Elena Ferrante” Model: How Independent Publishers Excel In Promoting International Literature
Moderator: Ruediger Wischenbart, Director of International Affairs, BookExpo America, and founder Content and Consulting
Michael Reynolds, Editor-in-chief, Europa Editions (publisher)
Esther Allen, translator
Stephanie Valdez, co-owner, Community Bookstore (Park Slope, Brooklyn)
The vertical integration of a translator, publisher, and bookseller made for some good synergy. Book Expo was smart to create a panel that could walk the audience through these linked but very different perspectives. For the most part, what follows are paraphrases as close to the original speaker’s voice as possible. Exact quotes are in quote marks, and my summaries are in brackets.
RW: The feeling that US readers don’t want books by authors whose names they can’t pronounce is going away.
MR: In the 12 years since Europa was founded, a number of independent publishers have arisen that specialize in translation. There’s also been a flowering of translations at larger houses such as Norton and Penguin. Works in translation are no longer exclusively avant-garde. We’re seeing more genre fiction and a broader readership. Eventually, we will stop having panels like this and just talk about good books.
On the formula for success with publishing translations: There’s no secret recipe, and it wouldn’t be any fun if there were. Successes at least appear to come up out of nowhere [though many factors go into those successes].
EA There’s a new role for the translator: as scout. The scouts can’t read books in 130 languages, but translators [collectively] can. And there are resources to expand translation, such as the Pen/Heim Translation Fund. An anthropologist/translator, Annie Tucker, ran across a novel in Indonesia that entranced her. She went to the Fund to get support to bring Beauty is a Wound to the attention of editors. The editor who accepted it actually bet her annual bonus on the book’s success. It has won numerous awards and—because it was translated into English—was retranslated into 24 other languages.
RW: English has developed a much stronger role as a transfer language. It used to be that if you had a book in Hungarian, you’d try to get it translated into French or German.
EA: People have an interest in what affects them. US interest in eastern cultures got much stronger after 9/11, just as the interest in Latin American writers increased enormously after the Cuban Revolution.
Translation “punches well above its weight,” in the words of a study by the Man Booker Prize. Although only 3.5% of fiction published in English is translated, that little sliver accounted for 5% of total fiction sales and 7% of literary fiction sales in 2015.
SV: I think this is because the exceptional, unique books are the ones that have found a publisher and an audience.
At least one New York City bookstore shelves translations by geography. We don’t. “I don’t want to make translations into special snowflakes.” But readers are looking for someone to trust, so when a publisher has great brand authority—Europa, New York Review of Books Classics, New Directions—“we shelve by publisher. Readers know the caliber is going to be high. We have discerning readers who are looking for something new and different. It’s a really useful way to set translations apart.”
“When things change in our store is when three booksellers [of 10 on staff] with different tastes all agree to support a book. We’ve sold almost 2000 copies of Ferrante [in a 1200-square-foot store]. The conversation shifts from ‘you might like this’ to ‘we love this book and it’s a must-read.’”
EA: Translators can bring obscure books [back from the dead] if the publisher brand has enough cachet. Antonio di Benedetto was first published in 1956 but never translated into English until New York Review of Books Classics recently released his novel. He is now emerging independently of that publisher, because of its cachet. I’m currently translating him for the Paris Review.
David Unger, audience member: There are a lot of resources to fund translators, including the New York State Council on the Arts.
EA: Independent publishers have the top seven slots on the Three Percent Translation Database.
Shel Horowitz’s coverage of Book Expo since 1997 can be found at http://frugalmarketing.com/dtb/dtb-publishing.shtml. His award-winning 10th book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World.