Hopscotch Translation’s 2022 Publisher Forum
Following up on the one-year anniversary Translators Forum we published earlier this year, we are excited to mark the midway point of the Hopscotch Translation publishing calendar with another forum—this time directed at publishers of literature in translation!
As a publisher, what is the most challenging aspect of dealing with literature translated from languages that you and your colleagues can’t read? What are your strategies for dealing with this? What could also be done by publishers to better address this issue?
3TimesRebel Press is a new, fairtrade independent publisher based in Dundee and founded by Bibiana Mas, publishing challenging fiction in translation written exclusively by women from minority languages (e.g. Catalan, Gaelic, Basque). As a fairtrade publisher, 3TimesRebel Press is committed to doing the right thing with their partners, their community and the planet, as reflected in their mantra “We only win if we all win.”
As publishers of fiction in translation, one of the biggest fears we all probably have is committing to a book before we can really know if it is as we imagined it to be. Or even if it will fit into our own publishing imprint. Unfortunately we don’t have the ability to read all the languages of this world (by the way, this is the superpower I would most like to have!). So we must place our trust and some of our judgement in the hands of readers who can read all these languages. We jump into the deep end by reading only part of the book, because to translate it all in full costs a lot of money: the truth is that most of the independent publishers can only afford to translate certain chapters before paying for the whole of it. Unfortunately, after deciding to translate and publish the book, long sleepless nights begin. Endless sleepless nights packed with nightmares haunt us until the day we have the complete translated manuscript in our hands and, finally! we can see for ourselves that indeed, our instinct has not betrayed us.
There is no magic solution to this challenge: we can only surround ourselves with people we trust enough to be able to believe in their judgement almost blindly. And, above all, we must never stop trusting our own instinct which is, after all, the driving force behind our work. Well, to be honest, there’s one solution: having endless money so we can pay for the full translation even though we might not end up publishing it.
In my particular case, I tend to publish books when I know I can read the originals by myself, but this is not always possible. As we say in Catalan, my mother tongue, qui no s’arrisca no pisca. That is, those who don’t take risks will never achieve much of anything.
Bibiana Mas, publisher & director
The Bitter Oleander Press has been providing the poetry-reading public with a highly deep-image driven poetry since 1974. Published in English, most if not all of their translations include the texts in the original languages. They place a special emphasis on contemporary poets in translation, and their catalog features writers from countries including Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Romania, Sweden, and Syria.
With over seven-thousand languages spoken in the world today, and a little less than half the Earth’s population speaking only twenty-three of those, publishers of works in translation from any language into English can never really know what to expect in their submission basket from day to day. Having for over twenty-seven years published books of poetry in translation, from such diverse languages as Estonian, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Arabic, Danish, Chinese, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese, our precise strategy has been to first feel something compelling enough within the English translation for us to then create a reciprocity not only between publisher and translator but also, if at all possible or fortunate enough, with the poet as well, all working in unison to “get it right.” There’s no disputing the complexities and variables involved in the art of translation, which is why that close association between translator, poet and publisher is so necessary. Since each has the same identical aim, they can share their individual perspectives and take away something other than what they might have expected. It’s much easier to alleviate doubt through this kind of give-and-take than to depend on someone’s guess as to what might have been this or that poet’s intent. We have always had the good fortune to have had completed texts translated by either native speakers of a particular language or those who were working intimately with someone whose language may be out of our comprehension. Everything depends on the translator’s ability to bring over into English something that, although it may not always lend itself rhythmically or literally to the original, attempts to take on what was so captivating in the original. Neruda once said, in regards to translations of his work, that “he lived on the other side of the page.” As true as that may be, there are significantly more resources today from which a publisher can seek assistance in guaranteeing that what they receive is genuine and as closely as possible hugs the reality which the poet presumably intended by his creation. The internet alone has given us the capacity to research poets deeper than ever before and it is this research that helps publishers reach some kind of comfort zone in a language not their own. For example, in the United States, an organization such as ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) devotes its time to uniting translators with projects and publishers, current events, help centers and a vast array of supplemental resources that can be very meaningful for any publisher ascertaining his or her choices. These are always published through their newsletters, web-sites, blog posts, Twitter account, and through the giving of highly recognized awards that are each and every year highly anticipated. More than this, it can be, along with many other sources available on the burgeoning internet, a meeting ground between those who have questions and those who might have answers to these questions. At the very least, one can discover through these various sites and organizations the kind of assistance needed in helping to ensure a good choice by the publisher has taken place along with a unique type of validation for the all-important translator as well.
