Instinct, Energy, and Luck: An Indie-Publisher Roundtable on Literature in Translation

Jeremiah Chamberlin
From the November/December 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In the years I worked as a bookseller after college, I had the good fortune to encounter a wide range of literatures in translation. The indie bookshop I worked at, the now-closed Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wisconsin, had a section devoted to the work of Nobel Prize winners, as well as an international-fiction section. One of my fondest and most surprising reading experiences came after picking up a pale-green galley of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1997), knowing nothing yet of this author, but soon tumbling in awe through Murakami’s (translated) prose.

It wasn’t until I began working with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF), an organization dedicated to creating connections among Bulgarian, American, and British writers, that I truly began to learn about the challenges of international literature reaching our shores, as well as the importance of nurturing an audience for it. Only approximately 3 percent of the books published in this country are works in translation, and, as the editors of the website Three Percent state, “In terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.”

Yet what I was discovering each summer I visited Bulgaria was an incredibly rich and diverse literary tradition—one in which I deeply wanted to immerse myself but was unable to because so few of these books had been translated into English. And Bulgaria is but one small country in the region. What other marvelous books from nearby neighbors like Greece and Serbia and Turkey was I not finding on the shelves back in the United States? The world of English-language publishing suddenly felt extremely small.

Through my work with the EKF, I also started meeting the editors and publishers of presses and literary journals, each passionate about bringing the best of international literature to English-speaking readers—places like Dalkey Archive Press and New Vessel Press, as well as publications like Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and Words Without Borders.

So, as part of this issue dedicated to independent publishing, I planned to sit down with five editors and publishers to talk with them about the state of international literature, the particular challenges of focusing on books in translation, how to find readers for their titles, and what the industry should be paying attention to in the future.

Joining me were Barbara Epler, publisher and editor in chief of New Directions; CJ Evans, editorial director of Two Lines Press and editor of the biannual journal Two Lines: World Writing in Translation; Chad Post, founder and editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions; and Jill Schoolman, founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

How did you each come to publishing, particularly working with literature in translation? What drew you initially or continues to draw you today?
Michael Reynolds:
I never imagined a career in publishing until I woke up one day and had one. I was living in Rome in the early 2000s, at about the same time the founders and publishers of Europa Editions, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, were thinking about opening an American publishing house. At the time, I was doing odd jobs, among them running a writers festival in Rome with a couple of friends. Thanks to this work I was meeting quite a few Italian writers and publishing people. I got wind of what Sandro and Sandra were planning to do and decided to knock on the door of their Italian publishing house and offer my services—I had no idea of what those services might be.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. I was in the right place at the right time, because Sandro and Sandra were getting ready to announce the opening of Europa Editions at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That was the summer of 2004.

The seed of the idea started growing in them right after 9/11, when it seemed that once again the world was balkanizing, that the free exchange of ideas and opinions was being threatened, and that a surreal hysteria was enveloping the world—remember Freedom Fries? At the time, people all over the world, common people not intellectuals or academics, seemed to have fewer and fewer channels for communicating or communing. Sandro and Sandra [who founded Europa’s sister company in Italy, Edizioni EO, in the 1970s with the purpose of bringing unpublished, unknown, and under-appreciated authors from Eastern Europe to the Italian market] asked themselves what, as publishers, they could do to help overcome that communication breakdown. At the time, it also seemed to them—and, incidentally, not to anyone else—that an American publishing house focused on work in translation was a good business opportunity.

But beyond the business opportunity and the ideological motivation, there was also a more basic impulse: the desire to share something good. The fact that many of their favorite writers from Europe and elsewhere were not available to American readers because no publisher was in a position or of a persuasion to publish them in the States seemed almost unbearable. The explosion of social media demonstrates the basic human urge to share something that you feel strongly about with others. Europa was founded with this idea of sharing, of exchange, as its cornerstone.

My interest in international literature extends beyond the company that I work for, but I think it has found a natural home at Europa. And what continues to draw me to work with books in translation today is precisely this idea that something good is something that should be shared, in most cases with as many people as possible. I don’t believe that publishing work in translation should be considered a priori a noble endeavor. And I’m also dubious about the quantitative approach to evaluating where we’re at in terms of inclusiveness of literature in translation in the American culture of reading. I simply know that there are good, deserving, important, interesting, entertaining, provocative books being written in languages other than English. It’s a shame when those books cannot be read and talked about by people in America, the UK, Australia, etc. It impoverishes us all.

CJ Evans: Like Michael, I didn’t envision a career in publishing. I was working as the host in a “family brewpub”—which is as horrible as it sounds—in Portland in 2002 and a friend suggested I go up to Tin House magazine and see if they needed a poetry reader. I read for them for a while, then was hired as an editorial assistant for the magazine and to help with the development of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. When my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 2010, a friend suggested I check out the Center for the Art of Translation, which was, at the time, publishing an annual of international literature called Two Lines

I came on as the managing editor of Two Lines shortly thereafter. From the time I started, Olivia Sears, the founder of Two Lines and the Center, was talking about what the next steps for the journal might be. We had all of these wonderful contacts, primarily translators, built up from the nearly two decades of publishing, and felt that we could be doing more. We considered doing regional anthologies, but in nearly every issue we put out there was an excerpt from a book that we thought should be published in English, but couldn’t think of quite the right fit for a press to send the translator to. So, in 2012, Olivia; Scott Esposito, the marketing manager; and I decided we’d go for it and start the press to publish those books ourselves.