, those few, hardy books that are so compelling for one reason or another that they overcame the odds and actually got into print in the U.S.


Here's what I mean: the first thing to note about those million books is that the bulk of them books are self-published, most of which is outright garbage. No offense to self-published authors, but unless you're a complete genius you need a good editor, as well as friends and colleagues to help push that manuscript further.


In other words, filters help us readers get the best book possible. And translations have been through more filters than any other kind of book. First they had to beat out all the other books vying to get published in their native language. Then they had to be a success in their home country. Then they had to get noticed by a translator and be compelling enough for a U.S. publisher to go out and publish.


So the quality is generally very high, and because each nation and region has a different history and writing tradition you get a huge amount of diversity in terms of plots, styles, characters, etc.


Praveen:  What are some upcoming books the book group is planning to read?

Scott:  I'm pretty excited about our October book, titled Broken Glass. It's a new release by an author many consider the Congo's leading writer, Alain Mabanckou. He's a real enfant terrible, but though his books can be acerbic, mordant, and incredibly ironic, they're also very true to what that country is like right now.


The Boston Globe just reviewed Broken Glass, and this quote speaks for itself: "Like all the bar patrons, [the protagonist] Broken Glass is captivated by a marathon urinating contest between Robinette, a plump, likeable prostitute, and Casimir, a dapper, mysterious man."


Not all of the group's books are quite this bawdy. In August we're reading The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga, the leading writer of Spain's Basque region. It's all about this amazing land and its tumultuous history under Spain's fascist dictator Francisco Franco. It's a great book that, quite literally, has done a huge amount to put the Basque region on the world map.


And in September we're doing a book by one of the Czech Republic's leading authors, Michael Ajvaz. It's called The Golden Age, and it's maybe best described as a cross between Borges and Gulliver's Travels.


Praveen:  Who are some of the regular participants in the book group?

Scott:  We have all kinds of passionate readers. One is a young woman who just moved here from the East Coast, and she joined because she was looking for other book-lovers in the area to get to know. Another member is a freelance writer and all-around bibliophile whose work you can read up at The Rumpus. And then there's a retired gentleman who by his own admission reads far too slowly to read most of the group's books--he just loves to hear the discussion about the books and uses it to find new things to read.


 Praveen:  What commitment do new participants need to make in order to join the book group?

Scott:  The commitment is very low--in fact, strictly speaking you don't even have to read the book. We just want people eager to meet other readers and interested in finding out about great new books. If you can say that, then you're perfect for us!