Serbia’s Geopoetika Publishes English Translations with an Eye Towards Foreign Rights Sales

In Global Trade Talk by Chad W. Post

By Chad W. Post

Unfortunate as it is, the situation facing Serbian literature is incredibly common for “small language” cultures: although a number of Serbian writers from the first half of the twentieth century have been translated into English and published throughout the world (like Danilo Kiš, Milorad Pavić, and Borislav Pekić), many of the best writers of the past couple decades have yet to find an international audience. Reasons for this are myriad, tied to economic issues, well-documented elsewhere, and somewhat depressing. Rather than simply lament this situation — or offer up translation subsidies to brave publishers willing to take a chance on a book they probably haven’t read in the original — the Serbian Ministry of Culture and Serbian publisher Geopoetika took matters into their own hands and launched the Serbian Prose in Translation series.

Thanks to the funding of the Serbian Ministry of Culture, Geopoetika is publishing English-language translations of five contemporary Serbian works every year. Instead of selling these and trying to break into the somewhat provincial English-language market, they are sending these books out to agents, publishers, and reviewers throughout the world in hopes of finding publishing houses interested in acquiring foreign rights. This strategy circumvents certain obstacles, namely the lament that very few editors read Serbian. Which is one reason why Geopoetika was careful to get high quality translators (including Alice Copple-Tošić, and Randall Major), and to translate the complete work instead of just a short sample.

The first five titles in the series are already available:

  • The Cyclist Conspiracy by Svetislav Basara, a funny, experimental book about a secret cult centered around bicycles;
  • Lake Como by Srdjan Valjarević, about an author’s solitude and coming to terms with himself;
  • Haman Balkania by Geopoetika publisher Vladislav Bajac, a work of historiographic metafiction;
  • Fear and Servant by Mirjana Novaković, a historical novel that has already been published in French;
  • and Adulterers by Vida Ognjenović, which is one woman’s story of uncovering her identity after her husband has an affair.

According to Bajac, these titles are under consideration by a number of publishers around the world, with Lake Como now available in Bulgarian, and Hamam Balkania scheduled for publication in Turkey. A movie version of one of the forthcoming titles — The Box by Stanković (more below) — is already being filmed by a German-Serbian production team. As a result, there is a lot of interest from German publishers in this title.

Stanković’s novel is one of the five titles that are part of the forthcoming second series of titles, which consists of:

The Box by Slavoljub Stanković, which focuses on three young men living in Belgrade in the 1990s. Filled with pop culture references and a good dose of humor, The Box traces the transformation of Belgrade into a ghetto and the desires of these three men to “get out of the box Serbia has become.”

The Russian Window by Dragan Velikić won both the NIN Award and the Mesa Selimović Award—two of the most important literary awards in Serbia and former Yugoslavia. It’s a three-part
novel about an elderly man and his younger companion and the opportunities they missed during the last part of the twentieth-century as Yugoslavia went through a series of monumental changes.

Destiny Annotated by Radoslav Petković is a work of postmodern historiographic metafiction that uses pastiche, parody, and humor to relate historical events taking place between the time of Napoleon and the Balkan Wars.

Another historical novel, Constantine’s Crossing by Dejan Stojiljković centers around vampires in Nis and the clash of ideologies in Serbia during World War Two. Constantine’s Crossing was shortlisted for the NIN award in 2009.

Kaja, Belgrade and the Good American by Mirjana Djurdjević takes place between the two World Wars in a very cosmopolitan Belgrade where the first Buddhist pagoda in Europe was built. The story of a woman writer, a girl named Kaja, and the American consul, this novel won both the “Zensko pero” and Mesa Selimović awards in 2009.

About the Author

Chad W. Post

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.