Where I Come From, Paulo Coelho is for Grandmas

The author is a literary favorite in the U.S., but in Latin America, he’s considered self-help. What happened in translation?

I first started suspecting something odd about Paulo Coelho in one of my publishing classes. When the professor mentioned the author’s name, I noticed I was the only one doing what I thought of as the traditional smirk of dismissal. Many of my fellow students — smart, admirable English majors — whispered excitedly among themselves the way one does when a favorite author is mentioned. I was confused, but class had moved on.

After that, I started paying more attention when I heard the Brazilian author’s name around American bookish and literary spaces. I noticed that the translation for his most recent book at the time, Adultery, was available in bookstores very close to its release date in Latin America. Having a translation released close to the original release date is a definitive sign of admiration and popularity. I noticed, too, that booksellers and other people whose taste I respect and admire from social media quoted Coelho or mentioned The Alchemist among their favorite books.

All of this was, to put it mildly, perplexing. The popularity of Paulo Coelho in itself is not surprising. He is an internationally-known bestselling author. What took me aback was the difference in fan demographic. Back at home in Colombia, and generally across Latin America, there are those who love Coelho and those who would not be caught dead with any book of his in their hands. The first group, the fans, tend to be older — a lot of aunts and grandmothers, a lot of inspirational quotes on Facebook with idyllic mountains as the background. Certainly my aunts and grandmothers. In the other camp live those who despise the author. Plenty has been written in Latin America by literary luminaries like Héctor Abad Faciolince about the reasons why Coelho’s work is not good writing. To be fair, a lot of what has been written against Coelho has the subtle smell of bestseller-shaming. But the general perception is that Coelho writes self-help books wrapped around fables that are easy to read and digest. They are uplifting books with enough empowerment in them to make you feel capable, but light enough to require a second and third subsequent fix to keep the high going.

Granted, some U.S. fans are also into inspirational Facebook quotes. (Photo by BK)

I am not a fan of hating on any phenomenon simply because everyone else is doing it — I believe in informed and educated hating of things — so one wild spring break many years ago, I took on the personal project of reading the whole shelf of Coelho books that my mother nurtures and grows every year. I found his stories predictable, his writing of women clichéd and flat, and his prose less than sparkling. When I tried to tell my mother this, she promptly told me I “just hadn’t lived enough to appreciate his books” — never mind that I had been studying and training myself precisely to issue informed opinions on books since my third semester in undergrad.

None of my literature-studying friends in Colombia can take Paulo Coelho seriously, yet the same demographic in America seems to derive inspiration from his work. While I was perusing the Latin American translation stacks at the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York, I found a fake book instructing me to ask at the front desk if I wanted a book by Coelho. The bookseller at the cash register told me that his books were kept hidden with Kerouac and Bukowski because they were stolen at a similar rate. Young men who write, she told me, stole Coelho and Bukowski at the same time. Young men who write in America and my mother was a cross section of a Venn diagram I had never expected to find.

The bookseller at the cash register told me that his books were kept hidden with Kerouac and Bukowski because they were stolen at a similar rate.

When I asked at Brookline Booksmith in Boston about the sales and audience for Paulo Coelho´s books, Rick, a bookseller there, informed me that in the past three months they have sold 20 copies of The Alchemist. The people who come looking for his books are mostly young people who might want self-help but are also looking for a narrative or poetic book. Another bookstore in Boston has sold over 300 copies — basically guaranteeing one copy per day — of the anniversary edition of The Alchemist; not only that, but over 20 copies of the graphic novel version of the book have been sold as well. Only 20 copies of the book in Spanish have been sold over the past year in that same store. How many copies does Cortázar sell in a month in the U.S.? How many books by Clarice Lispector?

The Second Death of Clarice Lispector

Meanwhile, in Colombia we have bookstores like Wilborada that choose not to carry Coelho. Wilborada is an independent bookstore in the heart of Bogotá. Like Brookline Booksmith, Wilborada is the kind of local bookstore that holds readings, hosts book clubs, and has gathered a loyal customer base that enjoys, and trusts, the tastes of their booksellers. According to Dario Quimbaya, bookseller there, they decided to curb Coelho’s books because they made the decision to limit the shelf space dedicated to self-help. On top of that, Coelho is not even as popular as he used to be within the intended audience. New authors have been recently cornering the market, like María Elvira Pombo, who presents a form of introspection through conversation with angels. In Dario’s years of experience in the bookselling business, the people who have asked for the kind of self-help that Coelho writes tend to stay away from literary fiction or short stories.

Any translation is an interpretation, and as such it should not be terribly surprising that new nuances and shades come up and attract an audience that the original language might have ignored. But the shift in the age and interests of the audience for this author, with language being the biggest apparent change, is quite fascinating. Like the kid who changes schools and suddenly becomes cool, Paulo Coelho earned a new reputation in his English iteration. It is often we hear that by translating a piece of writing we are left with a slightly lesser version of the original, but it would seem that with Coelho he gained more merit.

Like the kid who changes schools and suddenly becomes cool, Paulo Coelho earned a new reputation in his English iteration.

Even though I don’t enjoy his books, I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong about reading or enjoying Coelho, the same way I don’t really find anything wrong with Dan Brown or the trashiest romance. To each their own, and in current times we have to get our happiness wherever we can get it. Having one foot in the Latin American publishing market and the other in the American one, I am particularly aware of how hard it is to promote literature in translation. Marketing and publicity is key, and even so, just a sliver of the books sold in the U.S. are works in translation. No doubt it helps that Harper Collins publishes Paulo Coelho in English. His books can get the full muscle of a big publishing house in order to promote and get them strategically placed in front of a large audience.

But to see that sliver of books being overtaken by just a couple of authors raises questions. Is it possible for smaller publishers to tap into this wealth of interested readers to promote other translated authors? How did an author dismissed for his lack of literary merit in one half of the continent become the go-to for young authors, readers, and men recommending books on their dating app profiles in the other? If we can learn anything from all of this is that we should all be moved into reading even more books in translation, and perhaps even translating more books. If Brazil’s Dan Brown is changing lives in the U.S., imagine the wealth of knowledge and narratives lying in the bookstores of America waiting to get picked up.

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