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“I Do Wonder if Writers and Translators are Too Divided…”

By Dennis Abrams

Wakefield Press is a small, independent American publisher specializing in “the translation of overlooked gems and literary oddities in small, affordable, yet elegant paperback editions.”  Their series include “Imagining Science” — literature imagined through science, with such titles as Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris and Charles Fourier’s The Hierarchies of Cuckoldry and Bankruptcy, and “The Library of Cruelty: tales of love, crime, war, and madness, from the surreal to the sarcastic.”

Recently, publisher Marc Lowenthal sat down with “Publishing the World” to answer five questions. Here are some highlights:

What do you look for in translation projects, and how do you go about finding them?

I basically look for whatever interests me. That’s the primary advantage that an independent publishing venture like Wakefield Press offers, and what sort of offsets the bleak financial outlook such a venture entails…But one thing I look for in general, perhaps, is a degree of eccentricity. Some authors are out-and-out eccentric: the very lovable Scheerbart, for instance, whose writings continue to elude classification a century later — utopian science fiction spliced with modernist architectural theory, and written in a voice that slips oddly between irony and a sincere outsider-artist-like naiveté. So I think I tend to be drawn to the Paul Scheerbarts of the world of literature more than to the Thomas Manns. But when it does come to the more canonical authors — Balzac, for instance — I’m interested in the overlooked, eccentric corners to their oeuvre. I’m also drawn to texts that tend not to fit neatly into any easily defined category—novel, poetry, how-to manual, manifesto — but either ape or explore the limits to such formats. Which can make for awkwardness when it comes to bookstore shelving. 

Why do you think America has been so historically closed to translations, and do you see this changing?

I think the history hasn’t been uniform over the decades, and has been very tied to funding, industry business models, and distribution, all of which varies wildly, even just in comparison to a neighboring country like Canada.

But I do wonder if there is maybe too much of a division between “writers” and “translators” in the US. My feeling is that writers have something of an obligation to dip their toes into translation at least at some point in their careers (it’s important to spread words that aren’t just one’s own) — it’s certainly something they should consider undertaking during any of those infamous spells of writer’s block — and I wonder if that writerly obligation isn’t really absorbed in the US as it is in Europe (and obviously can’t be if a writer is limited to one language): it seems like it is more common to see translations listed among an author’s list of previously published books in Europe than here. It’s nice to see that Jonathan Franzen has translated Wedekind or Julian Barnes has translated Alphonse Daudet, but these instances sometimes feel like blips on the general American literary scene.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Check out Wakefield Press’ catalog here.

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