By Alex Estes
Archipelago Books is a small, independent, Brooklyn-based press founded a decade ago with one mission and one mission only: to publish works exclusively in English translation. For the latter six of its ten years, Archipelago has resided in the Old American Can Factory, a red brick, labyrinthine complex built at the end of the 1800s along the Gowanus Canal, in an area once known as South Brooklyn. Renovated a little less than ten years ago, it now houses art studios, film companies, performance spaces, and a few other bright spots in the American literary landscape: Akashic Books, Ugly Duckling Presse, and the journal One Story.
Archipelago’s office is an open room with a large white support column in its very center. A window takes up the rear wall, while the other three support a complex of shelving practically overflowing with the press’s latest titles. The floor is stacked with cardboard boxes full of books fresh from the printer. Near the front door, five people, at three desks, tap away at computers. It looks, sounds, smells, and feels much like the way one might imagine a busy press should. But in this case, looks are deceiving. Those people tip-tapping away, they aren’t employees; they’re a micro-press startup that subleases the space from Archipelago. And that column in the center of the room, it obscures a desk near the back at which one, maybe two, people could fit comfortably. Turns out, Archipelago Books, a press that has, in a very short time, managed to acquire, translate, design, publish, and market 100 titles from over 35 different countries originally written in 26 different languages, runs primarily on the fuel of one person. And that person’s name is Jill Schoolman.
Publishing as a Nonprofit
In 2003, after three years at Seven Stories Press, Schoolman set out on her own to found Archipelago Books. She decided then to set it up as a nonprofit company. As Archipelago completes its first decade in existence, regarding that decision, she has no regrets. The business model works. In the beginning, book sales made up a third of the company’s income, the other two thirds coming from donations, fundraising events, and support from various foundations (National Endowment for the Arts, NYCulture, the Lannan Foundation, etc.) But as of now, Archipelago is very close to reaching the fifty/fifty mark, a nice balance between sales and contributions. Schoolman believes that by structuring the business as a nonprofit the process of deciding what to publish is made much easier. Anytime anyone publishes a book, it is a risk. Archipelago has the added risk of their books being mostly by lesser-known (read: foreign) authors translated into English for a readership that has only recently begun its relationship with the works of international literature. Schoolman believes that the blame lies with the publishers, not the readers, and, in turn, views what Archipelago does as an offering.
To hear Schoolman explain what she’s trying to do with each title, is to understand from where all the energy needed to run an operation such as this comes. The search for “a singular voice,” Schoolman says with eyes full of electricity, is what drives the engine at Archipelago Books. The mission is not a philosophical one. Nor is it one based on the naive idea that if we all understood one another better the world would suddenly turn utopian. No, this is less everyone shoulder to shoulder singing “We Are the World” and more Mrs. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, after growing upset at her children for manufacturing differences between people, saying that “people, heaven knows, were different enough without that.” The goal, it seems, is to introduce to the world a voice it hasn’t yet heard, or perhaps—in the case of their Musil, Cortazar, and Rilke titles – a voice one hasn’t yet heard in a particular way. As readers experience these new voices, Schoolman hopes, they will begin to see that, though we are different, we are not nearly as different as we sometimes – usually with very little evidence – make up our minds to be.
Of course, accomplishing this feat is far from easy. Before offering the American readership a new voice, first, Archipelago must find one. They do this in a variety of ways: keeping an ear out at international book fairs, speaking with literary agents in other countries, taking suggestions from translators they trust, and reading, reading, reading. In fact, of all these methods, the translators, many of whom Archipelago has had long-standing relations, seem to be the most relied upon and trusted resource. The issue that arises and can sometimes complicate matters regarding finding a new voice through book fairs and agents, is one of money. Schoolman explains that at book fairs, when she listens, hoping to hear of some exciting new novel from some uncharted territory, what she hears, half the time, is people talking about how well the book has sold in the countries it is presently available. This is not Schoolman’s focus. As she makes it very clear, Archipelago is interested in publishing quality literature, regardless of sales figures elsewhere. If Archipelago finds the work not only of literary merit but also worthy of the care and attention they put into publishing a book (a care and attention impossible to speak of too highly), then they will move forward.
First, a translator is selected. Schoolman wants to ensure that the book is in the best, most capable hands. Once that’s been taken care of, the translation process begins. What for many might be considered a long and arduous undertaking, at Archipelago, translation is greeted as part of the fun. Schoolman uses, as often as she can, translators she has already worked with in the past. Translators are so well-respected at Archipelago that, as has been the case with Bill Johnston, Schoolman will sometimes go in search of a book specifically for a translator. Whereas it’s common for one translator to translate a specific author’s works for a certain publisher, one finds in Archipelago’s catalogue certain translators working on a variety of authors. Johnston, for instance, has translated eight works by four different authors; Peter Wortsman has translated five works by as many authors; and Richard Seiburth has translated four works by as many. Schoolman understands translation is not a simple series of flipping sentences as if on the other side of the Dutch coin one might find English. She knows it takes focus and passion and understanding. But she also seems to know that above all else it takes a deep love of language.
