Talking Turkey: Istanbul’s Amy Spangler on Founding a Literary Agency Abroad

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By Amy Marie Spangler

ISTANBUL: When I arrived in Istanbul in August of 1999, just a few months after graduating from college, I had not planned to launch a literary agency in Turkey.

My plan was to brush up on my Turkish for a year before pursuing graduate studies in Germanics. (Sounds odd, I know, but I wanted to focus on migration literature in Germany, a good bit of which is written by authors hailing from Turkey, in both German and Turkish.) Certainly, I knew some Turkish already, as I’d been an American Field Service high school exchange student in Ankara (where I was sent rather by chance when the Cairo program was abruptly canceled in 1994 — call it kismet, I guess), so it wasn’t too much of a culture shock. In any case, it soon became clear to me that one year in Istanbul just wouldn’t be enough, and so I put off applying to grad school for another year, and then another, and then indefinitely.

For a little over a year I made a living teaching English. Meanwhile I also started dabbling in translation, trying my hand at rendering into English some of the Turkish literature I was reading. Gradually I began to get translation jobs, (commercial stuff, not literature, which remained more of a hobby), and then I was offered a job at a small publishing company, Citlembik, where I began working as an editor. That was my first venture into publishing and immediately I was hooked. After four years of invaluable experience, learning the ropes and the intricacies of the industry known as publishing, I quit my job at Ciltlembik to start my own agency, AnatoliaLit.

My initial purpose in starting AnatoliaLit was to promote Turkish literature abroad, frankly in the hopes of getting some of the works that I had translated or wanted to translate published in English. I didn’t have any trouble getting Turkish authors interested; plenty were eager to get on board.

However, my own naivety and lack of business acumen made for a less than ideal start. First of all, I didn’t realize how incredibly difficult it was to get books published in English translation. After all, I’d never worked in that direction. I remember being completely floored when I found that translations made up only three percent of books published in English!

So, yes, I was rather naive about the true dimensions of the challenge before me. I was also greedily trying to do all of these sample translations by myself, yet I didn’t have the nerve to actually ask the authors to pay for them. So there I was, spending the majority of my time translating for free works that I had a slim chance of selling in English translation, which was essentially my goal when I set out. All in all, it did not add up to a good business plan. I had to take a step back and rethink the whole thing through.

During what I like to call Phase Two of AnatoliaLit, which began in the summer of 2005, I joined forces with my life partner, Dilek Akdemir, who became my partner in business as well, as co-owner of AnatoliaLit, a limited company. Originally the business had been a kind of individual enterprise in Dilek’s name, because I as a foreigner was unable to start a company of that status. A change in laws then made it possible for foreigners to become partners in limited companies though, and so we changed the company’s status, a more costly endeavor, but one that would allow for me to become legal co-owner of what was now a company proper.

During this second phase, we took a three-prong approach:

  1. We would represent foreign publishers and agencies in Turkey as co-agents selling Turkish rights.
  2. We would continue to represent Turkish authors abroad, but at a much slower pace, taking on only what I could handle and was genuinely passionate about.
  3. We would take on both literary and commercial translations that we would actually get paid for –- to pay the bills. This is model still holds true for us today and has proven profitable for us (knock on wood).

Today we are a four-person company acting as Turkish co-agent for a stellar list of publishers and agencies both large and small, and representing a growing list of some of the finest authors from Turkey, past and present.

In addition to our Turkish authors, we have also recently added to our list Kurdish author Mehmed Uzun, a truly great writer who fostered the recent rise of the modern Kurdish novel. Over the past year, now back on our feet thanks to the launch of Phase Two, we have been able to devote more time and energy to promoting our authors from Turkey, and gradually we are beginning to see the fruits of our labor.

Naturally, we face the same problems that anyone trying to do this job faces when trying to promote our authors abroad, especially as we are dealing in Turkish, a “non-major” source language, the first of which is getting editors to read or have our titles read.

With few exceptions, publishers rarely have Turkish readers, which means you have to provide translations of lengthy excerpts if not works in full, in order to get them considered for publication.

There are also often certain expectations, I find, on the part of English language publishers in particular, which don’t always mesh with our list. There seems to be a bias when it comes to works from other parts of the world, especially from countries like Turkey, which are seen as relatively exotic. I often find that publishers seem to expect foreign fiction to provide easily digestible information about the cultures from which the works originate, and that this can often take precedence over literary quality or the nature of the stories themselves. Any work inevitably provides an insight into the culture from which it hails, but this doesn’t always come in obvious chunks of information.

In terms of what publishers take an interest in, I find it particularly difficult to pitch any kind of humor or satire, which, despite claims to the contrary, I think is definitely effectively translatable, if indeed a challenge. Eventually publishers will become more open-minded in this regard, it is my hope, so that we can see more and more books published in translation.

But of course, for this to happen, the vicious cycle of publishers’ claiming translations won’t sell and therefore not publishing them, so that of course they don’t sell, must be broken. This is especially my hope for English language publishing, where the imbalance and insularity is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

All in all, trying to get titles published in translation, especially in English, remains a daunting task. However, I for one enjoy the challenge and try to remain patient. My hope is that we can cultivate relations with editors the world over, establishing lasting dialogues and eventually, gradually, see more and more of the books we represent made accessible to new audiences thanks to translation.

Amy Spangler s a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, with B.A. degrees in Near Eastern and Classical Archaeology and German Language and Literature. Co-founder of AnatoliaLit, Spangler is the translator of The City in Crimson Cloak by Asli Erdogan (Soft Skull, 2007) and the co-editor and co-translator of Istanbul Noir (Akashic Books, 2008). Her English translations of Turkish short stories have been published in various books and magazines.

DISCUSS: Which Turkish authors would you like to see more of in translation?

VISIT: AnatoliaLit’s website

CONTACT: Amy Spangler directly

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