By Colleen Devine Ellis
When The University of Texas Press (UT Press) started publishing Latin American Literature in translation in the 1960s there weren’t many other publishers competing for acquisitions. That had changed by the time UT Press reassessed its LiT program in 2010. They found a vibrant if small industry that was bringing important work into English and publicizing and distributing these books through traditional publishing channels.
UT Press looked back at the decades of translated books they had published, many of which had gone out of print and were no longer available except for used copies, if copies could be found at all. As part of a press-wide effort to bring back into print hundreds of out-of-print books that UT Press had the rights to, 39 titles were reintroduced as part of the Clásicos/Clássicos Latin American Masterpieces in English Series. UT Press sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell says “Almost every title also has an ebook edition for the first time, a major effort to make these titles as accessible to readers as possible. Some ebook editions are now outselling the print versions.”
There was a significant investment in not only tracking down and updating rights and contracts, but also scanning the printed books to create electronic files and to design a cohesive look for the series. The series and cover re-designs give the books a boost. Challenges in getting the rights to both the print and ebook editions included researching who had the rights to expired contracts and tracking down heirs to writers’ estates in other countries.
Some of the original titles were lost to other publishers in the 1990’s, particularly NYRB Classics (The Invention of Morel by Adolf Bioy Casares) and Dalkey Archive Press (Paradiso by José Lezama Lima). In spite of these challenges UT Press didn’t lose any of the books slated for the series and also acquired electronic rights to most of them.
Authors and books in the series include Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges (Other Inquisitions 1937-1952), Uruguayan Horace Quiroga (The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories), Mexico’s Elena Garro (Recollections of Things to Come) and Octavio Paz (The Bow and the Lyre and The Siren and the Seashell), Guatemala’s Augusto Monterroso (Complete Works and Other Stories), Brazil’s Graciliano Ramos (Barren Lives), Machadode Assis (The Devil’s Church and Other Stories) and Clarice Lispector (Family Ties), and Peru’s Clorinda Matto de Turner (Bird Without a Nest). The series as a whole represents nearly a century of Latin American literature. Kittrell says, “Another motivation for this series was that the translators of some of these books are/were themselves literary stars who have translated for Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, and others. Edith Grossman, Gregory Rabassa, Margaret Sayers Peden, for example. This is their work, too.”
UT Press also continued to acquire and publish new literature in translations. One of Kittrell’s favorite books is One Hundred Bottles by Cuban author Ena Lucía Portela, translated by Achy Obejas (who also translated into Spanish Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008) and published by UT Press in 2010. Kittrell saw an article in New York Magazine in which esteemed translator Esther Allen said of Ena Lucía Portela’s Cien Botellas en una Pared, “It’s a brilliant, scathing Havana fever dream about a lost, overweight girl in love with an abusive, bearded older man—so brilliant that the allegorical aspect of the book doesn’t strike you until after you’ve closed it.” He contacted Portela’s agent and ended up with the English publishing rights to the book after talking with Obejas about taking on the translation.
In order to produce the book and pay the translator, UT Press used money from a subsidy, part of a NEA grant, and also fundraised to support the book. It has found a small audience since it was published in 2010 (there is not an ebook edition).
The book received media attention, some favorable, some not, but marketing is still a challenge. Translated books need to be seen as literature, not translations, to reach a wider audience. Sales are also impacted because classroom use is less for more recently published books than some of the other literature in translation titles that have been in print for a decade or more and are an accepted part of the cannon.
Literature in translation is a challenging area for publishers but thanks to print-on-demand technology UT Press can ensure that classics of past decades will continue to stay in print and be read by new generations.