The elusive American dream of Hispanic literature

Two events set to analyze why so few Spanish-language writers get published there

Spain’s stand at the 2010 New York Book Fair.
Spain’s stand at the 2010 New York Book Fair.Miguel Rajmil (EFE)

The American dream remains elusive for Spanish-language literature, whether delivered straight up or translated into English.

Despite the demographic and sociopolitical changes taking hold in a country that is now home to 50 million people of Hispanic descent, Spanish writing is failing to take off in the United States.

The market has yet to fully respond, however – reflecting the slow process of incorporation into the American cultural system and the fact that the US “is resistant to other languages, but at the same time practices cultural anthropophagy when it likes something,” in the words of The New York Times reporter Larry Rohter.

Publishing companies have very few people who can read Spanish, it’s that simple”

Eduardo Lago, writer

In the United States, statistics go one way and reality goes another, notes Antonio Muñoz Molina, a resident of New York and one of the few Spanish writers who gets published and reviewed in the mainstream US media.

The author of Winter in Lisbon and In the Night of Time says reality proves “the presence of [Spanish-language] authors is minimal, and the language of prestige and of climbing rungs continues to be English.”

The situation is due to be analyzed this week by a group of around 20 writers, book critics and journalists at New York University’s King Juan Carlos I Center, and at the Kennedy Center’s Iberian Suite festival in Washington. Both events are sponsored by the Spanish government.

“Institutions can no longer ignore this vast cultural presence,” says Marie Arana, a writer, critic, senior adviser at the Library of Congress, and the coordinator of Iberian Suite. “As well as the fact that Spanish is increasingly spoken in the United States, and that one in five people is of Hispanic origin, there is a sense that the history and literature of Latin Americans are increasingly relevant to this country’s own education.”

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Prestigious English-language publications have warmly welcomed the latest works of fiction by Spanish novelists Javier Marías, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Enrique Vila-Matas and Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Chile’s Alejandro Zambra and Mexico’s Guadalupe Nettel and Valeria Luiselli. This year, the work of novelist Rafael Chirbes and poet Claudio Rodríguez will be published in English.

Though small, this growing influx confirms that the transatlantic discussion is constant, says Valerie Miles, a writer, co-founder of the Spanish version of literary journal Granta, and curator of the NYU event.

She says few books get translated in the US because it has a very mature output of its own that is extremely professional and in which the publisher still has a role to play. “Publishers are experts in literary technique and expert readers as well,” she says.

Eduardo Lago, a writer and former head of the Cervantes Institute in New York, makes another point. “Publishing companies have very few people who can read Spanish, it’s that simple, so that the decision to translate is vicarious and relies on the reports or opinions of people they know or trust,” he says.

Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina is skeptical about any progress made by Hispanic literature in the US market.
Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina is skeptical about any progress made by Hispanic literature in the US market.J.M. PEDROSA (EFE)

Despite the fact that only 67 Spanish titles were translated into English last year, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Guadalupe Nettel agree that the situation has improved, among other reasons because “the life of Latin Americans is part of Americans’ lives much more than ever before, and that makes good readers want to seek out books that will explain to them what is happening within those Latin American souls and societies,” says Nettel.

Publishers large and small, she adds, “are starting to realize that Latin American literature does not fit the prejudice that surrounded it for years, that is to say, third or fourth-generation magic realism.”

Despite the overall optimism, Muñoz Molina is more skeptical. He believes that little progress has been made, and that part of the reason is that the US has a “monolingual culture even though it is a large, diverse, multicultural and hybrid country.”

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