Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Five conversations with booksellers at HBW, part 2

For part 1, see here.

Am Oved
Years ago, at a bookstore, my father saw me eying an Am Oved (Working People) novel. "Take it," he told me. "It's Am Oved. It's bound to be good."

Red, black and yellow
On Am Oved's website, I once saw the description that this publishers strives to be like the Penguin of the Hebrew world - Am Oved titles have a distinct (often red) symbol on their spine, often in a prominent and obvious location on the front cover as well. One of Israel's largest publishers, well known for its quality, I was looking forward to hitting the stacks.

Once I grabbed the first choice (Dubravka Ugrešić's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender), I started scavenging for further books - the deal being 2 for 1 (plus an additional gift book, it turned out). The bookseller noticed my search and came over to help me. "What kind of book are you looking for?" he asked politely.

The new reds
"Something different. Something weird." He began to toss out recommendations, showing me books translated from various languages - Spanish, Chinese*, Polish, Greek... As I began to flip through them, a somewhat older woman came to stand next to the bookseller

"That one's excellent," she told me, pointing at one of the books. Casually, we struck up a conversation, discussing some of the books in that particular booth (mostly foreign literature, with very little translated from English). She was quick to realize that I wasn't looking for anything translated from English (obviously preferring the originals) and seemed eager to help in my search for the "weird" and "different" books. Turns out she's the foreign literature selector** for the publishers. Once I told her that translations pretty much fascinate the heck out of me, she said, rather sincerely, "Well... it doesn't pay very well..."

The two Bolaños
After a few more minutes of talking, she pointed at the original bookseller I'd spoken to. "This guy here, he's a translator. He'd recommend Bolaño, obviously--" The bookseller began to grin emphatically and tapped the two Bolaños in front of him. "I've actually read him," I admitted. "Well, have you read By Night in Chile?" he asked. I nodded. "I've read both." His eyes widened. "What?! Seriously? You're my hero!"

When I think of Am Oved's booths, I'm not thinking of the six books I purchased (while only paying for two and a half). I'm thinking of its staff and the wonderful book dialogue they encourage and engage in. Once again, the literary experience trumps the actual books acquired.

* Chinese is very rarely translated into Hebrew. Until recently, all translations of Chinese novels passed through English first, making them doubly translated. Even today, when you have a few translators out there, many Chinese books are translated to Hebrew through English. So are Icelandic books, as well as a few other languages...
** Is this the official English publishing phrase? Does this job fall under "editor" in the Anglo publishing world?


  1. You raise an interesting point about double translation. Although I could read Chinese, I have rarely read one for decades. Wonder what happens when it gets double translated? Would it end up like Chinese whispers and the true essence of it gets distorted? it's a shame translation doesn't pay well, because sometimes it is the translator that gets the books out into the mass audience.

  2. Fascinating! I wish I could read Hebrew and look out for these books.

  3. Lovely post - I'd never heard of these.


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