October 28, 2010

In support of translation


As the winner of the most recent Best Translated Book (BTB) prize for fiction — for our book, The Confessions of Noa Weber, by Gail Hareven — we here at Melville House were particularly proud to win an award that had been voted upon by a judging panel made up of representatives from some of the country’s best independent booksellers, not to mention some great indie bloggers and critics. And from its inception, we have always thought of the two-year-old award as a good thing for little indies trying to champion good books in a difficult market and culture — a market and culture made difficult in many ways by the predatory and thuggish practices of Amazon.com.

So we were saddened — and puzzled — by the surprise announcement last week that the award would now be underwritten by none other than Amazon.com, with the University of Rochester and Open Letter Books, administrators of the award, getting $25,000 to divy up between between promotional costs and cash prizes for the translators and authors. We were also alarmed to see our name used without consultation in the press release announcing that funding, as if we were a party to this, or that we supported it.

In fact, we don’t, given, well, one thing or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another … or another ….

We could go on. The point is, it’s clear to us that Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical. As most of us here at Melville House have also worked at indie bookstores — including such biggies as Booksoup, Shaman Drum, Brookline Booksmith and others — we feel this especially keenly: Taking money from Amazon makes about as much sense as a medical researcher taking money from a cigarette company.

Which explains why we’re withdrawing from any future involvement with the Best Translated Book award. As publishers of 20 or more translated books a year — that’s more than Knopf or FSG — we mean to offer a much more genuine support to translation in America than taking part in a ruse leading to its further denigration. What’s more, we mean to make a more genuine statement of support for the independent publishing and bookseller community. After all, as America’s first great independent publisher said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”


Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives