On the Many Love Stories Around Translated Books

On the Many Love Stories Around Translated Books

by Gabriela Adamo

I’m not speaking, of course, of those books that are sure bets…

It has often been said that translations are love stories, with translators and their intimate, detailed, obsessive relationships with their texts as the main characters. But as in every story, more players are needed for love to unfold. Players that are often as invisible as the translators themselves, or that must put up with dire roles like being the bad guys in the plot: I’m thinking of publishers and editors. We tend to forget that for books to start the long journey to reach readers in another language—and to do it somehow successfully—they need the enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic commitment of those who will publish and distribute them.

I’m not speaking, of course, of those books that are sure bets: texts written by established authors or guaranteed bestsellers that are sold and bought by the top executives at a few multinational publishing houses. Nor am I speaking of those titles which are bought with lukewarm conviction, sometimes without reading, just to fill up the open spots in a catalog (often by these same multinationals). I’m speaking about other books: those whose authors are little known outside of their zone of influence but elicit honest and passionate recommendations that somehow manage to reach the ears of attentive publishers. Books that are read by those publishers, who fall in love right away and can’t stop thinking of them while trying to figure out if their readers would like them too. Books for which they start to mentally seek out the best possible translator and to try out alternative titles in their own language, until the tough question comes up: will they sell? And that other question too, the most important one: if they don’t, is it worth it anyway? Will they be proud to have these books in their catalogs?

Of course, I’m not pretending that all publishers do read non-English books in their original language (although a bit more multilingualism would be nice in the Anglo-American publishing scene). But really good publishers do know how to engage and interpret samples handed in by translators, reports by bilingual readers they trust, passionate descriptive mails by international colleagues and rambly hints exchanged over drinks. In fact, I’ve seen publishers who don’t speak a word of a foreign language skillfully picking out the best works of an international catalog, as well as finding mistakes in a translation even when they can’t read the original (call this the magic of the text, but that’s material for another article).

Anyway, I was reminded of this whole process a few days ago while visiting the fabulous Elliot Bay Bookstore in Capitol Hill, Seattle. I had a specific aim: finding books in English by Argentinian authors to give to a friend who doesn’t read Spanish. I addressed the saleswoman feeling quite silly; there is obviously no such category as “translated authors from Argentina.” But to my surprise, the woman not only returned a friendly look, but checked on her computer and wrote down quite a long list of names that were neither Cortázar nor Borges, the two big international staples in my country’s literature. She told me I’d find them shelved alphabetically in the fiction section. I went straight away to the letter “A” looking for a title by one of the most literary contemporary writers in our country, César Aira, and there were… fourteen books by him! This was an independent bookstore in the American Northwest, closer to Alaska than to New York: I couldn’t believe my eyes. I bought Aira—they had my favorite novel, Birthday—as well as books by Mariana Enríquez, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, Claudia Piñeiro, and Samanta Schweblin. I felt as if I had suddenly run into a bunch of old friends.

When I went home, I searched through the New Directions website and saw that the exquisite New York- based house has published nineteen books by Aira so far. Most of them have been translated by the Australian Chris Andrews; the others, by Nick Caistor and Katherine Silver. Now, as it turns out, Chris, Nick, and Barbara Epler—long time publisher and current president of ND—all participated in an adventure we organized many years ago in Argentina, called TyPA’s Editors Week. TyPA stands for Theory and Practice of the Arts and is the brainchild of Américo Castilla: an artist himself in his younger years, he devoted his career to the modernization of museums in Latin America and to the creation of different platforms that help local artists to be better appreciated both in their countries of origin and abroad. In its almost twenty years of existence, the Fundación TyPA has launched programs that have provided invaluable support to people working in the visual arts as well as in the film and publishing industries. The programs have always carefully targeted that area of contact where serious, professional, and creative arts management becomes crucial for the most visionary and original art to unfold; that is, good art needs organizational support to thrive and that’s where TyPA tries to help. Drawing from the most interesting international best practices but with eyes and ears finely tuned towards the particular conditions of South America, the Fundación has done incredible work in our region.

The literature program was active until 2017. Its focus was on translation, both to and from Argentinian Spanish; our main interest was to raise international awareness of the quality of Argentinean writers and, at the same time, stimulate local publishers to work more professionally on the promotion of their authors’ international rights. Argentina is a country geographically distant from the decision-making centers of the publishing world; most local publishers are small in size, and their owners tend to be overwhelmed by the chaos of national politics and economy, which makes long-term planning impossible. In this context, TyPA worked to build bridges of different sorts between international readers and Argentina’s incredible array of local writers. Most of our initiatives can be seen here.

The most relevant of them was TyPA’s Editors Week, an invitation program for professionals from around the world. Almost two hundred publishers, editors, and translators from cities as far afield as Sao Paulo, Québec, Milan, Oslo, or Sydney visited Buenos Aires; each of these visits was a unique experience for everyone involved. With some of them we kept in touch, meeting at the usual international pre-Covid book fairs or sharing our readings and recommendations via email. But it has not been easy to keep track of the program’s effects: translations are a slow process, decisions take time, and it becomes impossible—or arrogant—to assertively state that such and such deals were the result of the Semana. In a way, we could only harbor an intuition and hope that these bridges would eventually pave the way to more translations.

I guess this explains why the sight of these names—Epler, Andrews, Caistor, all grouped around the translations of Aira I had seen in the Seattle bookstore—made me feel so happy: it was a confirmation of those hopeful illusions. Our bridges had in fact been helpful, they did foster a handful of beautiful love stories. Stories that took a long time to unfold, that involved many participants and required enormous patience. Because what looks so simple—a translated book in a bookstore—is the result of a long game of slow moves, whose effects take years to become visible and where the most unthought-of connections may come to fruition if one holds on, with infinite tenacity and tolerance for all kinds of frustrations, to the red thread of love for a text.

Group of international publishers and editors visiting the home of Victoria Ocampo

Back at home with my bag of books, I decided to write to Barbara Epler, whom I hadn’t been in touch with for years. I needed to ask her what was behind these nineteen titles: did César Aira really sell well enough for her to keep investing in his work like this? The answer came back quickly and warmly, and it was very straightforward: they do alright with the author, Epler said, but “enthusiasm isn’t really based on his sales—it’s just that we love his work; we find his whole enterprise so quixotic and so striped with genius that we continue along.” Chris Andrews shares this love: he has translated eleven of Aira’s books into English and his version of Fulgentius—to be published by ND in March—will be his twelfth. He assures us that while translating this author, “the happiness is continuous.” His enthusiasm is contagious: “Visual artists and curators read him; poets find him stimulating; creative people are fascinated by his method and his style in the broad sense: the flight-forward procedure, the proliferation of little books, the sheer unpredictability.” 

Even so, it is not easy to find English-language readers for an author whose work is as prolific as it is hard to pin down. “He is a cult author rather than a mass-market phenomenon in the English-speaking world,” says Andrews. And yet, “largely thanks to the patient commitment of New Directions, he now has fans scattered right across that world, in the USA and Canada, Britain and Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, India and Pakistan” (Picture my happiness again here: our work as a small contribution to this amazing irradiation). Epler insists that they can sustain their effort because of the strong support they get for the author: César Aira “is a darling of independent booksellers and also of reviewers.” Stories about his books appeared in The New Yorker, The Guardian, LA Review of Books and many other venues. But the most important thing is that bookstores—as I could witness in Seattle and in other outlets across the US—are permanently re-ordering his titles. “I would say that Aira’s work is continuing to percolate in a steady, unspectacular way through anglophone literary culture,” says Andrews. “Independent bookstores like Brazos in Houston, or Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, or Gleebooks in Sydney, or Hillbillies in Gairloch, Scotland, have been crucial in spreading the word, enlarging the freemasonry of Aira readers.” 

A few days after our first exchange, Barbara sent me another email accompanied by what was almost a historical document: pictures of some of the emails we had sent to each other in that early era—the year 2007—while organizing her trip to Buenos Aires as a guest of the program. We spoke about practical matters like the drive from the airport to the hotel, and other issues that promised more fun like the schedule of readings by local authors, visits to historical landmarks, and meetings with publishers of all kinds. Among those emails was one where she asked César Aira for a meeting, citing the warm recommendation of Dominique Bourgois, another great publisher who had participated in the program. More threads became visible, always strengthening the web of cross-references and shared enthusiasms. (Christian Bourgois Editeurs has published thirteen of Aira’s books in French, with the collaboration of translators such as Michel Lafon and Christilla Vasserot.)

“We do believe he’s unlike any other author on the planet,” was Barbara’s closing remark, “and it’s great to be his home here.” To be the home for a writer in another language is to make room in one’s own catalog knowing that each of the writer’s books will, in turn, help shape that same catalog. It means working closely with agents, translators, booksellers, and critics; fostering relations with other passionate readers so that, together, new readers can be attracted. It can, of course, also mean disappointments: when a book one cared for so much receives no attention at all or—just as painful, but for other reasons—it succeeds years later in the hands of another publisher. It means being professional, no doubt: paying royalties on time, offering proper rates to translators and all those important things that, when not taken care of properly, will ruin the effort. But above all, playing host to a translated author is to be an essential character in these long, slow, complex, and definitely worthwhile literary love stories.

Gabriela Adamo is a translator and editor based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Always obsessed with the circulation of good books, she founded the Literature Program at Fundación TyPA and served as the executive director for the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, which she left to run Fundación Filba, a private foundation dedicated to the organization of literary festivals and literary promotion in South America. She has translated numerous books from English and German into Spanish and written articles about the book industry. She is currently finishing her PhD in Latin American Literature and Criticism at Universidad de San Andrés. 

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 14, 2023

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