Even though there's been some increase in the number of foreign-language titles that are translated into English for publication in the U.S., the number of translated works remained under 3% of the total number of books published in 2004 in the U.S. Now Robin Hemley, director of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa, and Xu Xi, a member of the fiction faculty at Vermont College's MFA program—two American university professors, who have written a total of 15 books—are hoping to give translation publishing a boost.
This spring, Hemley and Xu Xi are launching Authors-at-Large, a venture they describe as both "literary tourism" and an international "traveling literary salon." The two hope to stimulate writing and publishing across international borders by introducing groups of American writers, editors and publishers to their counterparts around the world. AAL's 2006 schedule begins with trips to Hong Kong, Macau and the Philippines in May, followed by the Caribbean in June, Slovenia/Croatia in September and New Zealand in December. "We're choosing places that are off the beaten track, but have a lot of literary activity," Xu Xi said.
Hemley acknowledged that American publishers already attend international trade shows, but he considers such venues to be less productive than a publisher or an editor actually visiting a country and immersing himself or herself in its literary scene.
"Frankfurt is so chaotic, everything's so driven by buzz. That's not the place to make discoveries. It makes sense to do your own exploring, make your own discoveries, instead of waiting for someone to say, 'This is the next Milan Kundera,' " he said.
The 10-day AAL trips will be led by Hemley or Xu Xi and a team of two or three authors or publishers with professional expertise in that particular destination's culture and literature, and who also have personal contacts with the local literati. "We're not going in blind," said Hemley, "We've chosen destinations that fit our goal of a quick entrée into the literary landscape." Groups will be limited to 15 participants, so that each excursion can be tailored to that group's specific literary interests.
Chad Post, associate director of Dalkey Archive, is excited about the project. "Going online doesn't compare to actually going there and meeting people," he said, while recounting a recent experience in Estonia, when an employee of the Estonian Literature Information Centre gave him tips and made recommendations about publishing Estonian authors in translation, in exchange for Post's personal copy of Tristam Shandy. "That's the kind of thing that can only happen when you are there, actually talking to somebody," Post said.