Exclusive interview with Michael Orthofer:

"Persian literature still a strong and active literary culture"

Publish Date : Saturday 10 December 2011 - 15:16
Michael Orthofer, Complete Review Managing Editor and member of the American PEN Society, is a constant visitor of IBNA's English website as a professional reviewer that monitors books news on daily basis. Accordingly, IBNA has made an interview with him over various subjects including the current status of translated literature, literature of migration, and Iranian books in the world.
Michael Orthofer
Michael Orthofer
IBNA - Farzaneh Doosti: Michael Orthofer was born in 1964 in Austria and now lives and works in New York. Besides working as a lawyer, he is also a well-known writer and reviewer. He launched the Complete Review website in 1999 as a book review site, and later in 2002 the Literary Saloon was added to provide daily information and links to literary news. His main focus is on international and foreign literature, and now after a decade the website has gained global fame. A member of the American PEN Society and juror of various literary awards for original and translated works of fiction, Orthofer is also a constant visitor of IBNA's English website and monitors books news on daily basis. Like most professional critics, he is not interested in sharing details of his personal life and career with his audiences and prefers to talk all about books instead. The following interview is a result of a series of email exchanges through which I have asked Michael Orthofer's opinions about various subjects from books to literature, translation and censorship.

IBNA. So, would you please briefly introduce your activities at the Literary Saloon?
MAO. I began the Complete Review site in 1999 as a book review site, and the Literary Saloon was added in 2002, to provide daily information and links to literary news. I tend to focus on international literature, since especially when I started the site there was relatively little coverage of foreign literature in the United States (from where I run the site). Of course, the internet has also made it much easier to learn about and report on international literary news. 

IBNA. Does the Complete Review receive any financial support by the government - is there any specific governmental budget for books in the media? 
MAO. No, I receive no financial support from the government – and in the United States very little media does. Book review and news coverage is commercial - or done by book-lovers for free… 

IBNA. The Complete Review is a pioneer of online reviews. How did it begin?
MAO. When I started the Complete Review in 1999 one of the reasons I did so was because so many people were posting reviews of books online (just writing about what they had read) – but almost no one was linking to other reviews of whatever book they had reviewed, and that seemed to me to be a very useful thing to do, so that’s what the Complete Review was originally designed for: to link to as many reviews of a book as possible.
While not entirely a pioneer, the Complete Review is one of the longest surviving online review sites, and the Literary Saloon was one of the first prominent literary weblogs. 

IBNA. How many hours does it usually take per day to go through all world news of books? Is it your full-time occupation?
MAO. Looking for all this world books news is something I think I would do anyway, so collecting links to interesting pieces isn’t that much work. What takes up the most time at the site is collecting links to other reviews (and reading the books I review!). Sometimes it feels like my full-time occupation, but it is not… 

IBNA. Having run the complete Review for more than ten years, how do you see the global book market, especially the Eastern countries?
MAO. The internet has helped make it easier to get information about books that are published elsewhere (and to get those books – which is becoming even easier as many are being published in “ebook” formats), and I think this has helped expand the global book market practically everywhere. 

I’m disappointed that there isn’t even more interest in international literature especially in the United States (and that, for example, so little contemporary Iranian fiction is translated into English), but overall I do think there is great interest – as is also suggested by the many international visitors to the Complete Review: last year there were 100 countries from which, on average, at least one person a day visited the site. 

IBNA. You mentioned that book news and review coverage is mainly commercial (or done by book-lovers for free). Can we conclude that American people are good readers in general, or that there is a 'capitalistic' justification behind it?
MAO. The reviewing – commercial and by book-lovers – suggests a certain passion among American readers – I’m just not sure how large that group is; many Americans read very little (and probably ignore all book reviews). Newspapers, which have cut back on their review in recent years, seem to think that there is not that much capitalistic justification for much book review coverage… 

IBNA. How do you find the current state of reading in America?
MAO. There are many very passionate readers, but they are probably a relatively small part of the total population; I am always surprised by how many people do not read more. 

IBNA. is way: does commercial approach to books help promote reading culture, or is it rather fed by a pre-existing demand by the market?
MAO. The commercial approach probably helps in some respects, especially regarding popular literature – especially mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, and romance – with a huge demand satisfied by a huge supply at relatively affordable prices. Serious literature – especially literature in translation – does not fare as well under this system, however, and very little survives in the US without some form of subsidies (and many publishers of translated literature are ‘non-profits’). 

IBNA. What are you reviewing now?
MAO. There’s a constant flow of books – next up are a Norwegian novel, “The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I am”, a Kenyan/American thriller, “Nairobi Heat”, and some non-fiction; bigger projects include Peter Nadas’ massive “Parallel Stories”. 

IBNA. How do you choose a book for review - based on personal taste, genre, market needs, hot release, or genre?
MAO. The advantage of having my own site is that I can choose to review whatever I want – and I do. So it’s mainly personal taste and interest that determines what gets reviewed. Of course, availability is important – I have to be able to get the book – and new books are the easiest to get, and I am to some extent interested in the ‘hot releases’. Also: I try to review new (or old) books by authors whom I have other books under review by, to help give readers a better picture of their whole output. 

IBNA. Do you do the whole job at the literary saloon yourself or you have a team?
MAO. Currently it is pretty much just me. 

IBNA. What kinds of books or genres you are interested in?
MAO. Much more interested in fiction than non-fiction, and usually more ‘literary’/serious works, but basically I will read and cover almost any kind of book. 

IBNA. What about books published in other languages such as Spanish, Chinese, or languages that you are not familiar with?
MAO. I do read quite a few books in other languages – French and German, in particular – and have reviewed some titles written in languages I can’t read that have been translated into these but not English. 

IBNA. How do you see the future of the Complete Review? Do you have any plans to, for instance, develop it to a comprehensive review bank, employ reviewers, or publish book review periodicals?
MAO. I’m fairly happy with the way the site functions now – except, of course, that I would always like to cover (many!) more books. But I don’t foresee many changes, or for the site to expand with other reviewers, etc. 

IBNA. Let us have a little word on 'Book Review' as a profession. What are the main features and musts of a good book review, in your opinion? To what extent should a reviewer be objective, and to what extent subjective?
MAO. As long as the reviewer makes clear when he is being subjective – and for example at the Complete Review readers become familiar with my subjectivity and my standards, so even if they don’t agree with them I hope it gives them a reasonable sense of the book’s qualities. I try to make the reviews at the Complete Review informative – to give readers the information they need to decide whether or not they want to read the book – rather than critical analyses (but sometimes that’s what the reviews wind up being ….) 

IBNA. I have noticed that you make a totally subjective approach to books in your Literary Saloon and in a less degree in your reviews. Sometimes this leads to misjudgments or exaggerations, especially when dealing with the literature of the so-called subaltern Others. I mean the literature of far Asia and the Middle East.  
MAO. Especially at the Literary Saloon my personal views obviously color how I comment on stories (I am a bit more careful in the reviews). If there are misjudgments and exaggerations (probably often!) then I imagine they are actually spread evenly across all literatures, not just Asia/Africa/the Middle East. Obviously the distant perspective – which also means: limited information, translation issues (often, in the case of books, edited translations), etc. – leads to some misinterpretation and misconceptions (but I always welcome readers pointing these out to me !). However, the Literary Saloon especially is meant to be an information source, making readers aware of these stories rather than being the final word on them. 

IBNA. As you mentioned, many valuable books are confined in their local languages. What is the solution for attracting world market? And particularly in the case of Iranian literature, where does the main problem lie?
MAO. I wish there were an easy answer. The US and UK have become a bit more open to translating and publishing foreign works – important, since English is currently the most significant global language – and a few languages (French, German) do a reasonable job in helping books make it onto the world market, but it’s still very hard. The most successful countries/languages seem to be those with strong government book offices that support translation and marketing abroad (without trying to influence too much which books get that support). I imagine the Iranian situation is particularly complicated because Iran is not a party to the major copyright conventions, which makes selling rights even more complicated. (American economic sanctions presumably also make it difficult for US publishers to buy Iranian works.) 

IBNA. Don't you think the problem with Eastern voice is still lying in the eurocentric/US-centric approach to literature? No need to mention the policies and tastes of first-class prizes of the world, such as the Nobel Prize.
MAO. I think there are enough voices – Eastern, Western, everywhere – that try to find their own means of expression; many do only thrive locally, but I think over the long term the best will emerge internationally as well. The focus on international prizes and bestselling-status is of course detrimental, but I think that enough writing is being done that isn’t so focused on this. It’s just a matter of it getting the attention it deserves (which I realize is difficult!). 

IBNA. How do you see Iranian books? Have you read any book by Iranian writers or written reviews on them?
MAO. There are a number or Iranian/Persian books under review at the Complete Review (see here) – and I will put up a review of a novel by Amir Hassan Cheheltan (which I read in German) shortly. 

IBNA. How do you evaluate the current status of Persian literature, which genres do you think would attract global interest?
MAO. I think there has been a great deal of very good writing coming out of Iran for several decades now – except, of course, that far too little manages to actually come out, i.e. get published in the US etc. – and from what I have seen of books published there in the past decade there is still a very strong and active literary culture. 

