tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
Ineke ([personal profile] tevere) wrote in [community profile] forkedtongues2010-09-10 04:42 pm

Western publishing houses and translated texts

Any advice on this would be greatly appreciated! (Although it occurs to me that it's always a bad idea to ask the internet for advice on a holiday weekend...)

A Timorese author I know is interested in finding an Australian publisher for the English translation of his novella, the original of which is in Tetum. The translation into English has already been done by someone other than myself; he's asked me to edit the translated manuscript with an eye for preparing it for publication in Australia. He's actually already found a publisher who's willing to look at it, but I understand no promises have been made.

I read the manuscript for the first time last night, and it's left me feeling rather bewildered as to how best to proceed. The story itself is engaging and moving -- it's a semi-autobiographical account of Timorese children who were forcibly separated from their families shortly after the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste in 1975 and sent to orphanages in Indonesia. Many of the younger children forgot their Timorese identities and were only able to rediscover them with difficulty during adulthood; some were eventually reunited with their families after independence in 1999.

Timor-Leste has a rich oral tradition, but to the best of anyone's knowledge this novella is actually the first published longform work of fiction actually written in Tetum, the lingua franca. (Other Timorese works published internationally, like Naldo Rei's Resistance, were written in English or Portuguese.) As such, it reads like a mix between an oral narrative and a documentary: omniscient third-person description of events as they unfold, but incorporating an integrated parallel narrative where the protagonist speaks directly about his experiences during those events (as if being interviewed several years after the fact). The omniscient third-person and the protagonist's recollections are completely intertwined in a way that I don't think I've ever really seen in an English-language novel-- the closest I can think of is Chimamanda Adichie's The Headstrong Historian, where the past and present seem gently blurred.

I personally find the structure really interesting because it says so much about the evolution of Timorese storytelling into different media, but I suppose my concern is: will it work as a young adult novel for a Western audience that's perhaps more used to perfectly linear first- or third-person POV? Maybe even more to the point: will a mainstream publisher even accept it, let alone publishing it to see if it can work for a Western audience?

On the other hand, I absolutely don't want to be the person saying, "Your story must match these conventions of the English-language storytelling tradition, otherwise it will never get a chance." I hate the fact that publishing houses (deliberately or unconsciously) police non-Western and non-white narratives, choosing which gets to be 'representative' of a particular culture or race or ethnicity.

There's probably a way of preserving the novel's unique structure while making it slightly more comprehensible to a Western audience, and I've gone back and asked the author for his thoughts on the issue. In the interim, though: does anyone have opinions about the issue of translating the culturally-specific structure of a work, as well as simply the language? Is it betraying the original text by pandering to a lowest common denominator (the closed Western experience of the world), or is it widening its reach for cross-cultural enjoyment?

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