'Ironweed' sows Albany lore across globe
U.S. exports works of authors such as William Kennedy and Russell Banks, but much can be lost in translation

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, March 20, 2005

The novel "Srecno Potepuh" appealed to readers of literary fiction in Slovenia, as did "Chwasty" in Poland, "Karhiainen" in Finland and "Jarngresid" in Iceland.

People in those far-off lands have learned about Depression-era Albany and a bum named Francis Phelan through foreign translations of William Kennedy's acclaimed novel "Ironweed."

For a photograph, Kennedy has pulled 90-odd foreign editions of his novels from bookshelves and placed them in 2-foot-high stacks that blanket half the felt of a pool table. The covers are a Babel of alphabets and often hilariously incongruous artwork.

"This is a strange experience to see them all like this," Kennedy said. "I look at them when they come in, they go up on the shelf, and that's that."

Kennedy's novels have been published in more than 26 languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian.

The novels of Russell Banks of Saratoga Springs are another far-flung literary export. His fiction -- which includes Adirondack settings in "The Sweet Hereafter," "Rule of the Bone" and "Cloudsplitter" -- has been translated into 20 languages. Most recently, he has been published in China, Korea, Turkey and Croatia.

"It's hard to know what Serbs and Croats will make of 'Rule of the Bone,' " he said.

Banks' books are most popular in France, where he has been blessed with the translator Pierre Furlan. "He's terrific," Banks said. "He's lived in the U.S., knows American culture and has become a good friend."

Such a connection between writer and translator is a rarity, though. Mostly, the writer must take potluck. It's also tough for the writer to judge if the translator captured the spirit of the book or missed by a mile.

"I can read Spanish and French well enough to tell if it's a really bad translation," Banks said. "Otherwise, you rely on the word of others."

Said Kennedy, "It's the luck of the draw. I've been told some translations were so bad they left out long sections that must have been too difficult to translate."

Others have gone to great lengths. Kennedy's French translator, Marie-Claire Pasquier, traveled to Albany to walk the streets, soak up the culture and take a tour with the author while she was translating "Ironweed."

Kennedy has met with his Swedish translator, Caj Lundgren. "He's really good, and he's done all my books," said Kennedy, whose foreign editions sell best in the Scandinavian countries.

A good translation grows international readers. Kennedy can gauge it by the number of foreign travelers who call his home in Averill Park asking if they can stop by to have him sign their books.

The literary agents for Kennedy and Banks negotiate contracts with each foreign publisher, with a royalty structure similar to the U.S. version. The money can add up, like compound interest, when dozens of countries are selling the books. In some instances, as with Cuba and China, the novelists gave their blessing to what are essentially pirated editions, from which they'll never see a dime. They consider it pro bono work to prop up interest in literary fiction.

Translators are typically academics who can't afford to quit their day jobs. Just ask Ted Brothers, 77, of Lake George, a retired Presbyterian minister who spent several years in Portugal. He is translating from Portuguese into English a book of theology, "A Morte E O Fim? (Is Death the End?)" for a friend, the Rev. Manuel Pedro Cardoso of Portugal.

Brothers has spent more than two years on the translation. He mails a few chapters at a time to Cardoso, who marks it up and mails it back for revisions. "I hope the book helps people in this country turn from fear of death to realizing that God is our friend," said Brothers, who is looking for an American publisher. "It's also strengthened my Portuguese."

The United States retains a large trade surplus when it comes to literary translations. "It's another example of us being too self-absorbed and phobic about the rest of the world. We're going through a xenophobic period," Banks said.

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at [email protected].

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

William Kennedy
Russell Banks