Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Today my novel sold its first (the word "first" seems optimistic, bordering on vain, but I'm keeping it) foreign rights: to Poland.  Having lived in France and Japan, I have harbored fantasies of being translated into those languages and as a result being able to travel back to visit old friends and haunts in countries I know and love.  While I'm extremely happy to be translated into Polish, I find myself curious as to what in particular about my book struck a nerve with the Polish foreign rights person, and also how they are going to translate Miyoshi-sensei's letters, written in "Japlish," or English with a Japanese flair, into Polish?  

At a conference recently, participants were asking about how much control authors have over their foreign translations, and how you can be certain that things like humor and poetry don't get lost in it.  The answer is, I'm pretty sure, that you have no control, and you can't know what might be lost (or possibly even gained?) in a language you can't speak or read.

The writer Stephen Koch talks about how writing a book requires you to keep taking and relinquishing control.  You have to relinquish the reins to produce and get to the end of those early, free flowing drafts, and then take hold of them again in revision, and back and forth, times fifty or more, until the thing is finally "done," which really just means sold.  I was once at a reading where an author was making comments and adjustments in the margins of the published copy of her story collection, based on the responses of people in the room.  In other words, she was revising a finished book.  She couldn't give up control by calling it done.

She looked, frankly, crazy, crossing words out in the middle of a reading.  But I understand, to a point.  Getting to the end--of a book, or (as is now the case in my life) a book tour--is bittersweet.  Completion is satisfying, but done can feel like dead.  As long as you're still working on something, still engaged in solving its problems, it still has potential.  And potential is comfortable, a soothing word, full of hope and promise, especially for those of us who remember our student days with fondness, when everything was still up ahead.  Calling something done means saying, "this is as good as I could do for now," and then opening it for judgment.  Finishing something also means that you have to start something else, knowing how long it's going to take, and how arduous and awkward that process of repeatedly taking and surrendering control can be.

But it's also exciting.  I've been in the finishing stages of novel production and dissemination for a while now, and while it has been a pleasure--especially getting to know other writers and readers as a result of this book--I'm starting to miss the early part, the drafting, where you give up control to such an extent that you don't really know what you're really writing about as you're writing, let alone whether it even has potential.  It's scary, but it's also exhilarating.  Only by surrendering that control while moving forward do you open up the possibility for great surprises.

I'll never get to know how my novel reads in Polish, whether the funny parts are still funny or not, but I don't mind.  I'm excited for it to have a new life, beyond this country and the one in which it's set.  It may be done--my part at least--but it's not dead.