‘Groundbreaking’: A Few Words With Laura Perciasepe on Spanish Work in Translation

In News by Dennis Abrams

‘Book discovery has changed a lot over the years,’ says Riverhead’s Laura Perciasepe, who sees boundless opportunity for works in translation.
In Badajoz Province. Image - iStockphoto: Anne Cordon

In Badajoz Province. Image – iStockphoto: Anne Cordon

“It’s become less necessary to do events in New York City or to be here in the US,” Laura Perciasepe says to Dennis Abrams. “There’s so much we can do with an author who isn’t local and who maybe doesn’t speak English.” And as many of us watch digital publishing open more doors to work in translation, Perciasepe finds the same case-by-case considerations apply to all works in consideration. “There’s an eager audience out there for good books.”—Porter Anderson

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘Work Going on in the Spanish Language Is Incredibly Exciting’

RiverheadAn editor at Riverhead BooksLaura Perciasepe acquires and edits a wide range of literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, and works in translation.

She has published acclaimed books by many authors, among them Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Jillian Cantor, Alberto Manguel, Jamil Ahmad, Noah Strycker, Thomas Pierce, Etgar Keret, John Safran, Carola Saavedra, Alvaro Enrigue, and Daniel Alarcon.

Publishing Perspectives had a chance to interview her by email about the challenges of editing and publishing books in translation.

Publishing Perspectives: Could you tell us a little about your role at Riverhead?

Laura Perciasepe: I acquire, edit, and publish fiction and nonfiction. About a third of my list is in translation.

PP: What is it that interests you about literature in translation?

9781594632747LP: I hold works in translation to the same standards as I do my other books: I look at the quality of the writing, the story, the new perspective, and the potential audience for it. It is tremendously exciting to bring something to an audience that they might not have otherwise read or even have access to. Working with an author and a translator on bringing a brilliant book to English readers is like unwrapping a gift.

PP: Your specialty is finding books in Spanish — what’s the appeal?

LP: It’s hardly a specialty. My Spanish is embarrassingly rudimentary! But the work going on in the Spanish language is incredibly exciting right now with authors like Álvaro Enrigue, Samanta Schweblin, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Valeria Luiselli, Alejandro Zambra, Yuri Herrera–there’s so much risk-taking. Expansive, groundbreaking, and yet very different from each other, and not necessarily part of any established tradition.

PP: What do you look for in a work in Spanish when you’re considering it for translation and publication?

LP: I don’t really use different criteria when considering a book in another language from one I would consider in English. Do I see an audience for it? Does it surprise, intrigue, engage? Is it like nothing else I’ve seen before? Is this an author who I can see Riverhead publishing for a long time and growing an audience for? Maybe it’s a boring answer, but I don’t have a special formula for evaluating works in translation compared to works in English.

PP: Can you take us through the process on one particular book from finding it to translation, publication and marketing?

Lauar Perciasepe

Laura Perciasepe

LP: Our process at Riverhead isn’t easily replicable and it doesn’t fit into one template. Many of the authors whose work I acquire first come to us because of authors who we already publish and how we publish. For instance, I was eager to read Samanta Schweblin’s novel because Daniel Alarcón, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Álvaro Enrigue, Alejandro Zambra, were so excited about her work. There was a network effect.

She ended up at Riverhead and we’re publishing Fever Dream, which we translated from Distancia de Rescate (Lituratura Random House)  next spring. Working with the right translator is always the most important feature of translation and Samanta and I worked with the brilliant Megan McDowell.

In the marketing and publication, we’re approaching it with the care and determination that we would any first novel. There is a great deal of work introducing a new writer to the community of booksellers, the media, and readers.

PP: What do you see as the biggest challenges in selling works in translation in the American market?

9780399184413LP: There are so many challenges–and joys–in finding an audience for any book. Though there is a passionate readership for works in translation, you have to be careful you don’t limit yourself to only that audience, and you’re expanding to include readers beyond that group.

If a work in translation falls outside of some of the conventions or forms of storytelling that an American audience is familiar with, then it is your job to communicate what is interesting and special about what’s going on within a particular book.

Riverhead recently published a short book on physics written in Italian by a physicist, translated by two poets. On the surface, that sounds like a challenge, right? It doesn’t conform to anything you’ve seen in that category. But Seven Brief Lessons on Physics has been on the bestseller lists for 10 weeks and counting.

So there’s an eager audience out there for good books and it’s the same challenge over and over again: finding a great new voice, a book with a terrific idea, and connecting with readers.

PP: How has the market changed since you started, and where do you see it going in the next…ten years?

LP: This isn’t particularly specific to authors in translation since many of Riverhead’s authors (writing in English or not) live all over the world, but it’s become less necessary to do events in New York City or to be here in the US. There’s so much we can do with an author who isn’t local and who maybe doesn’t speak English.

Look at Marie Kondo. Or Elena Ferrante. That said, Álvaro Enrigue does live in New York City and we did big events with him for his novel Sudden Death and they were absolutely terrific. The event he did with his translator, Natasha Wimmer, was a particular favorite. And Etgar Keret was here when we published his memoir The Seven Good Years (translated from Hebrew) and his humor and effervescence on the page and in person was infectious.

Book discovery has changed a lot over the years and there are so many diverse ways now to bring a readership to a new author or book.

So again, I think the only constant is that there’s no constant–there’s no formula just for books in translation. The limits are your ability to find projects you’re passionate about and your ability to convey why to readers.

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.