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

Jeremiah Chamberlin

Though I have always read literature in translation, my professional background had been much more focused on contemporary American literature. The way I like to think about it is that I don’t have any special interest in international literature. I’m, personally, very much not interested in the cultural dialogue aspects of it, even though I do see that there’s value in that. I’m interested in publishing the best books I can get my hands on, in a small press environment. And I firmly believe a huge percentage of the best books and writers are not in English. It is continually shocking to me how much amazing work hasn’t been published in translation yet. I think of a writer like Marie NDiaye, with whom we’ve done two books; she won the Prix Goncourt and was the youngest writer to ever be a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Someone of her stature would be unavailable to a press of our size in the US if she was writing in English. But because she’s French I’m able to publish her.

Barbara Epler: Not to be an echo chamber, but I also never thought I was going into publishing as a profession. If it is one!

I was disenchanted with staying on the professor track—and why I ever thought I would be one is long lost—and I was in love with someone in NYC and thrilled to get here. So I told my parents I was taking a year or two off before grad school and that I would get a job in publishing—thinking that that would be as easy as falling off a log. But then I couldn’t type and no one would hire me and it wasn't until I met Griselda Ohannessian, who was running New Directions, that I met anyone who would talk to me.  

Now, it’s thirty-one years later.  

Jill Schoolman: I, too, sort of stumbled into publishing after having wandered around for a while trying various things. I started out working in film; I did a film course in Maine, worked on a few films in New York and then in Paris. In Paris I was also doing other things to make ends meet, like delivering pizzas on mopeds. After a few years of freelance film work, I started sniffing around for other possibilities. I then met Dan Simon and started interning for Seven Stories Press, where I learned a great deal about the business and about how much fun it could be to publish books. I was instinctively drawn to international literature. I grew up on a diet of classics from different parts of the world, I love traveling, and I love discovering a culture through its books and films.

After working as an editor with Seven Stories for a few years, I started dreaming out loud about starting a press devoted to international literature. It felt like a good moment to do it, and the people around me encouraged me to try to make it happen. I decided that if we set up Archipelago Books as a not-for-profit press, we might be able to be less dependent on book sales for survival. I’m very glad we did this. I was working out of my studio apartment for about a year, even after I hired a colleague and we enlisted a couple interns. My cat never seemed to mind, until our first books appeared in 2004, and she urged us in her way to find some office space.

Chad Post: After graduating from college, I worked at a couple of indie bookstores: Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I learned a ton of stuff from working in bookstores about the business end of things. But I ended up leaving [bookselling] because I wanted to get into the other side of things, helping decide which books would be sold, rather than hoping for someone else to make it possible for me to try and convince others to read these books.

At that time, Dalkey Archive had started a fellowship program, which was like grad school for publishing, but with a worse stipend. I was the first or second fellow to do this, back in the summer of 2000, and I quickly transitioned from working on editorial things to working with bookstores, and a year later was the director of marketing and sales. Fast forward seven years, and I ended up at the University of Rochester with two other former Dalkey employees, working on setting up a new publishing house that would support the literary translation programs the university wanted to launch. 

I think the thing I like best about being here in Rochester is the varied nature of what I’m doing as a “publisher.” Open Letter is a component of the University of Rochester, so our reader outreach and educational opportunities come more directly from a place geared toward expanding minds and whatnot.

The publishing side of things has been pretty tough. It takes a lot to get established sales wise, and although we’ve had some decent successes—Zone by Mathias Enard, The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra—there hasn’t been that true breakout title that changes your fortunes or gets the big mainstream media outlets to start paying attention to you. We have no Sebald or Bolaño or Ferrante or Knausgaard. One day!

Point being, if my job were only predicated on sales and our NEA grant, it would be fine, but maybe unremarkable? I think the things that define our organization, and the reasons I’m still in publishing—which can be grueling, especially if you started your press and are too close to it, emotionally tied to the successes and failures of the books—are all the ancillary things we do for readers: the Three Percent blog; the Translation Database, which, thanks to the wealth of data I’ve accumulated, is allowing me to work on a research project about how many books by women are translated from various languages and countries; the Best Translated Book Award; the podcast I do with Tom Roberge; even the World Cup of Literature and Women’s World Cup of Literature—two fun projects that I put together just to help get more people talking about more international literature.

The other thing that I really like about my position is working with young translators. Four to six translators come here every fall to get their MA, and I work with them all on a weekly basis, through the two classes I teach, by talking with them in the office, reading their samples, and organizing a weekly translation workshop for all the translators in the Rochester area—of which there are many, including Kerri Pierce and Lytton Smith, who are two of the best in the country. Without this sort of interaction, I think we’d really be cut off from the book world. Especially since there is no indie bookstore in town. 

What issues do you feel are most pressing for independent publishers in general and those working with literature in translation in particular?
Reynolds: In my mind, the No. 1 issue concerning the publication of work in translation is that of discoverability and promotion. I’m not entirely convinced that we have to dramatically increase the number of books in translation published here at all costs, but I definitely think that we need to grow the audience for those books that are published. Over the past ten to twenty years it seems to me that the focus has been on printing as many titles in translation as possible. But printing is not the same as publishing. I would like to see us all work more, and together, on innovative and effective ways of getting our books into the hands of a larger number of readers.