Her attitude towards translation is a lot like Walter Benjamin’s: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.” Schoolman understands the concept of “a pure language.” The results of Archipelago’s approach to translation has garnered quite a lot of positive attention. Bogdan Suceavă writes at the Los Angeles Review of Books that “[r]eading [Sean] Cotter’s [translation of] Blinding feels like reading a work originally conceived in English.” The London Review of Books calls Cotter’s translation skills “prodigious.” Attention comes in the form of prizes too, like Alyson Water’s translation of Eric Chevillard’s Prehistoric Times which won the 2012 French-American Foundation’s Translation Prize coupled with the fact that three out of the five years since the award’s inception, an Archipelago book has won the Best Translated Book Award.
Production and Aesthetics
Once the translation is complete and edited, the work is prepped for printing. Schoolman chooses the paper for both the interior and cover. Kendall Storey, the only other full-time employee, who speaks of Schoolman with reverence (and this understandable, Schoolman’s presence practically evokes it), explains that Schoolman is involved at every level of the process and that her knowledge, even of things like the weight and finish of paper as well as the consistency of the coating sprayed on the book jackets, is beyond extensive. After spending ten minutes with her, one can’t help but notice that this isn’t out of a need for control; Schoolman simply loves doing what she does. Schoolman then picks out the artwork to be featured on the book’s jacket, something she has done for every title published thus far. She will finally step back at this point and leave the larger part of the book design to David Bullen, who resides in California and was, for years, North Point Press’s book designer.
The aesthetic of Archipelago, one of both individuation (each work is distinctly its own) and cohesion (there is a noticeable template used every time), plays two roles. First, it’s beautiful. The books are printed on high quality paper, and the covers, each a different color, create a veritable rainbow on a bookshelf without, somehow, having to use any of the primary or secondary colors (who knew there were so many different shades of green, blue, or – pardon the joke – gray?). All of the book jackets have an interesting ridged feel to them, making the books not only visually pleasing, but tactually satisfying as well. They are so visually distinct that American author, Don DeLillo, said he “has a special shelf reserved for books that Archipelago publishes.”
“The design is so distinct …they will be able to identify any Archipelago book they come across from that point forward.”
Marketing and Media
The second, less glamorous role, the aesthetic plays might be, at least from a business standpoint, considered its most important. When marketing lesser-known authors to a translation-shy readership, it’s integral to build trust using anything one can. Once readers have held an Archipelago book in their hands, the design is so distinct and leaves such a lasting impression and they will be able to identify any Archipelago book they come across from that point forward. And so, if they enjoyed a book Archipelago published in the past, chances are they won’t hesitate to grab another, even if it is by a writer with whom they are unfamiliar.
Of course, after the design is complete and the book printed, the real problems arise. Schoolman has found that getting the word out can be a bit of a struggle. The book sections of news outlets are slowly becoming a thing of the past. And at least one book editor at a major newspaper with a thriving book review told Schoolman that it was difficult to find reviewers for foreign literature, which, of course, confused Schoolman, since the books Archipelago publishes are definitely printed in English. Another problem is radio. Some stations are hesitant to do interviews with an author who requires an interpreter. But there is hope. Sometimes, and Schoolman is quick to say she’s seen no discernible pattern regarding predicting such events, a book will explode in popularity. In 2006, Lorraine Adams wrote a review of Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun and it was chosen as the cover piece for that weeks New York Times Book Review. This was a boon. Then there’s Karl Ove Knausgaard (as much as an English speaker might want it to be, that K is not silent). Knausgaard’s My Struggle, an autobiographical novel, six volumes long (two of which are now available from Archipelago that, over the next few years, will be publishing the remaining four, the third coming out in May) has seen, in America, the kind of attention author’s from anywhere dream about obtaining. The work has been covered, quite extensively, by every major and minor outlet America has.
But there is hope even for the books that don’t receive this kind of consideration from the media. Where readers connect online through book-based social networking sites, Archipelago has found loyal supporters. Also, book-bloggers, a position in the literary world that has seen a growth in legitimization over the past few years, have been instrumental in spreading the word about international literature. As for getting foreign authors to American soil to do book tours, some countries have organizations, like NORLA in Norway, that assist their authors with the finances needed to travel to the States. Schoolman also noted that events are a huge help. Discerning readers have recently come to respect the translator in a way they haven’t before, and now, when Archipelago holds translator events, readers come out to show their support. There are many ways to build a readership, and Archipelago is doing an amazing job at finding them all.
Ten years in and it doesn’t look like Archipelago is slowing down. This past year Random House became their distributor, which will hopefully get them closer to what Schoolman calls “the next level.” She can see that it’s right there, and she knows Archipelago will reach it. It’s only a matter of time. But no matter what happens in the future, it is safe to say that the American reader is better off with Archipelago in the picture, large or small. Salman Rushdie said that “[i]t is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation,” but that he clings “obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.” One can credit Archipelago Books, at even the most very basic level of giving readers the very opportunity of “getting lost” in the translation.
FURTHER READING: Ugly Ducking Presse Transforms into a Digital Swan
Alex Estes is a poet and literary critic living in New York City.