Paul B. Roth, editor & publisher
The Bitter Oleander Press
Dorothy, a publishing project is an award-winning feminist press dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction. Each fall, Dorothy publishes two new books simultaneously. Pairing books that draw upon different aesthetic traditions, they seek to highlight the possibilities that lie in literature’s endless stylistic and formal variety. The press is named for its editor’s great-aunt Dorothy Traver, a librarian, rose gardener, animal lover, children’s book author, and bookmobile driver who gifted her niece books stamped with an owl bookplate.
The only language I know is English, which is why literary translation has always mattered to me so much. Dorothy has done a modest number of translations, but Danielle and I both worked at Dalkey Archive before, and if you add that in, we have published books from a very wide range of languages. I’ve also reviewed books translated from at least ten different languages—so this is something I’ve thought about.
Just to say, up front, that an editor or reviewer of any sort of book needs to be good at what they do. Editing and reviewing are skills one learns and perfects just as translation is a skill one learns and perfects, and the most important thing for an editor or reviewer to be is good at it. If you add a language requirement to the job description, you have narrowed the field of quality editors and reviewers substantially. In doing so you exclude many languages from publication in English at all, and saddle others with potentially mediocre editors and reviewers. I know your question isn’t really about this, but I think it’s an important point.
The biggest challenges to publishing translated literature are not always editorial, but editorial is obviously the area most affected by the publisher’s language gap. We try to work with translators we trust and we work with them closely. As editors we tend to be hands-on, and I would like to think that over the years we have developed a pretty strong ability to “see” what is or is not working. We have occasionally called upon outside readers with questions, to get a different perspective on some particularly tricky moment in the text, but only in small ways, and only in collaboration with the translator. This isn’t a peer review situation, nor is it a perfection-type situation. It’s more of a hard work and lots of care situation. We trust that the translator fully understands and takes responsibility for the text in its original language, its literal meaning(s). As editors we ask questions about the original text or we help shape the English. It’s a conversation; we don’t insist on things. The process is maybe a little like two agents working out a deal: one agent represents accuracy to the original text and the other represents the experience of the book in English. What we are after is not a compromise, but a perfect match. We all want the same result, and of course we all actually care about both accuracy and engagement—but we take on these roles. It requires mutual respect and responsible creativity, but so far we have had only good experiences.
Martin Riker, co-founder & publisher
Dorothy, a publishing project
Fitzcarraldo Editions is an independent publisher specialising in contemporary fiction and long-form essays. Founded in 2014, it focuses on ambitious, imaginative and innovative writing, both in translation and in the English language. The series, designed by Ray O’Meara, are published as paperback originals with French flaps, using a custom serif typeface (called Fitzcarraldo). Fitzcarraldo Editions publishes, among other authors, 2015 and 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature laureates Svetlana Alexievich and Olga Tokarczuk.
The most challenging aspect is – I am really stating the obvious here – that we cannot read a text in full before making a decision on whether to attempt to acquire rights. And so we are reliant on those who can to give us an informed opinion on whether a book is good, and beyond that on whether it might be a fit for our list.
When I am interested in a book, I would usually commission one or two reader’s reports, from translators or publishing professionals who freelance as readers, or even academics (usually when it’s a book from a language that isn’t translated as much, and where I might not know any translators working from that language). It’s very important, when commissioning reports, that I feel like I can trust the person reporting on the book. So it doesn’t just mean being able to assess the book itself, but also assessing its place within the Fitzcarraldo Editions list – is the book good enough? Is it a fit for the catalogue? Or is it a book that occupies a thematic space we already have covered, that might not work in the next 2-3 years because it might be overshadowed by another author occupying similar terrain? Is this an author who we want to commit to publishing over time (a very important consideration)?