IBNA. And how do you see Iran Book News Agency?
MAO. I find the information there very interesting and useful – it’s always interesting to see what is being published in other countries, and for example the information about what books are being translated into Persian is particularly interesting (and gives outsiders a good idea of what Iranian readers are exposed to and familiar with). I just wish there were more detailed information about more Iranian titles – fiction, especially, since that is what I am most interested in.

IBNA. How d o you find the quality of IBNA translation work?  
MAO. As to the English-language part of the IBNA site, I think it would be helpful to have more information available about Iranian books, especially books on the subjects that might be of interest to foreign readers and publishers. It's great to see what gets translated into Persian, but I think outsiders would also love to know more about what is being written and published locally. 

IBNA provides information about the numbers of books published, the numbers up for various prizes, etc. but very little information about specific Iranian titles/authors. I think the 'news' part of the site is very good, even by international standards (most other agencies focus too much only on what they want to show/sell abroad), but descriptions of current books (and maybe excerpts, too) would help give foreign readers a better idea of Iranian writing and publishing.

IBNA. You have mentioned that not many Iranian works are available in English. But a number of Iranian novels and stories are already translated to or originally penned in English as literature of migration - from canonized poems ... to even works in the Sacred Defense that are massively being converted to English (and we should not forget about successful children's books like "Goodnight Commander") 
MAO. Poetry – and classical works (the Shahnameh was relatively recently translated and published by a major publisher and got a lot of attention) – are in a somewhat different category. I focus on prose/fiction, and while there are quite a lot of expatriate writers writing in other languages, there is still very little (certainly not massively!) being translated from Persian – and I think that would be an interesting literature to see more of. (I mean translated into English, of course – considerably more is translated into French and German). 

IBNA. As a translation expert how do you see the quality of the translations? Have they achieved something everlasting and inspiring through these translations or is there something missing? 
MAO. On the whole, the translations from the Persian seem quite solid. Some difficulties arise especially with the strong Persian tradition of poetry, since when that is used in fiction it can be difficult to properly convey all the meaning/poetry to English readers. Similarly, especially Sacred Defense works often require additional material (introductions, footnotes, glossaries) to provide context for English readers. (Works of non-fiction – including the books by Nafisi or even the comic books by Satrapi do help convey some of the cultural background quite well, and are good preparation for fiction coming directly from Iran.) 

IBNA. You are the juror of some outstanding translation awards, such as in The Three Percent award for translated books. I would like to know if you have ever included an Iranian book in evaluation procedures? 
MAO. Yes, I am one of the judges for the Best Translated Book Award. We consider every work of fiction translated into English and published in the US in any given year (excluding anthologies or works which have been previously translated – no new translations of “Madame Bovary”, etc.; there is also a poetry prize, but I only judge the fiction prize). That works out, very roughly to 250-350 books a year that are considered, though we probably miss some. 

As best I can tell, no fiction books translated from the Persian are eligible for this year’s prize (2011); we’re still sorting through all the titles, but I haven’t come across any yet. (Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s “The Colonel” only appeared in the UK; a US edition is coming out next year and it will be considered for the 2012 prize.)
In 2010 we considered “A City Under Siege: Tales of the Iran-Iraq War” by Habib Ahmadzadeh,
In 2009 we considered “Censoring an Iranian Love Story” by Shahriar Mandanipour,
In 2008 we considered “Fortune Told in Blood” by Davud Ghaffarzadegan and “Virgin of Solitude” by Taghi Modarressi. 

As you can see, that is not very many titles – but I think that is all the ones we could find! 

Some of these were strong candidates – and I think “The Colonel” will be a strong candidate for the longlist next year – but the competition is tough. 

IBNA. And would you please tell us about the main concerns and interests of translation awards such as the Threre Percent? Which lucky works can get into the arena?
MAO. The Best Translated Book Award tries to honor the best translated books appearing in the US every year – considering both the quality of the book itself and the quality of the translation. The larger aim is, of course, to make readers aware of all the wonderful foreign works that are available – especially through the long list and shortlist, but also by making available the list of all the books being considered for the prize, which lists all the eligible translations from that year. 

IBNA. Which translation is usually more successful, the one struggling to preserve the local hue and tone by offering lots of exotic terms and unfamiliar motifs inscribed in a simple language (as is the case with a large number of Asian/African works), or the one attempting to naturalize the story by taking much effort on the linguistic and stylistic features of a text?
MAO. I think that depends very much on the book itself, but in almost every case successful translators try to strike a balance. Preserving the local hue and tone is of course more difficult with less familiar literatures – US readers have it easier with translations from the French than from the Persian, for example – and that is also why it’s important that simply more gets translated, so that these more ‘exotic’ translations come to feel more familiar, too. 

