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Serious Editors Talking Seriously About Serious Subjects

The English-language editors meeting at S. Fischer Verlag

The English-language editors meeting at S. Fischer Verlag.

When seven North American editors visited Germany for meetings with their colleagues in publishing, key similarities and differences were revealed.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Earlier this month I returned from one of them more intense weeks of my life, one in which I’d heard names repeated time and time again — Adorno, Habermas, Žižek, among others — that I hadn’t given much thought to since I finished graduate school some 20 years ago.

It was the German Editors’ Trip, an annual event hosted by the German Book Office in New York and funded by the German Foreign Office. The intent was to introduce a small group of North American editors to their German counterparts in publishing for a discussion of issues surrounding literature in translation. That’s its taken me so long to get something up on this website is a testament to just how intense the experience was — I needed nearly a month to recover, I kid you not.

The group of North Americans (and one European) included Sarah MacLachlan, Publisher of Toronto’s House of Anansi; Aaron Petrovich, Associate Editor of Brooklyn’s Akashic Books; Michael Wise, co-founder of New Vessel Press; Erika Goldman, publisher of Bellevue Literary Press; Sarah Fan, editor at The New Press; Will Evans, publisher of Deep Vellum; and Sebastian Budgen, senior editor at Verso Books.

It’s not often on a business trip that I often overhear serious conversations about Marxist Philosophy (though, I will admit it has happened once in recent memory, after repeated nightcaps at hotel bar in New York) or about 1,200 page epic novels by a Georgian writer described as the “Tolstoy of Tibilisi.”

Hachette/Amazon was mentioned maybe once or twice, but was hardly the focus of the conversations.

The fact is these were serious people talking about serious topics seriously.

Over the course of five days we met with dozens of publishers, editors and marketers in the German market, starting with Suhrkamp Verlag in Berlin and ending with Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt in Frankfurt. In between, we met Aufbau Verlag, S. Fischer Verlag, and representatives from a dozen more companies. We visited the well-know Dussmann Kulturkaufhas bookstore in Berlin — where the director of the English-language bookstore complained about the poor quality of the American imports (“look here, if you leave a book out the pages just currrrrllll….,” she said with a bit of derision) and the Frankfurt Literaturhaus.

The main theme of discussions throughout our week emerged rather quickly: “Why,” the German publishers wanted to know, “was there not more of a sustained interest in translating and reading German books in the United States?”

Of course, the German publishers were talking to a group of like-minded individuals, one’s intent on finding the right German books to translate for their publishing houses. As it happened, this did not prove easy. Many of the German novels pitched to our publishers were what North Americans would call “door stops” — the trend in literary German fiction appears to be one that requires authors to produce 600+ page books at a minimum. That the German titles are published in hardcover editions that are of a smaller trim size than American titles can prove somewhat deceptive to American publishers, with the German publishers arguing that the books only appeared longer than they were because of the size of the books.

But the size of the titles wasn’t the only issue. As it happened, just one of our editors read German fluently enough to judge a book in its original, while just one other of the editors could speak German (or what she called “street German”). That said, this wasn’t because this group of editors was in any way provincial, they just had a different preference: most of them could read and/or speak French.

The issue came up time and time again: why not German? And, by extension, why does Germany — which has perhaps the second largest (and, considering the ownership structure of publishing, perhaps most powerful) book business in the world, does Germany get such short-shrift in the North America?

Were I to speculate, I would suggest that is has something to do with — despite its intellectual pedigree — a distinct lack of any romanticism of German culture in North America. Unlike France, which we as North Americans are fed the cliché that it is a beautiful country with a beautiful language filled with writers who produce beautiful books (all of which is highly debatable), the clichés about Germany are somewhat less flattering or, at least, dated.

Of course, that answer is hardly an excuse for the perceived lack of engagement with the German publishing community in general. And truth be told, on a similar trip I took to Paris several years ago when I met with French publishers, the same question was raised: why don’t North Americans publish more French literature in translation?