At the point where I commission a report – which usually means I am seriously interested in a book – I would also ask others in the publishing industry whose opinion and taste I trust, usually editors at other publishing houses in Europe or the US (for the most part), and sometimes literary scouts, who trade in knowledge about every book out there. If all the feedback is positive, then I would think about making an offer, perhaps after having commissioned and read a translation sample too – though even then there might be reasons not to offer on the book, such as a very full list, or too many books from a specific language in the pipeline, etc.
With authors we already publish whom I cannot read in the original, I would normally ask the translator to read the new text when we receive it, just to get a sense of the book and how and when we might publish it before making an offer. Since I’ll already know the author’s work, there’s no need here to seek a range of opinions.
As for what could be done by publishers to better address this issue, I am not sure! It always helps for us, as an Anglophone publishing house, if submissions from foreign publishers and agents come with an English-language sample – and my preference is always for a long sample: the longer, the better. I appreciate this is expensive and not possible for everyone, especially not the smaller, independent publishing houses. Some countries fund this kind of stuff; others don’t. It would be nice if those who don’t started helping.
If the question is aimed at Anglophone publishers, then the answer is quite simple: publish more translations. Many editors I know – especially the monoglots – are scared of publishing in translation precisely because they feel like they don’t have the tools to assess a book because they cannot read it in full. The first translation I commissioned ‘blindly’, by which I mean without having been able to read the whole book, was Gregor Hens’ Nicotine, brilliantly translated from German by Jen Calleja. I was very relieved when I read it for the first time in English and it turned out to be a very good book, and I haven’t thought twice about the process of acquiring translations since. So perhaps the answer is, yes, to publish more translations – and also to trust translators.
Jacques Testard, founder & publisher
Parthian Books is an independent literary publisher based in Cardigan, Wales, and established in 1993 by Richard Davies, Gillian Griffiths, and Ravi Pawar. Their growing list of fiction in translation from European languages includes novels translated from Basque, Latvian, Catalan, Czech, French, Slovakian and Turkish. They have recently published a series of books with support from Creative Europe, a collaboration with the literature councils of five European countries leading to eleven new books in translation from some of the smaller languages of the European Union, including Greek, Danish and Irish.
Publishing a book in translation is a wonderful adventure and if you don’t read the language it is originally written in it is a leap of faith. I’m writing this at a café in Leros in the northern Dodecanese. I speak very little Greek beyond a few phrases but I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the country, read enough of the history and this year Parthian has a novel The Book of Katerina by August Corteau (Petros Hatzopoulos) which is a prize winner in the European Bank of Rural Development Literature Prize. It was first published in Athens in 2013 to critical acclaim by the publishers Patakis and went onto to become adapted for a play. Roll forward a few years and a young editor Maria Zygogianni joins the Parthian team at our Swansea university office. She has graduated in English from university in Athens and decides to study for her doctorate in Swansea. She’s enthusiastic and capable and is immediately engaged in our translation programme, The Carnival of Vocies, and being Greek insists we should consider a novel she is passionate about, Το βιβλίο της Κατερίνας.
The next time I’m in Athens she arranges a meeting for me with Petros. We meet in a wonderful café/bookshop called Poems and Crimes in Monastaraki. He is urbane, charming and a leading translator from English into Greek. He can of course speak English. We discuss the book, his journey so far as a writer and we agree to publish it. We only have to find a translator. This proves more difficult than I first thought but eventually we meet Claire Papamichail who Petros knows and who is also a respected translator from English to Greek. This year she is translating Damon Galgut’s The Promise. She had never translated fiction from Greek into English before but had spent a significant amount of time in the United Kingdom living in London. I thought it was worth taking the risk that her English would be good enough to convey the particular essence of the book which she has already read but we needed one more piece of this translation mosaic. We needed an editor who could speak Greek. I’d met a writer at the London book fair who was also an editor and agent who lived on the remote island of Tilos in the southern Dodecanese. Jennifer Barclay had written a few books about life as an English woman on the islands, she was an experienced editor and had also learned Greek. She had a love for the country and immediately liked Petros’s novel. The mosaic was in place and all we need now was funding. Fortunately we had been successful in applying for a programme of translation of eleven books through the Creative Europe fund for literary translation. Maria had framed the application and we had support towards fifty percent of the costs of translation, publication and promotion. And three years later the book is being talked about across Europe.
