After Six Years, Germany’s KiWi Cashes In on Infinite Jest

In Europe by Amanda DeMarco

By Amanda DeMarco

Helge Malchow

Helge Malchow

COLOGNE: It was “not self-evident” that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest would enter the German literary world, says Helge Malchow, publisher at Cologne-based Kiepenheuer & Witsch (KiWi). Buchmarkt named Malchow Publisher of the Year in 2005, the same year a Welt Online article called him “the Bismarck of German publishing, its lord and savior.” About 50% of KiWi’s list is literature in translation and the other half is in German. Along with Rowohlt Verlag in Hamburg, KiWi is one of the major German publishers of contemporary English and American literary fiction. It counts J. D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Safran Foer among its authors, and this August it published a long awaited translation of Infinite Jest, (Unendlicher Spass).

KiWi didn’t expect Infinite Jest to be the commercial success in Germany that it is. Although pre-publication sales expectations were for only between 5,000-10,000 copies, they’ve sold over 50,000 copies since the book came out August 24th. “Among American literary writers, David Foster Wallace belongs to that small number who are worth publishing beyond economical logic,” said Malchow, explaining KiWi’s motivation for publishing a book that that appeared to be not just a risk, but an almost likely financial loss.

Translator Ulrich Blumenbach labored for six years on the 1,552-page tome. During that time, Wallace refused all of Blumenbach’s efforts to communicate with him, and as of Wallace’s September 2008 suicide, the two had never met or spoken. In an August Spiegel interview Blumenbach pondered Wallace’s rebuff: “I believe that he was a reflective, cosmopolitan man, but also very America-centered and insular.”

Malchow, however, offered a different explanation: “There were a lot of other translations in other countries in previous years that had all failed, more or less…so [Wallace] stopped communicating with the translators and had no big expectations about the possibility of an adequate translation, ever.” Whatever Wallace’s reservations might have been, Malchow is unequivocal about Blumenbach’s work: “The quintessential reason [for Infinite Jest’s success] beyond all the other factors was the outstanding quality of the translation.”

When asked why KiWi felt it could successfully publish a book that posed so many challenges to translate, Malchow emphasized the house’s long history of successfully publishing difficult American writers:Layout 1 “Why shouldn’t we?”

KiWi’s marketing for Infinite Jest is particularly savvy:  Taking a cue from Infinite Summer (an English-language book-club-type blog that encouraged people to read Infinite Jest at a rate of 75 pages per week during summer 2009 and posted commentary by several different writers to guide readers through the book), KiWi created the blog 100 Tage Unendlicher Spass (100 Days of Infinite Jest), which offers regular posts by writers and thinkers as they make their way through the translation, along with links to interviews and auxiliary materials to give the reader context. In addition, KiWi put together a free booklet that it sent pre-publication to bookstores, critics, and journalists to help prepare them to read the book.

KiWi’s own marketing efforts were aided by the media storm created by Wallace’s suicide, which sparked a wave of reviews of his work. KiWi had published five of Wallace’s books over the previous seven years, none of them to any great commercial success. Suddenly, Wallace got the attention of the German readership as he never had before, just in time for the publication of Infinite Jest.

KiWi’s Innovative marketing efforts aren’t limited to Infinite Jest; in September Publishing Perspectives reported on KiWi author Rainer Schmidt’s filming of 300 people reading his novel Liebestanze (Love Dances).

Malchow emphasized that such creative approaches have to be appropriate to the book. Schmidt’s title focused on techno in the nineties and its readership could be expected to be internet savvy. Other books require different methods. Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms (forthcoming from Knopf in 2010) is the sequel to the 1985 Less than Zero. KiWi is considering publishing their translation in a “double edition” with the earlier book to make sure they are aware of it when reading Imperial Bedrooms.

KiWi has also had critical success this past year with homegrown German talent as well, particularly with author Kathrin Schmidt who won the prestigious German Book Prize 2009 for Du stirbst nicht (You Don’t Die).

Malchow explained KiWi’s philosophy behind building its German literature list: “We are looking for narrative fiction. German fiction sometimes tends to be experimental. It tends to be very self-referential in terms of language, and there is a certain distance in German writing…from the narrative quality of fiction.”

Whether taking big risks for innovative English translations or searching for classic storytelling in their German titles, KiWi seems to have found a winning strategy.

VISIT: KiWi’s Web site.

READ: KiWi’s Infinte Jest– inspired blog “Unendlicherspass”

BONUS:Is Posthumously Publishing Unfinished Work Fair to the Author?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.