New Directions’ Barbara Epler on the State of Translation

In News by Dennis Abrams

Near Bruges. Image - iStockphoto: Studio Annika

Near Bruges. Image – iStockphoto: Studio Annika

As we’ve written this month, AmazonCrossing, one of Amazon Publishing’s most agile imprints, now is the leading house for translated work, and is quickly expanding the language-pairs and cultures its work spans. The way was paved, however, at least in part, by Barbara Epler who joined New Directions as an editorial assistant after graduating from college in 1984. She became Editor in Chief in 1995; was named Publisher in 2008, and in 2011 became President. — Porter Anderson

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘There Hasn’t Been a Better Time for Translated Literature Here’
In the United States, when one thinks of literature in translation, one of the first publishing houses that comes to mind is New Directions.

At Asymptote, Frances Riddle sat down for an interview with New Directions publisher Barbara Epler on a wide-range of topics, including her take on the state of translated literature in the US, and the challenges facing publishers.

She tells Riddle, in part:

Barbara Epler

Barbara Epler

“This is going to sound really Pollyanna, but things have gotten better recently. A huge thing that supports us is the independent bookstores and their enthusiasm for this kind of book. Not all bookstores. But the good independent bookstores have really seen a rebound, the ones that survived, and they’re actually doing really well and new ones are opening. So that’s really good news for a place like New Directions.

“I think it’s really clear that there hasn’t been a better time for translated literature here.

“If you look around, in the last 15 years, you see Archipelago, who found Karl Ove Knausgård; Europa, who found Elena Ferrante.

“There are exceptions of course: FSG taking on the terrific Maylis de Kerangal, or Riverhead with Álvaro Enrigue, or Penguin with Alejandro Zambra. But chiefly translation starts with the little publishers.

“You see for example The New York Review of Books Classics doing more and more original books in translation and then there’s Deep Vellum and there’s Ugly Duckling; I’m so fascinated by Chad Post at Open Letter. There are so many small adventuresome houses and they’re doing the most interesting books.

“The other side of the coin is that they kind of function as talent scouts for the big corporations and there’s nothing you can do about that. But there have never been so many interesting presses or so many young people doing it themselves; it’s amazing how much stuff is coming out. And at least in my experience, going to a César Aira reading or a László Krasznahorkai reading, the people who are turning up are largely in their 20s and 30s.

“There’s a huge generational shift toward interest in books from around the world. Maybe because we’ve fucked the world up, or because what’s going on in America right now isn’t so great, so you’ve got to look outwards when you’re faced with that. There are plenty of great English-language writers but by and large foreign fiction is more interesting, for me, and for many.”

FR: And for you guys here at New Directions, what are the biggest challenges of publishing translations?

new directions logo“It’s extremely helpful, when a country has the funds to do it, that they not only help pay for the translation but they facilitate us bringing the author over. That’s huge…

“That kind of cultural support is really important.

“And also publishers, especially in the Spanish-speaking world, have got to give up on the idea of the five-year license. I think it should be at least fifteen years. We’re investing in the translation and you need time, especially if you believe in the author and you want to do more than one book. There’s no reward. There’s no cheese down the end of that tunnel if you only have the book for five years.”

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.