And this is just one story. There are over thirty other books in our Carnival of Voices programme and each one has its own story of people and place and enthusiasms and of course disappointments. For a publisher to succeed with books from other languages it is a leap of faith but for me that’s part of the adventure. The essence in practical terms is working with people you engage with, like and trust and taking advice and advocacy from translators and readers and reading samples, extended if possible, of the work in question. For Parthian we like to publish work that has a sense of place and which has absorbed and reflects the culture that has produced it, which is certainly true of The Book of Katerina. But it was Maria Zygogianni’s enthusiasm and passion which got the book into print in English.
Richard Lewis Davies, co-founder & commercial director
Sublunary Editions is a small press based in Seattle, Washington, publishing small volumes focused on briefer forms of literature, from novellas and short stories to poetry and fragments. We proudly publish living authors next to 16th century writers, and often publish works in translation. In Ancient Greek astronomy, the sublunary sphere—literally, below the moon—was the expanse below the fixed stars and planets, the realm of worldly, imperfect, and fleeting things. This is our milieu.
I have a deep and abiding belief in literature as an ongoing conversation, and its conversants, however disparate in time, space, and ideology, part of a greater community. It’s on this community that publishers, editors, and translators often lean in this scenario. As a publisher, I rely on a network of trusted sources for opinions, whether on a manuscript as a whole, or tricky questions that arise in the process of editing. Especially in tricky cases, we try to consult native speakers wherever possible.
For example, in our archival Empyrean Series, we’re often working with older translations that may be outdated in either tact or linguistically. In preparing our books by the Russian author Boris Pilnyak, almost entirely made up of reprinted material, we asked for outside help checking the romanization of Russian proper names in translations originally done in the ’20s and ’30s. I also try to make other members of our informal network available to translators we work with, where time allows. Translators we work with often become a part of this extended network, and frequently will make their own sources available to others.
The difficulty arises when trying to draw a line between the kind of “free work” that comes with being part of a community—the “can you take a quick scan of this?”- and “what the hell is this?”-type questions happily answered in emails, message boards, and over coffee—and that which should be treated as any other work on a (semi-)commercial project, i.e. paid. (The most difficult work is often of the smaller sort—an arcane metaphor, an unfamiliar idiom, a slice of regional slang—and we probably shouldn’t turn questions like this into gig-economy tasks.) No small part of the economic questions is, of course, making sure translators themselves are paid fairly for their work; from pay to communication around deadlines, a publisher should want to ensure a translator has the time to ask these questions, to dig a little deeper, to have time to ask for help where needed. Not that any translator wants to do a subpar job, but underpaid work is often rushed work, or at least work balanced with competing priorities.
In an ideal world—well, in an ideal world, translated literature is generously funded by the state with all of the money formerly used for militaries, corporate welfare, and prison systems. But in a somewhat better world than our own, arts and cultural funding (and, where possible, publisher pocketbooks) could open a little wider for the services of consulting editors. The economics of small press publishing are tough, but if anyone’s looking for extra space on the margins, publishers should be working (together, even!) on solving some of the persistent problems facing us as entities, distribution costs perhaps chief among them, but there are plenty of areas in which time and money are demanded of publishers that don’t, ultimately, make a material difference for anyone. The assumptions of every part of the business should be challenged, continually.
In either case, publishers absolutely must strive to be meaningful parts of and extenders of the communities of writers, translators, scholars, and editors in which they are embedded, from helping to advocate for fair pay and credit for translators to helping early-career translators find mentors to simply being willing to share resources and contacts, all of which build the good-faith communities that we rely on to make these books a reality.
Joshua Rothes, founder & publisher
Tenement Press, cousin to a magazine called Hotel, is an occasional publisher of experimental, esoteric, accidental, and interdisciplinary literatures. Founded in 2020, the press works to forge a space for new voices and critical approaches to literary forms with an eye on actively ignoring the borderline between creative, critical, poetic and political practices. The series is edited by Dominic J. Jaeckle and designed by Traven T. Croves.
To best consider this ‘challenging aspect,’ I picture a brick wall.