It seems, no matter how robust American publishing is — even as it was represented here by dedicated editors with a vested interest in finding the right books for their houses (however modest in size they might be) — one will never quite be satisfied with how many books get picked up for translation. And that is how it should be: after all, shouldn’t every editor think every book they publish deserves the widest audience possible?

And there are simply some cultural taboos that are hard to understand for not native American publishers. Just one example is the lack of interest among North Americans in Eichborn’s satirical take on the reappearance of Hitler in contemporary Berlin, Er ist wieder da by Timur Vermes, a book that has been sold for translation in dozens of countries (including the UK, where it has proven a hit). Why, the foreign rights director wanted to know, has this book not been bought by anyone in the United States as of yet?

Of course, there was even more revealed about the differences between the character of North American editors and publishers and their German counterparts — so much so that a single story post would not be able to convey the depth of the experience. So, over the next month be recounting several of our meetings and encounters, up to the farewell dinner where the conversation over dessert turned dark as several editors at the table recounted their experiences dealing with bereavement. (As I said, this was serious group intent on discussing serious stuff.)

Despite the perceived differences, if I took away anything from the this trip was a sense of our shared mission as editors and publishers — and our shared humanity in the face of a world that seems increasingly hostile to the type of serious publishing in which these men and women engage.

Look for more from Germany in the coming weeks.

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  1. Posted July 30, 2014 at 3:14 am | Permalink

    Good to see some important topics being discussed here. Yes, most certainly, more should be translated from German – from any language for that matter. We English speakers miss out on so much! How sad that only one editor was fluent in German.
    By the way, shouldn’t it be German Editors’ trip?

  2. Posted July 30, 2014 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    I look forward to the future posts arising from this meeting. I think the guest post by Leonie Langer in mid-June points to one way forward… German publishers themselves offering books in English, either originals or translations. Surely there are aspects of digitization and globalization which can be embraced and welcomed in this regard.

  3. Posted July 30, 2014 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post, Ed. I’ve been studying German since high school, and I hope I’ll soon be fluent enough that I can read German books in the original, so I’d love to take this trip myself one day. (I’m currently struggling through Uwe Tellkamp’s ‘Der Turm’, one of Suhrkamp’s doorstops which is about to be released in English.)

  4. Posted July 30, 2014 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    I‘m surprised “Er ist wieder da” has not sold in the U.S., however, does it matter? It is on the English market. Isn’t distribution nowadays globalized to that extent that is does not make a difference?

  5. tone
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    looking forward to more of that subject…altho, some of the queries in your present article seem disingenuous in the extreme. 2 things to keep in mind (and, oh, yeah, don’t be afraid to voice out loud): americans are not the brightest/smartest/coolest readers on the planet. (I run a book shop, take my word for it) Besides The Elegance of the Hedgehog or a Wolf Haas mystery, our readers/buyers prefer titles and topics easier and more American….second: just as a majority of American novels contain some reference to slavery/black+white relations, a large portion of European novels still deal the WWII in some way. Both “frames of reference” are totally understandable.

  6. Richard Langston
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Having spent an inordinately long time translating and helping a small US press bring out a big translation of German theory to an English-language reading public, I’m especially drawn to this problem. I’m curious why this dialogue between German and US peers didn’t include academics, especially when the matter pertained to non-fiction academic titles. What US presses (not to be confused with UK presses) are willing to pick up in translation is sometimes a mystery to me – a professor of German literature and twentieth-century philosophy – and very often it seems that US presses are informed by quirky internal taste guidelines or theoretical predispositions without a broader sense of what possible significance a other passed over titles not yet translated from the German into English would have for a North American audience. It’s clear that series editors – usually academics – at some presses do collaborate with acquisition editors in order to help make informed decisions about what gets translated, but the field is wide and given the dearth of US outlets good choices at a few presses still leave lots left to be translated that for whatever reason doesn’t make it across the Atlantic in translation. Some of us academics familiar with the intricacies of German discourses should be part of this important effort at problem solving.

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