April 11, 2014

What’s better for translated literature: starting a publishing house or publicizing what’s already available?


International Literature Pillow Fight. Photo by Rodolphe Breard via Flickr.

International Literature Pillow Fight. Photo by Rodolphe Breard via Flickr.

Last week saw an interesting, and surprisingly combative, exchange between a couple of important voices in the world of translation. It was all kicked off by a blogpost in the new issue of the Brooklyn Quarterly by Will Evans, who has just founded Deep Vellum Press, a small non-profit press based in Dallas, Texas and dedicated to publishing translations.

The post, titled “I Want You To Start Your Own Publishing House,” was a lot of things: it was an argument for the importance of translation, it was an assessment of the field of translated literature in the US at the moment, it was a narrative of Evans’ own developing interest in translation and translated literature, and it was also a fairly detailed guide to how, if you wanted to start your own publishing house, you might go about it (don’t do it in NY, find a mentor, decide whether you want to be for-profit or non-profit, and so on). And in the end, it was an exhortation, or a dare, to anyone who cares about translated lit to go for it and start their own press.

Now this is irresistible to a certain swathe of people.  As our own Dustin Kurtz wrote last month about the ignominious demise of fantasy, sci fi, and romance publisher Norilana Books, “The line between a passion and a business is thinner in genres than in other types of literature.” This is also true of translated lit, plus it’s stoked by the competing drives of high-mindedness (you are doing something virtuous and good for the world!), literary cred (which can be partly snobbery, but is also partly a reflection of the fact that translations tend to be very good books, because the midlist is ably covered by each country’s particular literary culture), and the sense that this is territory that hasn’t been plundered by Big Publishing—it’s a way in for the little press that can’t afford big advances and needs books.

I am convinced that AmazonCrossing was started solely because of the last of these, in fact: a sort of glazed look crept over the face of Jeff Bezos as he stared out at the horizon and contemplated Germany, and France, and Italy, and all those other nations that miraculously had publishing industries of their own. “So many books,” he muttered, forehead gleaming, “so many many books for me.”

So the upshot is this brew is irresistible, even to the soberest among us. Irresistible, that is, and terrifying. Because everyone who has any experience of the translated lit business knows that it’s a hard way to make a living, even harder than traditional publishing, which god knows is plenty hard enough, if you don’t have an eye for or a backlist of bossy self-help titles and books about the surprisingly lively afterlife. Not a business where you can expect to be kicking up your monogrammed slippers in Davos in a year or so, just after you’ve sorted out the little matter of that second yacht.

And therefore, soon after, a counter opinion came in, from M. Lynx Qualey who runs the blog Arab Literature (in English). “Dear Will,” it was titled, “Why I’m Not Starting My Own Publishing House.” Qualey went on describe her own reasons for not embarking on a venture of this kind, even though she has both the knowledge of Arabic literature and the platform, in the blog, that would be ideal for starting up an Arabic-literature-in-translation publishing house. Personally, she has “an allergy to anything that deals in the exchange of currency… I’d have to give away all the books and pay the authors from my own pocket.”

But, more fundamentally, she argues that what’s needed is not another publishing house, but livelier, louder efforts to draw attention to what’s already been translated from Arabic. She writes:

I would brighten the face of ArabLit; I would spark more discussions about trends in Arabic literature; I would run more zizz and contests; I would create book-club materials; I would organize events; I would run more excerpts, short stories, poems. I would also target some of this at young people who might be interested in MG and YA literature in translation.

In short order, this provoked a follow-up post by Scott Esposito at his blog Conversational Reading, arguing that publishers actually already do all those things—they have to, in order to stay semi-solvent—and what would really benefit translated literature the most is having many more titles available in the marketplace; say, doubling the annual numbers from 500 to 1,000.

So at this point, everyone’s politely scrapping in comment sections and on Twitter, with a tense “I think we are ultimately on the same page but at the moment I kind of hate you” tone. And, there being no polite fray I won’t join, I’ll add my two cents here.

I’ve been thinking about the question of quantity (not quantity vs. quality, just quantity alone) in translated literature for a couple of years: is it a good in itself? It’s not a purely theoretical question, because there are a couple of houses and organizations that operate on this principle, more than on publishing a small choice selection of translations. So it can be observed working or not working.  Dalkey Archive is one, with their gangly National Literature Series pumping out large numbers of books year after year from specific languages and countries, as long as the host countries provide the funding. Or Words Without Borders whose monthly issues regularly include 10-20 pieces in translation (full disclosure: I’m on the Young Publishers Committee for WWB). Even New Books In German, the rights guide put out by the German Book Office, the Frankfurt Book Fair, Goethe-Institut, and various Federal Ministries, takes the maximalist approach to providing information about or examples of works in translation: twice a year, a 40-page catalogue full of information not only about new books, but also about the lists different publishers, prizes, festivals, reviewers. In other words, a compact education in German contemporary literature and publishing.

I think that these outlets are “good for translated literature,” because they have more than immediate effects: they widen the pool (of knowledge, styles, translators) significantly. So, for instance, WWB’s monthly issues mean that there’s a regular demand for translators, and a regular chance for them to do and exhibit their work. This is far healthier for literary culture, I would argue, than a situation where a limited number of translators are given all the projects from a particular language, and those projects come out once every few years or so (the “Pevear-Volokhonsky problem,” you might call it, though other translators dominated other languages in the past in similar ways).

But there are trade-offs: Dalkey’s dependency on foreign governments to subsidize their series, which affects what and what doesn’t get translated. The fact that the translators who translate for WWB probably can’t make a living on those pieces. The difficulty in properly publicizing large lists and diffuse issues: how do you get readers to pay attention, how do you get more and different readers? How do you make the outlay worth it immediately (which could also be rephrased in many of these cases as “how do you make a living/keep the business going”)? So while I veer towards the “more more more” position, and therefore Evans’ call to arms, each individual and organization pursuing this approach is doing it on certain terms, which are worth being aware of.

There is one other issue here that hasn’t been raised, and that is that Qualey’s response may indicate something important about translated literature, something that’s often glided over: different languages and literary cultures exist in different relationships to English-language publishing, reviewing, and bookselling. If, for instance, I was publishing a French book in translation, though this would still pose numerous challenges when it came to getting it reviewed and in front of readers, there would be a basic familiarity and context that would make the whole process easier. I wouldn’t expect to have to explain the history of French literature to reviewers. I wouldn’t have to start from virtually from zero.

But this is the situation that Arabic literature faces in English-language markets. Of five recent Arabic novels in translation that Qualey mentions in her post, only one got any kind of English-language media attention: Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories, The Corpse Exhibition (and even then, David Kipen’s NYT review is astonishingly patronizing – I don’t know if any review that ends by saying that if the author wrote the stories in the order they appeared in the book, then he could be said to be developing as a writer and might eventually go “who knows who far” can really count as a win).

This is an acute critical drought, and the kind of seeding of the conversation Qualey proposes seems absolutely necessary here. It’s not accurate, in short, to assume that all books in translation have it equally hard: some have it much harder than others, at every stage of the game. The idea that a Great Translated Book will just emerge and find its readers, no matter what, has rarely been borne out by literary history, and it has a nasty flipside: if a Great Translated Book hasn’t emerged from your language or country yet, the suspicion grows in the metropole that maybe there’s nothing there worth reading in the first place. And this becomes an excuse for further inattention. As mild, as inappropriately literary-fray-like, as this conclusion will sound, different literatures may, in the end, just be in need of different types of advocacy.



Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.