In revising his translation of Ingeborg Bachman’s Malina for the 2019 New Directions edition, Philip Boehm describes the experience as though he was ‘staring at [the work] through a crack in the translation,’ a ‘crack’ he describes as ‘widened by thirty years of scholarship,’ and a crack that is already there, prefigured in the text. ‘I am staring at the wall which is showing a crack,’ writes Bachman (via Boehm); ‘it must be an old crack that now is gently spreading because I keep staring at it.’ The challenging aspect of dealing with a literature, as publisher, is to render this ‘stare’ a collaborative exercise and—in so doing—to engage with this ‘crack’ head on and to encourage its growth. Through conversation, through collaboration, through research, and through reading broadly and widely the aim is ever to listen to a variety of voices consider this ‘crack in the wall.’ In so doing, the emphasis is on co-cogitation; it is beyond the terms of language when we best consider the ways in which this ‘crack’—its placement, its alteration, its dynamism, its biography, how it changes the wall’s reliability as wall—can be drawn through to the page. The hope is to feel the growth of the crack, not just register that it’s there.
That the ‘crack in the wall’ is fostered by attention feels key, to me, and—perhaps—a best means of articulating the positive and oftentimes beautiful forms of collaboration that stem from working with translators (as opposed to a text in translation). Remaining with Malina, in the 1990 Holmes & Meier publication (the first edition of Boehm’s English language translation), Mark Anderson again underlines the significance of the ‘wall’ in his afterword to the novel. Concluding his reflections on Bachman’s work, he argues that the wall seems ‘impassable,’ that it seems definitive and beyond reproach. Citing the novel directly, he notes that the wall is characterised as that ‘from which no one can fall, that which no one can break open,’ but admits that—nevertheless—the wall carries a hairline fault… A ‘hieroglyph’ or fissure as he puts it, all ‘uncanny,’ that reconfigures the wall, that rescinds its authority, that questions how definitive the wall can be as any kind of a boundary or borderline.
I hang onto this image only as I feel that it’s not only significant to my experiences as a reader, but also as publisher. To co-conspire on a broadening of the ‘crack,’ for lack of a better word; to continually reconsider and reassess its legibility; this is the ‘challenging aspect.’ There is no distinct strategy for attending to such a challenge, but rather to maintain a wide-eyed openness to a reading and to the equanimity and variety of trust that accompanies the brand of critical and creative collaboration that resolves in a book and its binding. As a means of picturing the ways in which we can collectively think beyond a language barrier, that the ‘crack’ is ‘widened’—as Boehm puts it—that it is ever widening—is the challenge; that we concentrate on its changes, the key; but that we allow the crack to shift without losing its characteristic crack-ness, the aim. To recognise that it has its own biology, and that its definition remains unmoored.
Dominic Jaeckle, editor
Wakefield Press is an independent American publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities in small, affordable, yet elegant paperback editions. Our publications include the Wakefield Handbooks series (the guidebook as imagined through literature), the Imagining Architecture series (architecture as imagined through literature), and the Imagining Science series (science as imagined through literature), as well as forays into classic experimental fiction (literature as imagined through literature). Authors range from literary giants to those underrepresented (or unknown) in English.
I think there are two levels to the “dealing with” referenced here. The first is the acquiring of a book in a language that I cannot read, as I am generally not eager to take on a project if I am unable to first read it through. This is probably less of an issue for me than with translation publishers more invested in contemporary writing, as Wakefield Press is focused on historical literature, which will often have secondary sources available on it, and my interest in a book isn’t always just whether it is a “good” read or not, but sometimes as much in the role it has played in some of the nineteenth- or twentieth- century domains I’ve been exploring (German Expressionist literature, for example, or women surrealists).
But because I do read French (which is why our catalog is heavy in translations from the French), I have also been able to access works in German, Dutch, and Italian in French translation (and have sometimes come to an author or book through the fact that a French publisher I like saw them into translation). A couple book projects I’m in the process of acquiring were ones I had read in French translation. Having access to another language (especially one with a very literary tradition such as French) can be a portal to other languages and literatures. I first came upon authors such as Paul Scheerbart or Ermanno Cavazzoni in French translation.