IBNA. How about betraying translations? And how do you evaluate a translated book (as a self-regualted organic unity or in the light of the original work)? Is 'loyalty' to the original a factor for you?
MAO. It is difficult to evaluate a translation from a language one doesn’t read/speak, so ultimately the translation often has to be judged largely on its own merits. I am a big fan of loyalty to the original, but often a more creative/betraying approach makes for a better book in English. I prefer books that give me as close a sense of the original as possible, but I realize that this is often not possible; nevertheless, I have difficulty accepting translations which radically interfere with the text. 

In the US it is not uncommon to edit translated books – cutting parts of them – and I really don’t like that.

IBNA. You mentioned Satrapi's Persepolis and some other works as the most recent introductions to Iranian literature and culture. Personally I do not feel happy with these books as representatives of Iranian art and culture. They are mostly the opposing voices shaded by certain concerns and are intentionally ignoring a
large body of Iranian culture in favor of their sociopolitical interests. This is usually seen in many cases of Iranian literature of migration as they tend to only focus on the less said, the censored, and the taboos. This may be OK and justifiable in some degrees but could we call them as true representatives of a grand culture or literature? Is it the case with all other literatures of migration?
MAO. As I mentioned previously, I think it would be more interesting/helpful to see more writing from Iran (and authors living in Iran) itself. But I don’t think that expatriate authors “tend to only focus on the less said, the censored, and the taboos” (though the ones that do probably get the most attention). I think expatriate Iranian authors, and authors who have immigrated from other countries to the US (for example), tend to be popular (or at least get published) because their writing usually tries to bridge cultures – explaining one in terms that are familiar to the other. Many will use the contrast of what is taboo in the homeland versus what is allowed in, say, the US, but I think many also try to do considerably more than that. Writers who remain and write in the foreign culture and country can seem much more foreign (since they don’t compare and contrast what they describe with, say, the US), and many readers seem intimidated by that. (I think this is unfortunate, but understandable.)

IBNA. Well, how do you see the transnational filtering of cultural memes? Have you ever sensed it in translated texts in general, or is it merely an Eastern matter? 
MAO. As noted above, once writers are in a certain market – living in the US, for example, and thus exposed to American culture, and what American consumers read (and see on TV and in the media) – I think they do adjust to it (to varying degrees) and, consciously or subconsciously, write for that market. So I do think there is a strong influence – and I think that goes for all
nationalities/cultures – and the extent to which it happens often depends very much on how strong the culture the writer originally comes from. In this regard I think that Iranian writers, even abroad, show more ‘independence’ than, for example, writers from Eastern (or African) cultures that were colonialized. Cultures with a strong domestic reading culture that are not that integrated into the transnational scene – including Iran, but also to some extent countries like Japan and Russia, for example – do seem to have more independent, local, and different feel to their writing – but this also makes it harder and less likely that they will be widely translated.

IBNA. And the last but not the least question: What is your opinion about censorship? Where is it allowed and where should it be avoided? 
MAO. I don’t believe in or agree with any form of censorship. I don’t think readers need to be protected from anything (except young children from graphically violent or sexual material). I think it is much better to get even the most outrageous ideas and stories into the open: better to have them circulating and discussed, than try to keep them hidden (which is impossible anyway). The more open the dialogue, the better. (Indeed, the only good that comes from censorship is that it makes people curious about those books or parts of them that have been censored, and perhaps leads them to try to seek them out; censoring something is like saying there’s something
‘special’ about it, and that makes people curious.)

IBNA: You stated that censorship is permitted for the children where violence or sexual matters are involved. Then how do you react to the omission of Negro words from Twain's books? Are the consequences of such manipulations justifiable under any conditions?
MAO. I would be very careful even in how young children are to be protected from violent/sexual content – I don’t think censorship is appropriate, and would prefer it if children were protected by making it difficult for them to find or purchase such titles without adult oversight. 

I strongly disapprove of the omission or changing of words or similar manipulations in literary works – though I would like to see readers made aware of the problems and issues that arise from the use of such words (or of controversial ideas and subject matter). 

Since most children read Twain in school I think it is very easy to teach them when they come across these words and passages.
Openness and the possibility of public discussion are always preferable to censorship, even (or especially) about matters of politics, sex, and religion which many people might be uncomfortable with ♦ 
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