The second level of dealing with is addressing and reviewing an English translation when I am unable to read and compare it to the original source text. It will be copyedited as an English-language manuscript, but we always precede that with a review against the source; if the source text is not French, then I need to find a peer reviewer to evaluate the translation (this may need to be done before I acquire the project if I’m working with a translator for the first time). This is standard practice in the academic publishing work, which is where my day job is. The problem there is that the budget for a translation project is already strained (and sometimes hopeless for a small publisher where just breaking even on a translation project is a challenge), so adding in the expense of a peer reviewer is tricky. Compensation for peer reviews in scholarly publishing is generally symbolic (academic publishing doesn’t operate with large budgets either), but peer reviews are very much part of the academic field: what you provide for another author and project is something you in turn will receive the benefits of for your own. But there is a lot of discussion in that arena about compensation for such work: if not monetary, then academic credit (in the way that a published article goes on your resume and plays a role in your advancement through the university system), as peer review is generally handled with anonymity. The problem is that reviewing a translation is a more granular and time-consuming process than the higher-level, more general nature of the input needed in scholarly peer review (which addresses questions of the book’s argument, research, its contribution to the field, its potential market, etc.). The only way to address the time I’m asking a translation reviewer to provide is, I think, though the same philosophical exchange value: the time you provide for what amounts to a symbolic fee will be rewarded through the similar degree of input you’ll receive on your own translation at a later point (most translators value such feedback). Which is about building a network of people you work with. But which makes venturing into a new language awkward.
Marc Lowenthal, co-founder & editor
World Poetry Books is committed to publishing exceptional translations of poetry from a broad range of languages and traditions, bringing the work of modern masters, emerging voices, and pioneering innovators from around the world to English-language readers in affordable trade editions. Founded in 2017, based in New York City, and affiliated with the University of Connecticut (Storrs) where they offer internships and sponsor student translation awards, World Poetry Books is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and charitable organization.
As World Poetry Books is affiliated with the University of Connecticut’s Program in Literary Translation, we have many language specialists in the Department of Literatures, Cultures and Languages who are able to read manuscripts against source texts. We could easily pass every translation project from a language unfamiliar to us to one of our academic colleagues for an evaluation, but we have not done that, nor do we plan to. We mainly publish mid- or advanced-career poet-translators and translators of poetry, and consequently we have only reached out to our language specialists at the University of Connecticut when a translator has felt that extra input, or a native speaker’s second pair of eyes, could be helpful. But we do tend to give feedback to translators on passages that feel unclear or lack a certain spark in English, and we query lines that seem to be out of tune in tone or register or are unclear in meaning. This gives the translator the opportunity to take another look at the source text and give some more thought to certain choices before the book goes to print.
In the 1980s when I began working on my first translation projects, the theoretical buzzword “integral translation” kept popping up: the notion that the ideal translation is “integral” and contains no “additions or deletions transcending the sentence level,” as the Dutch translation scholar Kitty van Leuven-Zwart, who coined the term, defined it. My first translations were from Dutch, and in the Netherlands van Leuven-Zwart had published influential (and compelling) analyses of translations of Cervantes and other Spanish authors into Dutch. Fascinating though such an evaluation of a translation might be from a theoretical perspective, too much worry about integrality on the translator’s or editor’s part can be harmful to a translation, especially for poetry. If we are to insist on an ideal lexical equivalent for every word, a perfect formal correspondence between the source text and its translation, the translated poem will more likely than not cave in, giving a platform to that offensive adage we so often hear, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” In short, getting a translation of a poem “right” from a lexical perspective, capturing every meaning word for word, might be admirable, but it is also dangerous. And forfeiting meaning for important rhythms and meters is equally dangerous. The late John Felstiner, who was a great influence on my generation of translators, has made a good and succinct point in his book Translating Neruda: “Verse translation at its best generates a wholly new utterance in the second language—new, yet equivalent, of equal value.”
Our aim at World Poetry Books is to publish poet-translators and translators of poetry who are sensitive to this idea and work toward this end.
Peter Constantine, publisher
World Poetry Books
 van Leuven-Zwart, K. M. (1989). Translation and original. Target. International Journal of Translation Studies, 1(2), 154.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, August 2, 2022